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Monday, August 5, 2013

"Arresting... shows how the hegemonic project of white supremacy takes constant reinforcement in popular forms to naturalize racist practices on the ground"

Jayna Brown, author of the brilliant, award-winning Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, has reviewed Racial Innocence in the current issue of Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters. She wrote:

“Through an amazing curation of materials carefully and painstakingly gleaned from a number of archives, including collections at the American Antiquarian Society and the Harvard Theatre Collection, Robin Bernstein shows how the innocence of white childhood was imagined and enacted in relation to fictional versions of the black child, rendered in advertisements, collectibles, children’s books and toys, and especially dolls, from the antebellum era into the 1910s. . . . Bernstein’s book is an excellent study of material culture, carefully reading the politics of the manufacture of these toys in their historical context. For instance, Bernstein explains how soft dolls were developed not only for cuddling but to withstand abuse, which she argues is profoundly racialized and gendered. Many dolls in Bernstein’s study accompany storybooks, such as the Golliwog dolls, based on characters invented by Florence Upton, and Raggedy Ann dolls, which John Gruelle designed to accompany his children’s books. Bernstein explains how these dolls have deep roots in minstrelsy. Bernstein’s elucidation of the cruelty involved in the creation of toys and the narratives of storybooks, that supposedly represent the innocence of childhood, is arresting. But it is how white children played with the dolls I find most disturbing in the book. . . . I had a strong response to these assaulting, violent images. The sheer number of the book’s examples began to accumulate on my back, and behind my eyes, as I read. A few of these toxic images went a long way in my case, and I found myself yearning for some kind of black [']answer back,' as my students call it, to counteract the symbolic torture and immolation of black children. But perhaps the very repetition of such images, things, and acts underlines a crucial utility of the book, as it shows how the hegemonic project of white supremacy takes constant reinforcement in popular forms to naturalize racist practices on the ground. Black resistance is the absent presence that threatens such naturalization. The last chapter opens with the ‘answer back’ I needed. She relates the childhood recollections of Daisy Turner, who as a little girl actively resisted a teacher’s scripted racism. The teacher planned a school pageant, in which every child was to represent a different country while holding a doll, dressed in the same clothes, which was meant to represent that nation. Each child was given a poem to read. Daisy Turner was given a black doll named Dinah, representing ‘the nation’ of Africa, and a matching poem. Daisy Turner refused to read the script given her by her teacher, and improvised her own recitation.” Jayna Brown, Callaloo 36.2 (Spring 2013): pp. 482-485.

When I was writing Racial Innocence, I was deeply conflicted about the violence I was representing. I worried that in describing violence against black dolls, I was replicating it and re-inflicting damage. At the same time, I needed to describe the violence in a way that took seriously the acts of white children and that held them accountable. A key point of my book is that the actions and material culture of white children have, over the past hundred and fifty years, been made to appear innocent. But they are not innocent. White children's violence against black dolls is real violence; it is not just "child's play." I wanted my book to rip the veil off of a century and a half of racial innocence, and to do so I had to expose violence. I tried to describe it in a simple, straightforward way that avoided, equally, sensationalism and trivialization. And I know that these descriptions have caused pain, as Jayna Brown describes.

I'm grateful that Brown recognizes the heart of my goal: I aimed to show "how the hegemonic project of white supremacy takes constant reinforcement in popular forms to naturalize racist practices on the ground." This is exactly what I wanted my book to demonstrate: the ongoing, always-forming-and-reforming historical relationship between the micro and the macro, between the seemingly innocent acts of individual children and the broadest structures of white supremacy. As Brown notes, white supremacy requires "constant reinforcement" to to continue to exist. In other words, white supremacy is fundamentally a lie, and the only way it can maintain any credibility at all is if it is constantly re-enacted "on the ground," as Brown puts it.

Brown's review prompted me to recall a passage from the Introduction to my dissertation:

As I wrote this dissertation, I frequently envisioned a machine capable of reversing gravity. I imagined a machine that could contain a space such as a room or a house and invert it, yet enable all objects within that space to function normally so that the people within the house could not sense that they were in fact upside-down. I imagined, in other words, a machine capable of convincing people that up was down and down was up. How much human genius would be necessary to invent a machine that could obscure the fundamental truth of gravity? How large would such a machine need to be? How much energy would it use? How much would it cost? How much constant effort, and from how many different populations, would be required to maintain this machine? What chaos would ensue if—or inevitably, when—a fly in the gears caused the machine to pause, even for a nanosecond, in its labor? And how would the upside-down people within the machine manage these intermittent episodes of chaos?

This imagined gravity-reversal machine provides the metaphor by which I understand white supremacy. White supremacist ideology was and is a tremendous, energy-gobbling machine that aims to convince all people within its influence of a fundamental falsehood: that people of color are essentially inferior to white people; that some of us are more and some of us are less human than others. Evidence against white people’s inherent superiority is and always has been abundantly available. . . . I wrote this dissertation because I wanted to understand machinery that could convince large numbers of people that a falsehood was true, that up was down and down was up, that some people are more human than others. I wanted to understand machinery that could manage abundant and assertive evidence—of gravity, of humanity—in such a way that that evidence did not shatter the illusions that the machine existed to construct. Childhood is one crucial gear—a “linchpin,” in Caroline Levander’s language—within the giant cultural machine of white supremacist ideology. This dissertation traces the teeth of that gear and shows how it performs within the cultural machinery of white supremacy.

May we all, like Daisy Turner, "answer back," throw down the props of white supremacy, and interrupt the constant, repeated acts--often banal, everyday behaviors that appear too minor to matter--that white supremacy depends on for its continuing, malignant existence.

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