Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights
by Robin Bernstein
New York University Press
320 pages, Illustrated
Book Review by Kam Williams
“Whiteness… derives power from its status as an unmarked category… [It] never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations. This silence about itself is… the primary prerogative of whiteness, at once its grand scheme and deep cover.
Childhood, I argue throughout this book, is a primary material in the historical construction of that cover. Childhood innocence—itself raced white—secured the unmarked status of whiteness, and the power derived from that status. ”
-- Excerpted from the Introduction (page 7-8)
Why is innocence automatically attributed to white children in the U.S. while black kids are just as easily presumed to be malevolent, almost as if good and evil are color-coded in each group’s DNA? That is the question explored by Robin Bernstein in Racial Innocence, an annotated, historical opus in search of an explanation for the lingering discrepancy.
The author, a Professor of African-American and Women’s Studies at Harvard University, blames a deep-rooted racism which can be traced all the way back to slavery. She suggests that the divergent attitude about black and white youngsters has been codified by the culture as reflected in literature, art, music and minstrelsy.
For example, in a discussion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, she points out how the Caucasian heroine Eva was the “emblematic child-angel,” pale, pious and cloaked in innocence. By contrast, her black counterpart, Topsy, was portrayed as the polar opposite, as having been “hardened and made wicked” by slavery.
Sadly, such characterizations survived into the 20th Century, as typified in film by the recently-deceased Shirley Temple, the bright-eyed, dimpled icon who often played the naive waif opposite relatively-worldly wise black children and adults alike, most notably, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In 2006, Dakota Fanning, the reigning blonde child actress, was asked to present Temple with a Lifetime Achievement Award as the screen legend’s heir apparent.
It is important to note that Dakota carried a Shirley Temple doll she inherited onstage, stating, “My mom loved her, I love her, and I know someday, my daughter will, too.” The problem is that the effort to maintain the sentimental image of the chaste white child continues to come at the expense of black ones who end-up subtly portrayed as deserving of suspicion, marginalization, criminalization and second-class status.
Telling traditional depictions of black and white tykes serving as chilling proof that the post-racial utopia is yet to be realized in American society.