Arts & Culture

The invention of childhood innocence

4 min read

Professor says concept only dates to 19th century, and only applied to whites

When Robin Bernstein was a little girl, she perused textbooks belonging to her mother, who was pursuing a degree in early childhood education.

“Of course I didn’t understand them,” said Bernstein, assistant professor of studies of women, gender, and sexuality, and of history and literature. “But I knew that she was studying a category of people, and that I was in that category. I was very aware of myself as a child. That’s how I first became interested in childhood as an area of knowledge — as a way of thinking about the world.”

Bernstein’s new book, “Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood in Black and White” (New York University Press), examines the weaving together of childhood, innocence, and race in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period that included slavery, Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement of African Americans, the New Negro Movement, and the early Civil Rights Movement.

“Three hundred years ago, there was no assumption that children were innocent,” said Bernstein. “That idea only became common sense in the United States in the early 19th century. Once the idea of childhood became laminated to the idea of innocence, children could be used strategically in political arguments. Children made these arguments appear to be apolitical, or simply evocations of truth.”

Some people very consciously employed children to gain sympathy for their perspectives. In the influential novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe places Little Eva, an angelic, white child, in a loving relationship with an adult slave.

“The two characters are very tender with each other,” said Bernstein. “This is Stowe’s way of making Uncle Tom seem innocent and, by extension, making abolition itself seem innocent as well.”

Other figures, Bernstein argues, unintentionally affected racial issues in the United States. In 1915, Johnny Gruelle appropriated blackface imagery to create Raggedy Ann. He deliberately chose such imagery not to make a political statement, but to tap into a source of mass appeal. Bernstein traces Raggedy Ann’s blackface minstrel roots back to the 1840s.

“I would argue that this is part of the reason that Raggedy Ann is still popular,” she said. “Not because we consciously perceive blackface imagery, but because blackface imagery is one of the deepest aspects of American popular culture.”

“Ever since innocence entangled with childhood, that connection has always been raced,” said Bernstein. “It was not just any childhood, it was specifically white childhood that was entangled with innocence. This entanglement was a way of excluding non-white children from innocence and from childhood. Popular culture suggested that if they weren’t innocent, then they weren’t children. If they weren’t white, they weren’t innocent.”

In the final chapter of the book, Bernstein looks at how African Americans seized on the idea of childhood innocence and recaptured that notion for black children in the 1920s.

“They fought back against the idea that black children were not children, were not innocent,” she explained. “They seized on this rhetoric and used it for anti-racist projects.”

In her epilogue, Bernstein re-examines the psychological tests conducted in the 1940s by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, which were indirectly cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision against segregated schools as proof of “psychic harm” arising from societal racism. In these tests, black children were asked a series of questions about brown and pink dolls; most subjects expressed a preference for the pink dolls.

Bernstein both acknowledges and pushes beyond the common critique of the Clark tests, that choice of dolls does not necessarily index self-esteem. The Clarks, she argues, were uncovering racism as knit through dolls for 150 years.

“What their research shows very reliably is preferences in dolls, so I decided to put their tests into the context of the history of dolls. What you see is children having a very sophisticated understanding of standardized practices of play. You see children’s expertise in children’s culture.”

The use of children in political arguments, Bernstein said, continues even today.

“I’m looking at the origins of how the idea of ‘saving the children’ became useful and meaningful. My book ends in the early 20th century, but aspects of what I’m studying absolutely continue. If you want to make a political argument, just add the ‘do it for the children’ rhetoric, and it suddenly becomes a lot more persuasive.”