Dances with Things—and Prizes, too!

Although books are said to be born at the moment of publication, the early stages of conceptualization and writing are excellent opportunities to introduce key themes from your larger work. Robin Bernstein’s book, Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood and Race from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the New Negro Movement (part of the America and the Long 19th Century series), is forthcoming from us in 2011, but one of its innovations has already begun to resonate within the academy, thanks to an article, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” she wrote for Social Text (issue 101, Dec. 2009), which draws material from one of the book’s chapters. That article has since won two national prizes, The Outstanding Article Award , given by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and The Research and Publication Award, given by the American Theatre and Drama Society. In a fit of good luck and hard-earned recognition, she has also received a Harrington Fellowship for the 2010-2011 academic year. Congratulations, Robin!

“Dances with Things” develops a new methodology for reading things—material artifacts—as scripts that choreograph or prompt, but do not narrowly dictate, movement among human performers. This methodology enables scholars to access new evidence of past gestures, of the historical body-in-motion. An example of a scriptive thing might be a knife, a camera, or a novel—each a thing that prompts (but does not force) a person interacting with it to behave in a certain way or ways. When race enters the dance, e.g., when a white girl plays with a black doll or reads a book with racist overtones, the dance between person and thing can enact racial ideas and identities.

This methodology, which integrates performance theory with historical, social, cultural, and literary analysis, is laid out and developed in Robin’s forthcoming book, which looks at how white children and black adults were strategically paired in marketing and literature during the mid 19th century, transferring the innocence of white children to African Americans, a dynamic Bernstein calls “racial innocence.” This conflation enabled diametrically opposed political agendas to appear natural and, therefore, justified: abolition and slavery as well as enfranchisement and disenfranchisement of African Americans.

This is an excellent example of the benefits to authors of getting some of their core arguments out there in advance of the book, whether in journals or at academic conferences. It gives your peers an opportunity to productively engage you, and develops interest in and momentum towards the eventual book.