Childhood innocence-itself raced white, itself characterized by the ability to retain racial meanings but hide them under the claims of holy obliviousness-secured the unmarked status of whiteness, and the power derived from that status, in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries. Childhood innocence provided the perfect alibi: not only the ability to remember while appearing to forget, but even more powerfully, the production of racial memory through the performance of forgetting. What childhood innocence helped Americans to assert by forgetting, to think about by performing obliviousness, was not only whiteness but also racial difference constructed against whiteness.Robin Bernstein, Associate Professor of African and African American Studies and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University, begins her book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights with the story of Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay, an interracial couple from Louisiana who, in 2009, who had a justice of the peace refuse to marry them because he feared that their children would be hurt by their union. Yet, the children for whom this justice was so concerned, did not exist. Opposing sides, both those who condemned the racist justice as well as those who supported the justice's racist act, argued their point by citing the rights, feelings, wishes, whims and hopes of children who did not exist.
-Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights
|Professor Bernstein, courtesy of The Harvard Gazette|
In uncovering why and how this notion of an "abstract childhood" and childhood innocence had become so crucial to arguments about race and civil rights, Robin Bernstein reveals the long, chilling history of the racialized construction of childhood innocence. With painstaking efficiency, Bernstein traces how black children were "libeled as unfeeling, noninnocent nonchildren" while white children "became constructed as tender angels" and how this binary expressed itself through the "materials and practices" of childhood, most specifically through "dolls, doll play and literature about sentient dolls." She concludes that the practices surrounding these "scriptive things" worked to fuse childhood "to slavery's most foundational, disturbing, and lingering question: What is a person?"
From Raggedy Ann to the complicated resistance embodied by topsy-turvy dolls created by enslaved women, to the well-documented "ritualistic", violent abuse of black dolls by white children, to the full story of Kenneth and Mamie Clark's famous "doll tests," Racial Innocence frames the story of America within the context of a childhood that was all too aware of and affected by a complicated mix of race, violence, politics and interracial sexuality.
Professor Bernstein talked to ITYC Radio about her book and about the incredible capacity for change in spite of the great weight of America's bloody racial history.
Listen to our discussion here, on the player below, iTunes, Libsyn and on Stitcher (for mobile users and tablet users).