When I first began this project, I had set out to investigate Robin Bernstein’s conception of “childhood innocence” or “racial innocence” through collage. The reason that I chose a visual mode of investigation is because it felt true to Bernstein’s main project, which was a large object study of dolls, advertisements, other toys, etc. and the ways in which they influence popular views on race, class, and culture. As such, it seemed appropriate to create an object that breaks down racial representations through re-purposing images easily available in magazines and books ranging from the 1970s to contemporary publications. What resulted, however, was something much different.
Throughout the course of the semester, I found myself highly influenced by Rick Baldoz’s The Third Asiatic Invasion (2011) and Adria L. Imada’s Aloha America (2013) and their discussion of the liminal status of American citizenship at the turn of the twentieth century and the ways in which that liminality continues to manifest today. As such, while the images still are primarily depicting children and childhood, the characters are each displaying and confronting American-ness and American citizenship in their own unique ways.
The image in the center of the canvas was originally twin white babies with light melodramatically eminating from them. This was meant to signify the 19th century shift towards white childhood as necessarily angelic , as Bernstein articulates in her book, Racial Innocence (2011). Bernstein notes that the
“pure child was the sentimental angel-child, which became, by the mid-nineteenth century, a dominant formation within American childhood” (39). I wanted to play with the idea of the “pure child” as presented by Bernstein. I paired images of children with imagined “monsters” to challenge “innocence” by demonstrating its status as a purely external designation. That is, if a mind is able to imagine monsters and demons like those haunting the children, can they ever be truly innocent? However, I found that this line of inquiry selectively disregarded or did not trouble conceptions of race, which was not a faithful use of Bernstein’s text. Additionally, the piece itself began to feel formulaic and forced. Besides not having a cohesive or convincing narrative, it simply lacked a good flow. At this point, I nearly gave up on the project and began again entirely.
When I returned to the piece after a significant break, I decided to let go of the narrative that I was trying to create and let the piece dictate the direction to me instead. In the (admittedly ill-remembered) words of poet Jericho Brown, “If there is no process of discovery for you, there will be no discovery for the reader.” So, I began to re-build the collage piece by piece, using images from the same texts and magazines that I was already using, but with less narrative intention. What began to materialize was a fraught portrait of American citizenship. At the center of the collage is a hand-crocheted American flag, cut from Charles Kuralt’s Southerners: Portrait of a People (1986). In front of the flag is Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, an easily identifiable symbol of feminine strength and American patriotism. What surrounds these two images of patriotism are several different imaginings of American childhood.
What I began to realize is that each of these children in the chosen images has or will have a different, often tense, relationship to the word “citizen” in the United States. As Laura Briggs argues in her book, Reproducing Empire (2002), children as the ultimate symbol of reproduction and reproductive capacity, are a major site of tension in imperial culture. As such, children of color and children of immigrants are often trapped in racialized discourses surrounding socioeconomic status, disease, and “population control” that leaves them without a sturdy site of national belonging. That is, they belong neither to the “country” of their parents, nor are they offered belonging in the country in which they were raised and educated.
The final version of this collage, which has now taken on the name “Citizens,” is an amalgamation of different identities and experiences of American citizenship, captured and arranged above Jose Marti’s “Nuestra America” and the word, “Citizens.” The collage is anchored by the central image of an exasperated-looking, racially ambiguous boy (pulled from Anne Geddess’s Until Now) who obscures his face by pulling on it with his hands. However, despite their obvious differences, the boy and all of the children and adults in the surrounding parts of the Canvas are all inextricably linked and organized around his experience of exasperation. This is not to provide some sort of “all in this together” kind of narrative, but rather to illustrate the culturally unstable nature of the term “citizens” in the United States.
