Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

NYU Press
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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 Part of the American Literatures Initiative Series 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.
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About the author

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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.


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Additional Information

Publisher
NYU Press
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Published on
Dec 1, 2011
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Pages
318
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ISBN
9780814789780
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Features
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Language
English
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Genres
Social Science / Ethnic Studies / African American Studies
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Reading Revolution explores a transformation in the cultural meaning of Stowe's influential book by addressing changes in reading practices and a shift in widely shared cultural assumptions. These changes reshaped interpretive conventions and generated new meanings for Stowe's text in the wake of the Civil War.During the 1850s, men, women, and children avidly devoured Stowe's novel. White adults wept and could not put the book down, neglecting work and other obligations to complete it. African Americans both celebrated and denounced the book. By the 1890s, readers understood Uncle Tom's Cabin in new ways. Prefaces and retrospectives celebrated Stowe's novel as a historical event that led directly to emancipation and national unity. Commentaries played down the evangelical and polemical messages of the book.Illustrations and children's editions projected images of entertaining and devoted servants into an open-ended future. In the course of the 1890s, Uncle Tom's Cabin became both a more viciously racialized book than it had been and a less compelling one. White readers no longer consumed the book at one sitting; Uncle Tom's Cabin was now more widely known than read. However, in the growing silence surrounding slavery at the turn of the century, Stowe's book became an increasingly important source of ideas, facts, and images that the children of ex-slaves and other free-black readers could use to make sense of their position in U.S. culture. - See more at: http://www.umass.edu/umpress/title/uncle-toms-cabin-and-reading-revolution#sthash.sfdeH1HI.dpuf
New York Times Bestseller

“A profound impact on Hurston’s literary legacy.”—New York Times

“One of the greatest writers of our time.”—Toni Morrison

“Zora Neale Hurston’s genius has once again produced a Maestrapiece.”—Alice Walker

A major literary event: a newly published work from the author of the American classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, with a foreword from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, brilliantly illuminates the horror and injustices of slavery as it tells the true story of one of the last-known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade—abducted from Africa on the last "Black Cargo" ship to arrive in the United States.

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past—memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

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