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Sunday, June 9, 2013


Many thanks to Anna Mae Duane for this splendid review in the current issue of MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the US:

"Revelatory. . . . Bernstein’s theoretically sophisticated and engagingly written book achieves what few scholarly texts have done: she allows us to see the familiar artifacts of childhood in ways we had not yet imagined. She has crafted a methodology finely calibrated to engage the problems of studying children’s culture that is equally useful for a wide range of scholars working in material, performance, and ethnic studies." Anna Mae Duane, MELUS 38.2 (Summer 2013): 154-155

Duane's book, Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim, was a major source and inspiration to me as I wrote Racial Innocence. In her book, Duane argues that suffering crucially defined childhood in the US from the time of the early republic. This argument fundamentally shaped my thinking about popular culture during the second half of the nineteenth century, which systematically libeled African American children as unable to feel pain. If, as Duane argues, the ability to suffer defined American childhood, and if, as I observed, late-nineteenth century popular culture libeled black children as unable to suffer, then, I argued, popular culture gradually defined black youth out of childhood and excluded them from the right to protection. We still see the vestiges of this libel: even today, African American children are routinely subjected to abuses from which white children appear to deserve protection (as when, for example, The Onion used a most adult obscenity to describe black child actress Quvenzhané Wallis--a word that periodical never applied to any white child). In the most extreme case, black children who enter the judicial system are far more likely than their white counterparts to be tried--that is, legally defined, in opposition to biology--as adults. Anna Mae Duane's work focuses our attention on the political uses of children's suffering during the early years of this nation. It's our job to carry the inquiry forward to illuminate the racial politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--and today.

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