“Timing It Right: Intersectionality, Temporality, and Critical Childhood Studies Now”

by Maude Hines

In their 2003 introduction to The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader, Caroline Levander and Carol Singley remark how

Feminist, postcolonial, and other postmodern scholarship has complicated optimistic, simplistic views of the child as emblematic of either nature’s regenerative power or its opposite, the deviant or abnormal. . . . [I]t has challenged the assumption of the generic child. (5)

Critical childhood studies’ engagement with intersectionality has been crucial to its expansion at the turn of the twenty-first century, and its continued development is essential for a full accounting of childhood’s multivalent and interdependent effects.

Such engagement, in turn, renders critical childhood studies (CCS) a more versatile tool for reflecting back on and expanding the intersectional modes of inquiry that have influenced it. Childhood—as metaphor, analogy, locus of political action, or anxiety about the future—undergirds postmodern thinking about power and resistance. Would Between the World and Me have been as affecting if Ta-Nehisi Coates had not framed it as letters to his son? Choose almost any seminal text in identity studies, and childhood will appear, integrally or tangentially. Whether in Marx’s invocation of child labor, DuBois’s introduction of “the veil” through a childhood experience, Said’s treatment of education in Palestine and Egypt, Butler’s process of “girling,” or Edelman writing against the deployment of the child in his interrogation of reproductive futurity, thinking through and about childhood is integral to thinking about identity, systems of power, and possibilities for liberation. In understanding our investments in childhood, CCS offers valuable insights into some of the complex systems that affect us all. Such insights help us look back as well as forward: CCS has helped us understand ideological underpinnings in historical debates over such issues as slavery, women’s suffrage, and early waves of immigration in ways that illuminate strategies for our present moment.

My own current work trains a CCS lens on one of the Southern Gothic’s primary preoccupations: the haunting legacy of American chattel slavery. Critical race theory, temporality studies, and gothic studies inform this work, each of them concerned in their own ways with present accounts of the past and its forward reach. One chapter (a version of which is forthcoming in Faulkner’s Families) argues that Faulkner uses the figure of the child as a site for condensed exploration of the formative power of enduring social systems and cultural formations. Sentences that place child characters simultaneously in multiple epistemological temporalities create un-knowing subjects who are measured against their own future knowledge. These constructions use the un-knowing child to render momentarily visible complex and violent social systems that adult characters and readers are no longer able to see, systems that will inevitably bury those characters alive even as they become blind to their workings by growing up. 

Another chapter builds on theories of racial identity development and the haunting of past events in the nation’s racial consciousness to examine scenes of childhood “encounter” with racial hierarchies as a gothic trope in African American literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here as with Faulkner, the figure of the child brings dim outlines into focus: the ghost becomes legible. Gothic tropes in this literature acknowledge the monstrousness of the system that would make the child the monster. The child in these texts is beset by contradictory imperatives to preserve childhood innocence, on the one hand, and to teach early awareness of racism—a type of protective inoculation designed to equip a future generation of race workers and activists. Today we are living in the future imagined for these children, where the tension between inoculation and innocence can be felt in discourse around “the Talk,” conversations parents have with their Black children about the dangers of police and other institutional violence.

Intersectional methodologies also inform my reading of slavery’s ghosts in literature aimed at young readers (part of an MLA panel on “Gothic Childhood”). These texts are pressured by generic structures in YA lit that privilege the individual over the collective. While southern gothic work aimed at adults tends to be focalized through multiple characters, works for young people tend to present the perspective of a single protagonist, pitting individuals against complex structural issues figured as an individual villain. Gothic tropes negotiate distance (between white and black, present and past, slave and free)—yet rather than evoking the present past, these bridges are crossed and burned, granting absolution for characters (and, by extension, young readers), leveraging empathy as an alternative to justice, and portraying a past laid to rest, obscuring the legacy of slavery’s ideologies that continue to haunt us.

Intersections between critical race theory, gothic studies, temporality studies, and CCS work together to produce more intricate mapping of these processes than any could do alone. For example, slavery’s afterlife is not only an instrument of white supremacy and a gothic return, attention to its “interruptions” of time’s regulatory impulse is a mode of resistance that sits alongside narrative forms. Slavery’s temporal “interruptions,” according to Dana Luciano, figure powerfully in Douglass’s rhetoric. Interventions such as Luciano’s “chronobiopolitics” and Elizabeth Freeman’s “chrononormativity” challenge us to think about temporality in childhood and its uses in terms of capitulation and resistance to hegemonic regimes of power. Can nostalgia for childhood work like mourning, to set a different pace for time? Does the “absorbing” childhood play Gillian Brown describes provide a site of resistance through nonnormative temporality, or does it reinforce chrononormativity by setting itself apart as escape, as respite?

Childhood’s elasticity as a category, as Allison Giffen and Lucia Hodgson have noted, make it a “generative site of competing or contradictory ideological commitments.” This is especially true in its temporal elasticity, pointing back to the past and forward to the future. The futurity with which we invest childhood has liberatory potential—think of Wahlidah Imarisha’s formulation that all activism is science fiction (“Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction”). And yet we must be careful, as so much speculative fiction warns us, of what we wish for—and whom we’re leaving out. “Can scholars really claim that ‘children’ are understood socially and culturally as ‘the future,’” Jacob Breslow asks in a “BUZZ” post on this site, “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?” The novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes, meanwhile, demands the same accountability, addressing her critique to real children through her children’s book, Ghost Boys. In a particularly affecting scene, its young Black protagonist encounters the first line of Barrie’s Peter Pan (“All children, except one, grow up”). He knows this not to be true—after all, he has already died at the hands of a white police officer, one of a proliferating number of young ghosts reflected in the book’s title. And Robin Bernstein appealed to New York Times readers, launching the scholarship she produced in her CCS masterpiece Racial Innocence into a 2017 op-ed piece that traces the evolution of earlier connections between whiteness and childhood innocence into current (and often deadly) insistence on seeing Black children as adults. This move—from theorizing childhood to influencing actual children and their environments—is some of the most exciting work being produced in CCS. But you won’t catch me saying that we have “come of age.”

Bernstein, Robin. “Opinion | Let Black Kids Just Be Kids.” The New York Times, 26 July 2017. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/opinion/black-kids-discrimination.html.

—. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. University Press, 2011.

Breslow, Jacob. “‘Adolescent Citizenship, or Temporality and the Negation of Black Childhood in Two Eras.’” The BUZZ, 22 Oct. 2019, https://ccsproject.org/2019/10/22/adolescent-citizenship-or-temporality-and-the-negation-of-black-childhood-in-two-eras/.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” Routledge, 1993.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

Du Bois, W. E. B. William Edward Burghardt. The Souls of Black Folk. Penguin Books, 1989.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2004.

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke University Press, 2010.

Maude Hines is Associate Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in Black Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Portland State University. Her current project focuses on the intersections of childhood, time, American slavery, and the Gothic.


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