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Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (America and the Long 19th Century) Paperback – December 1, 2011


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Editorial Reviews

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The "focus on the horrifying historical content built into supposedly innocent items of everyday culture is surely the book's most important point. [This] book would be a great resource for courses on race, children and childhood, power, and U.S. culture." Girlhood Studies, July 2012

"A historiographic tour de force. [The] rich archive and nuanced analysis will make this a classic book for theater historians and performance theorists." Outstanding Book Award Committee, Association for Theatre in Higher Education

"A tremendous resource. . . . [An] exemplary model for any interdisciplinary project of similarly ambitious scope."  Journal of Popular Culture

“Bernstein’s powerful account of how the sentimental ideology of childhood innocence, and particularly its highly gendered manifestations, function to articulate racial hierarchies gives strong and detailed evidence for how paying attention to childhood serves to refocus many all too familiar, and troublesome, facets of American culture. I know of virtually no one of her generation who writes with this kind of verve, authority and pleasure. Racial Innocence will prove an important and widely read book—in part simply because it will be so much fun to read.” -Karen Sánchez-Eppler,Amherst College

“Nineteenth and early twentieth-century material culture comes alive in Robin Bernstein’s brilliant study of the racialized and gendered ideologies that shape, inform and continue to haunt notions of American childhood into the present day. Through imaginative and masterfully innovative archival research, Bernstein shows how representations of childhood and child’s play are integral to the making of whiteness and blackness and citizenship in this country. Racial Innocence is a groundbreaking book that for the first time illuminates the powerful and critical connections between constructions of girlhood, racial formations and American popular culture.” -Daphne Brooks,Princeton University

“One of those rare books which, as I'm reading it, is giving me all sorts of disconcertingly new and disconcertingly persuasive ideas about subjects I've been thinking about for years. Apparently I don't know everything about the textuality of childhood—at least not yet. But I am learning more, and very much enjoying it. Highly recommended.” -Perry Nodelman,Prof. Emeritus, Univ. of Winnipeg and author of The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature

"One of those rare books that shifts the paradigm--a book that, in years to come, will be recognized as a landmark in children's literature and childhood studies...This is not one of those scholarly books that offer a thesis and then proceed to pummel the reader into submission by piling example on top of example. Instead, it develops a certain line of argument, and then turns, moving in a different direction, developing this new direction fully before changing tack once more. Structuring the argument this way makes for a much more interesting reading experience...[F]ew scholars can write a sentence like Bernstein can: packed with insight, theoretically sophisticated, and yet lucid--even, at times, lyrical..."-Philip Nel,Children's Literature

About the Author

Robin Bernstein is Professor of African and African American Studies and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.  Her previous books include Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theater.  Visit her online at scholar.harvard.edu/robinbernstein/home.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 318 pages
  • Publisher: NYU Press (December 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0814787088
  • ISBN-13: 978-0814787083
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.4 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #239,254 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By ModernWizard on September 2, 2014
Format: Paperback
One of those books that really changes one's perceptions, Racial Innocence contains incisive analyses and provocative interpretations aplenty. Bernstein argues that children's play -- with, for example, Uncle Tom's Cabin memorabilia or topsy-turvy dolls -- helped to create a dichotomous view of childhood in which white kids were innocent, pure and sensitive and black kids were sly, tough and impure. This concept -- in which white children were the only "real," acceptable type of children and black children were seen as subhuman and bestial -- developed strongly in the Reconstruction and continues to subserve media depictions of kids of color today.

Bernstein is especially good when speculating on the significance encoded in soft, cuddly, topsy-turvy dolls. These were dolls with one head at either end, usually a white plantation mistress paired with a woman of color [a Mammy-like figure]. The long skirt, shared between both characters, could be flipped down to show one character and obscure the other. Changing characters was as easy as upending the doll and drawing down the skirt to display its other face. Bernstein notes that enslaved women of color made topsy-turvies for plantation daughters to play with and encoded subversive messages in them. For example, play with a topsy-turvy compelled a confrontation with the uneasy, shifting distinction between races [two races on the same doll suggest an equivalence] and even with the sexual exploitation of enslaved women themselves [skirt flipping being suggestive of sexual violation].

For similar consideration of related subjects, including virtuoso chapters on the Clarks' doll experiments ["Show me the doll who looks nicest"] and the racialized features encoded into Raggedy Ann, pick up this book and prepare to have your mind opened.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I highly recommend this book for scholarly research on children's literature and antebellum era in America. The illustrations are effective too.
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Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (America and the Long 19th Century)
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