The excerpt from Marti’s “Nuestra America” is below:
Only runts—so stunted they have no faith in their own nation— will fail to find the courage. Lacking courage themselves, they’ll deny that other men do have it. Their spindly arms, with clinking bracelets and polished fingernails, shaped by Madrid or Paris, cannot reach the lofty tree, and so they say the tree is unreachable. We must load up the ships with these termites that gnaw away at the core of the patria that nurtured them. If they’re Parisians or Madrileños, then let them stroll the Prado by lamplight or take an ice at Tortoni’s. These carpenter’s sons, ashamed that their father was a carpenter! These men born in América, ashamed of the mother who raised them because she wears an Indian tunic! These scoundrels who disown their sick mother and leave her alone in her sickbed! Who is more truly a man? One who stays with his mother to nurse her through her illness? Or one who curses the bosom that bore him, forces her to work somewhere out of sight, and lives off her sustenance in corrupted lands, sporting a worm for a necktie and a sign that says “traitor” on the back of his paper jacket? These sons of our América, which must save herself through her Indians and is on the rise; these deserters, who ask to take up arms with the forces of North America, which drowns its Indians in blood and is on the wane! These delicate creatures who are men but don’t want to do men’s work! Did Washington, the founder of their nation, go off to live in England when he saw the English marching against his land? But these incredible creatures drag their honor across foreign soil like the incroyables of the French Revolution who danced, primped, and dragged out their Rs.
For what other patria can a man take greater pride in than our long-suffering republics of América? — built by the bloody arms of a hundred apostles, amid mute masses of Indians, to the sound of battle between the book and the monk’s candlestick. Never before have such advanced and unified nations been created so rapidly from elements so disparate. The haughty man imagines that because he wields a quick pen and coins vivid phrases the earth was made to be his pedestal; he accuses his native republic of hopeless incapacity because its virgin jungles don’t offer him scope for parading about the world like a bigwig, driving Persian ponies and spilling champagne as he goes. The incapacity lies not in the nascent country, which demands forms appropriate to itself and a grandeur that is useful to it, but in those who wish to govern unique populaces, singularly and violently composed, by laws inherited from four centuries of free practice in the United States and nineteen centuries of monarchy in France. A Llanero’s bolting colt can’t be stopped in its tracks by one of Alexander Hamilton’s laws. The sluggish blood of the Indian race can’t be quickened with a phrase from Sieyès. He who would govern well must attend closely to the place being governed. In América, a good governor isn’t one who knows how to govern a German or a Frenchman. It is, rather, one who knows what elements his own country is made up of, and how best to marshal them so as to achieve, by means and institutions arising from the country itself, that desirable state in which every man knows himself and exercises his talents, and all enjoy the abundance that Nature, for the good of all, has bestowed on the land they make fruitful by their labor and defend with their lives. The government must arise from the country. The government’s spirit must be the spirit of the country. The government’s form must be in harmony with the country’s natural constitution. The government is no more than the equilibrium among the country’s natural elements.
– Jose Marti, “Nuestra America,” 1891,
The natural man has triumphed over the imported book in América; natural men have triumphed over an artificial intelligentsia. The native mestizo has triumphed over the exotic criollo. The battle is not between civilization and barbarity but between false erudition and nature. The natural man is good and will follow and reward a superior intelligence as long as that intelligence doesn’t use his submission against him or offend him by ignoring him, which the natural man finds unforgivable. He is prepared to use force to regain the respect of anyone who has wounded his sensibilities or harmed his interests. The tyrants of América have come to power by taking up the cause of these scorned natural elements, and have fallen as soon as they betrayed them. The republics have cured the former tyrannies of their inability to know the true elements of the country, derive the form of government from them, and govern along with them. Governor, in a new nation, means Creator.
Below, you can click through each close-up image of the painting below for a more in-depth discussion of the thought process behind each image and arrangement choice.
Baldoz, Rick. The Third Asiatic Invasion. NYU UP, 2011.
Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence. Harvard UP, 2011.
Briggs, Laura. Reproducing Empire. University of California Press, 2002.
Imada, Adria L. Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire. Duke UP, 2013.
Bryant, Michael and W. Nikola-Lisa. Bein’ with You This Way. Lee & Low Books, 1994.
Digital SLR Photography. no. 146, 2019.
Fonteyn, Margot. The Magic of Dance. Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
Geddess, Anne. Until Now. Photogenique Publishers, 1999.
Kuralt, Charles. Southerners: Portrait of a People. Oxmoor House, 1986.
Mark, Mary Ellen. “Pribolof Islands, Alaska; Eastern Shore, Virginia.” In Response to Place. Edited by The Nature Conservancy. Bullfinch Press, 2001.
Montgomery, Elizabeth Miles, Editor. Norman Rockwell. JG Press, 1989.
Piwarski, Rae. “Furby Sticker,” 2018.
Sheikh, Fazal. “Grande Sertao Veredas National Park, Brazil.”
In Response to Place. Edited by The Nature Conservancy. Bullfinch Press, 2001.
The Jessie Wilcox Smith Poster Book. Derrydale Books, 1988.