Racial Innocence

Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

318 pages

54 illustrations

December, 2011

ISBN: 9780814787083



Also available in


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

Winner, Outstanding Book Award, Association for Theatre in Higher Education

Winner, Grace Abbott Best Book Award, Society for the History of Children and Youth 

Winner, Book Award, Children's Literature Association

Winner, Lois P. Rudnick Book Prize, New England American Studies Association

Winner, IRSCL Award, International Research Society for Children's Literature

Runner-Up, John Hope Franklin Publication Prize, American Studies Association

Honorable Mention, Book Award, Society for the Study of American Women Writers

In Racial Innocence, Robin Bernstein argues that the concept of "childhood innocence" has been central to U.S. racial formation since the mid-nineteenth century. Children--white ones imbued with innocence, black ones excluded from it, and others of color erased by it--figured pivotally in sharply divergent racial agendas from slavery and abolition to antiblack violence and the early civil rights movement. 
Bernstein takes up a rich archive including books, toys, theatrical props, and domestic knickknacks which she 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. 


  • "A historiographic tour de force . . .  Her rich archive and nuanced analysis will make this a classic book for theater historians and performance theorists."

    —The Outstanding Book Award prize committee, Association for Theatre in Higher Education

  • "It is original, theoretically challenging, and adds fundamentally new insights to the history of childhood."

    —Prize Committee, Grace Abbott Best Book Award, Society for the History of Childhood and Youth

  • "Racial Innocence is a brilliant, well-written, exciting and moving account of how slavery and racial discrimination have impacted children and childhood media in the USA for a long and decisive period.  The text deals with how seemingly "innocent" areas such as play raise racial issues in performative ways. The book offers an up to date theoretical framing and is thoughtprovoking on many levels. It has potential to influence research in children’s literature for a long time to come."

    —IRSCL Award Committee, International Research Society for Children's Literature

  • "Richly researched, inspiring in its analysis of archival material, and impressive in its deft ability to traverse disciplinary borders, including childhood studies, performance studies, literary studies, and American history. . . . Poignant. . . Bernstein’s superb text hauntingly prompts the reader to consider where invocations of childhood are being used in contemporary US racial formation. At a time when black childhood performances have been front and center in American media discourse—for example, the circulating images of Trayvon Martin that were used to simultaneously evidence both the teenage innocent and the future-adult-thug—Racial Innocence requires the contemporary reader to resist feigning "holy obliviousness" to the ways in which racial arguments can be cloaked in children and their toys."

    —Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, TDR: The Drama Review

  • "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

  • "Groundbreaking . . . radical."

    —Lisa Merrill, Theatre Annual

  • "A powerhouse of a book. . . [an] intervention of the highest order. 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."

    —Douglas A. Jones, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism

  • "Dazzling… incredibly moving."

    —Sarah E. Chinn, American Quarterly

  • "Impressively researched, cogently written, and deeply theorized. . . . [Bernstein shows how] harmless, innocent fun (as evidenced in an astonishing chapter on the minstrel roots of Raggedy Ann and Andy) became a disavowed site for the reproduction of white supremacy. . . .  [M]akes an understated but highly persuasive case for the contribution of a historically-oriented performance studies to the interdisciplinary conversations surrounding the politics of the everyday."

    —Tavia Nyong'o, Theatre History Studies

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

    —Jayna Brown, Callaloo

  • "Magnificent and stylish… truly groundbreaking."

    —Richard Flynn, The Lion and the Unicorn

  • "[T]antalizing… [W]ith ethical finesse and theoretical dexterity, Bernstein’s book explores. . . the extent to which our national reality has been a topsy-turvy one from the start."

    —Leo Cabranes-Grant, Theatre Survey

  • "Riveting."

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

  • "Intellectually exhilarating."

    —Martha Saxton, The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

  • "Vibrant. . . [An] exemplary model of interdisciplinary scholarship."

    —Kristen B. Proehl, African American Review

  • "Fresh and astonishing."

    —Christian DuComb, Theatre Journal

  • "Revelatory."

    —Anna Mae Duane, MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the US

  • "You will never look at a Raggedy Ann doll the same way again." 

    —Rebecca Onion, Backlist

  • "Daringly imaginative."

    —Perry Nodelman, International Research for Children’s Literature

  • "Remarkably impressive. . . . Bernstein surprises us with the fractures we know."

    —Kathryn Bond Stockton, Modern Drama

  • "A paradigm-shifting study of major significance."

    —Judie Newman, The Journal of American Studies

  • "A provocative, insightful, and bold text that demonstrates how important the field of cultural studies is and can be."

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

  • "Far-reaching... important."

    —Matthew Davis, Genre

  • "Bernstein masterfully balances important theoretical and methodological interventions alongside insightful analysis of everyday material." 

    —Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Callaloo

  • "Intellectual espresso."

    —Michelle McCrary, Is That Your Child?

  • "Chilling proof that the post-racial utopia is yet to be realized in American society." 

    —Kam Williams, syndicated columnist

  • "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

  • "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."


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

    Journal of American Culture

  • "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

  • "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