The BUZZ in American Quarterly: “Adolescent Citizenship, or Temporality and the Negation of Black Childhood in Two Eras”

by Jacob Breslow

Breslow, Jacob. “Adolescent Citizenship, or Temporality and the Negation of Black Childhood in Two Eras.” American Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 2, July 2019, pp. 473–94.

An ongoing debate in scholarship emerging within critical childhood studies grapples with the difficulty of reconciling the normative ontological characteristics of childhood – innocence, purity, dependence, value – with the lived experiences of marginalized children, and particularly children of color, who are marked not as innocent, but rather as a threat. What is to be made of the category of childhood when it is unevenly distributed, particularly across gendered and racialized lines? Can scholars really claim that “children” are understood socially and culturally as “the future” when black children like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Aiyana Mo’Nay Stanley-Jones are routinely killed, without receiving any justice, at the hands of the state?

On one side of this debate is the contention that anti-blackness discursively, legally, and culturally removes black children from the contours of childhood, denying them the protections of innocence. The other side of this debate re-frames childhood through a less sympathetic lens, suggesting that it is a dangerous, yet steadfast fantasy that children occupy a space free from violence. This fantasy, it is argued, is historically inaccurate, as childhood is, and has been, a subject position defined by its marginalization. In this vein, children who experience quotidian and exceptional violence at the hands of the state, the police, and the law, are subject to this violence precisely because they are being read as children.

In “Adolescent Citizenship, or Temporality and the Negation of Black Childhood in Two Eras,” I intervene in this debate in a few ways. First, I argue that what makes childhood so deadly for black children is its discrepant stickiness. Childhood, as an ambivalent category with blurred boundaries, does and does not stick to black children and young people. It is unevenly and inconsistently distributed to black children, and its discrepant stickiness is produced in response to changes in the historical conditions of blackness, and the capacity for antiblackness to sustain itself despite sociopolitical, legal, and cultural shifts over time.  Second, I argue that childhood cannot be primarily understood through its ontological contours, as childhood is simultaneously a temporal subject position and mode of relation. In the moments in which childhood does stick to black children, in other words, it is not to offer innocence nor protection to young black people, but rather to confine blackness within the temporal suspensions that are also constitutive of childhood.

Making this argument, my article interrogates two eras under which childhood, adolescence, antiblackness, and temporality must be understood together. Adolescence is important here because the discourses of anti-blackness that I interrogate across the article simultaneously remove black children from childhood, as well as locate them not in infancy nor adulthood, but rather within adolescence. Thinking about adolescence as additionally carrying discrepant, racialized, and gendered ontological and temporal effects, affects, and registers of meaning for the adolescent subject, I argue that this forceful and reiterated locating of black children within adolescence – rather than childhood – requires attention.

Attending to adolescence, the article moves between an analysis of the discursive and material effects of gradual emancipation in the antebellum North, on one hand, and, on the other, an analysis of the discourses of childhood and adolescence evoked in the immediate aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder, located within the so-called “post-racial” era. Across the article’s analysis of these two eras, I argue that the construction of black childhood and adolescence as being out of time, as defined by prolonged dependency and elongated becoming, allows the violences of anti-blackness to continue amidst dubious claims to progress: the alleged success of Northern abolition, and the purported emergence of a post-racial society.

Finally, from this analysis I introduce the frame of “adolescent citizenship” to describe the temporal positioning of black life and black critique outside of the fantasmatic temporal life of the nation. Adolescent citizenship thus describes subjects whose acts of citizenship are derided and negated for being out of temporal sync with a fantasy of the nation’s present. While infantile citizenship produces mixed and ambivalent relations of paternalism and care, adolescent citizenship negates the demand of recognition or justice by demarcating the subject as immature (and thus unworthy of the right), and by figuring the demand itself as out of sync (and thus precocious, if not alternatively anachronistic). Adolescent citizenship, then, is the produced relation between some citizens and the nation that both maintains the nation’s insipid paternalism and interrupts the adolescent citizen’s demand for rights and recognition under the guise of the subject’s and the demand’s allegedly inappropriate timing.

Resisting the normative contours of childhood innocence, and intervening in the scholarly debate about childhood’s effects for black children, the article concludes by stressing the importance of incorporating a radical analysis of temporality into childhood studies. Learning from queer, feminist, critical race, postcolonial, and indigenous scholars who have articulated the importance of temporal sovereignty, I argue that thinking from the position of being “out of time” or “out of sync” with the nation, or with normative childhood, is a productive space from which to ground our analysis of the ongoing and historical effects of anti-blackness.

Jacob Breslow is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality at the London School of Economics’ Department of Gender Studies. His primary area of research is on how childhood operates within and against Black Lives Matter, transfeminism, queer youth activism, and anti-deportation movements. His research is published in Transgender Studies Quarterly, Porn Studies, and American Quarterly, and his forthcoming book, under contract with the University of Minnesota Press, is tentatively titled Speculative Childhoods: Ambivalence, Belonging and the Psychic Life of the Child.


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