Racial Innocence

Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

318 pages

54 illustrations

December, 2011

ISBN: 9780814787083



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Robin Bernstein is Associate Professor of African and African American Studies and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.  Her previous books include Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theater.

All books by Robin Bernstein

2013 Book Award Winner from the International Research Society in Children's Literature
2012 Outstanding Book Award Winner from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education 
2012 Winner of the Lois P. Rudnick Book Prize presented by the New England American Studies Association 
2012 Runner-Up, John Hope Franklin Publication Prize presented by the American Studies Association
2012 Honorable Mention, Distinguished Book Award presented by the Society for the Study of American Women Writers
Beginning in the mid nineteenth century in America, childhood became synonymous with innocence—a reversal of the previously-dominant Calvinist belief that children were depraved, sinful creatures. As the idea of childhood innocence took hold, it became racialized: popular culture constructed white children as innocent and vulnerable while excluding black youth from these qualities. Actors, writers, and visual artists then began pairing white children with African American adults and children, thus transferring the quality of innocence to a variety of racial-political projects—a dynamic that Robin Bernstein calls “racial innocence.” This phenomenon informed racial formation from the mid nineteenth century through the early twentieth.
Racial Innocence takes up a rich archive including books, toys, theatrical props, and domestic knickknacks which Bernstein analyzes as “scriptive things” that invite or prompt historically-located practices while allowing for resistance and social improvisation.  Integrating performance studies with literary and visual analysis, Bernstein offers singular readings of theatrical productions from blackface minstrelsy to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; literary works by Joel Chandler Harris, Harriet Wilson, and Frances Hodgson Burnett; material culture including Topsy pincushions, Uncle Tom and Little Eva handkerchiefs, and Raggedy Ann dolls; and visual texts ranging from fine portraiture to advertisements for lard substitute. Throughout, Bernstein shows how “innocence” gradually became the exclusive province of white children—until the Civil Rights Movement succeeded not only in legally desegregating public spaces, but in culturally desegregating the concept of childhood itself.
Check out the author's blog for the book here. 


  • "Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence not only offers a new perspective on an important era in African American history and children's literature history; it is so well written and well researched that it also offers a riveting read for any scholar interested in the subject. Bernstein's research is informed by major resources as well as obscure documents and records that would have been easy to overlook, but which add a wealth of support to her argument. Any reader who ingests Racial Innocence will look at  this historical era with different eyes, and I, for one, will never see Raggedy Ann and Andy in quite the same way."

    —Michelle H. Martin, Children's Literature Association Quarterly

  • “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 Sanchez-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

  • "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

  • "Racial Innocence is an invaluable contribution...it enlivens a diverse constellation of evidence, making it an exemplary model for any interdisciplinary project of similarly ambitious scope."

    —Meredith A. Bak, Journal of Popular Culture

  • "Bernstein's book will be of keen interest to those working to study either childhood or toy culture in the United States, as well as to scholars of critical race theory or postcolonial studies."

    —Aaron C. Thomas, Cultural Studies

  • "A timely and exemplary contribution to the historiography of racial formation in the United States, Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence is an intervention of the highest order. The success of this meticulously researched and carefully argued book rests on two interrelated achievements: the development of a groundbreaking theory and its application toward highly revelatory ends...[W]hat ultimately emerges in Racial Innocence is a historiographic framing that positions children as central actors, literally so, in American economic, political, and social projects. Bernstein writes, 'Because the culture of childhood so often retains and repurposes that which has elsewhere become abject or abandoned, the study of childhood radically challenges many established historical periodizations' (7). This is just one of the many invaluable lessons from this powerhouse of a book. Richly illustrated with stunning color plates and a bounty of black-and-white images, Racial Innocence will quickly become a cornerstone text in many fields, ranging from critical race theory and performance studies to American cultural history and childhood studies."

    Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism

  • "Bernstein offers a new perspective by exploring not only what artifacts reveal but also what they demand."

    Journal of American Culture

  • "Racial Innocence has taught me more than I expected possible about subjects I thought I knew too well for something like that to happen. I highly recommend it."

    International Research Society for Children’s Literature

  • "There is no doubt that Racial Innocence is a provocative, insightful, and bold text that demonstrates how important the field of cultural studies is and can be. Texts and topics are interwoven with poignant commentaries about race and identity in a way that insists that Bernstein's arguments are equally relevant to scholars interested in youth narratives and cultures as well as those of us working in critical race studies. Bernstein is also able to merge literary and cultural texts with sociological and historical findings in productive ways while hinting at the contemporary relevance of both her methodology and her findings."

    —Jenny Wills, Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures

  • "Bernstein's text unfolds with a readerly pleasure few scholarly books achieve, as she offers stunning close readings while steadily constructing a compelling narrative arc built upon each piece of evidence."