Roundtable: The History of Childhood & Youth: Anna Mae Duane is our final post in the roundtable series on the History of Childhood & Youth. If you missed previous posts click here. Thank you to each of our invited scholars for generously sharing tidbits of their research and their perspectives on this growing and dynamic field.

Dr. Anna Mae Duane, cited by several of our roundtable participants, rounds up this series. She is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Her scholarship focuses on children and race in a variety of constellations, including children as both victims and political actors in Puritan trial proceedings, antebellum literature, pre-and post-emancipation slave narratives, contemporary children’s literature, modern anti-slavery materials, and adult popular culture. Her current project, Educated for Freedom: Two Black Schoolmates who Changed a Slave Nation (forthcoming, NYU)  focuses on the role of childhood—their own and others—shaped the political imagination of two of antebellum America’s most influential Black abolitionists. She is the author of Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim (UGeorgia, 2010) and editor of The Children’s Table: Childhood Studies in the Humanities (UGeorgia, 2013), and Child Slavery Before and After Emancipation: An Argument for Child-Centered Slavery Studies (Cambridge, 2017). She is co-editor, with Kate Capshaw, of Who Writes for Black Children? African American Children’s Literature before 1900. (UMinnesota, 2017). Her work has been published in several scholarly journals, as well as public forums including Slate, Salon and Avidly.

JUNTO: As we’ve discussed with several participants in this roundtable, the history of childhood/youth versus the history of children can be a slight nuance. How do you define what you do – is it the study of what people thought about children; children’s experiences; or a combination thereof?

ANNA MAE DUANE: For me, it’s a combination of studying cultural stories about children and the way children have inhabited those stories. I’ve always been interested in the ways the literary and the historical reinforce each other, and children function as a place where the theoretical and the material meet in remarkable ways. So, thinking of how to weave those two conversations together—what adults think children are and should be, and how children were inhabiting and resisting those lessons—has been a really productive challenge. I’ve found that being willing to examine the reciprocal relationship between “book children” and “real children” demands a rigorous rethinking of many of the other hierarchies we carry with us into the archive. Some of those hierarchies privilege the sort of work we do as scholars—intellectually rigorous, critical, highly literate—that in turn prioritizes those qualities in the subjects we study. Doing this work requires undoing a scholarly investment in several interlocking beliefs, enshrined in the Enlightenment and still powerful today—that children’s dependence somehow disqualifies them from serious engagement, and that their presence in the archive is always overwritten by adult concerns.

 JUNTO: We often think of “gender” as a category of historical analysis.  Do you see “childhood” or “youth” as similar categories of historical analysis?

DUANE: My thinking on this question has been informed by Joan W. Scott’s work on foregrounding gender as a category of historical analysis. Scott argued that an focusing on class, race, and gender signals a scholar’s commitment to a history that includes the stories of the oppressed, and  dedicated to analyzing how “inequalities of power” are created and reinforced.  From the earliest days of American settlement, defining childhood has been a means of defining and distributing power, as colonial structures were built on controlling the future as imagined in both native and settler youth. Studying childhood is necessary to understanding how power has been generated, but it also requires an innovative approach to engaging the lives that such power sought to obscure or overwrite.

JUNTO: Along with that idea of defining power, a movement in youth studies at the moment is to include age as an important factor in intersectionality, on par with race, class, and gender.  What are your perspectives on this?

DUANE: We are still coming to terms with how age structure how other identities—and oppressions—are formulated and experienced. Childhood encompasses all three categories in the triptych of race, class and gender, sometimes intensifying, and sometimes obscuring the oppression with which it intersects. My first book explored how childhood—and the infantilizing narratives that accompany it—was deployed to intensify the disempowerment already associated with gender, race, and class identities.  Corrine Field’s work has helped us to understand how women leveraged questions of childhood and age in their pursuit of citizenship. Catherine Jones, Crystal Weber, Brigitte Fielder, Robin Bernstein, Nazera Wright and others have demonstrated that if we don’t engage how Blackness and childhood intersect, we run the risk of radically misunderstanding both categories. As Vanessa Holden discussed in her Junto interview, enslavement left no room for a childhood as a progression from innocence to maturity. Nazera Wright’s work talks about how Black girlhood was foreshortened, as racial threats rendered young children “prematurely knowing.” Yet even as the tropes of innocence and growth was denied to Black children, they were also categorized as eternal children, walking in circles that never led them into a meaningful future. In more contemporary studies, there some fantastic work detailing how the attributes of childhood have be weaponized to reinforce systems of control and surveillance.

JUNTO: How do you incorporate the history of childhood and youth into larger fields of inquiry like political history, social history, and economic history? Why is it important to do so?

DUANE: In many ways, it’s just a matter of expanding your field of attention. Children and youth were—and are—part of the culture they live in, and are participants in political and social changes. I’m hopeful that as the field continues to develop, there won’t be a question of “adding” children to larger fields of inquiry. Rather analyses that somehow carry on as if children and youth aren’t a factor to be reckoned with will be seen as lacking an important analytical component. My forthcoming book—Educated for Freedom Two Black Schoolchildren who Grew Up to Change a Slave Nation—brought this home to me in profound ways. I honestly thought I was actually going to write a book that wasn’t “about childhood,” but rather a focus on the adult lives of Henry Highland Garnet and James McCune Smith, two prominent black abolitionists who both attended the New York African Free School in the 1820s.  My plan was to cordon off discussion of childhood to their school days and to focus on their remarkable adult careers in politics and medicine (James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn an M.D.; Henry Highland Garnet was the first African American to address a session of Congress). But of course, once I started researching and writing, it became clear that it was impossible to ignore how their political and scientific imaginations had been shaped by children and childhood. The children in their lives—sometimes strangers, sometimes fugitives, sometimes their own children—catalyzed profound shifts in their  thinking about political organizing, about education, and about the future of Black people in a slave nation. I realized I could really capture the political fertility of their lives—and of the historical moment they lived in by refusing false separations between the work they themselves did as children, the experiences in conversation with children, and their work as political agents.

JUNTO: How do you go about finding sources to examine? As many in this roundtable have explained, this can sometimes be a difficult task, but not an impossible or futile one. What types of sources do you use and how have you had to creatively read sources for childhood experience?

DUANE: Like others in this field, I’ve realized that children’s records are more plentiful than we imagine—we just haven’t been trained to look for them. And in many ways, being creative about where to look for materials, and what qualifies as a “source” leads to powerfully innovative readings. To take one example, a collection that I worked on with Kate Capshaw (Who Writes for Black Children?) began with a simple question posed by Brigitte Fielder: Where was African American’s children’s literature before 1900? Conventional wisdom assumed that there wasn’t any, and because everyone assumed it didn’t exist, very few people had actually looked for it. We found that doing this sort of work required asking different questions, which generated new perspectives on what constitutes a child reader, what constitutes African American literature, and how we categorize children’s literature to begin with. It was a powerful lesson to me about the creativity the archives of childhood require, and reward. I’ve been inspired by Karen Sanchez-Eppler virtuosic close reading of objects ranging from playroom doors to orphanage registers. Robin Bernstein’s insistence on placing children and their play patterns at the center of her analysis of the Clark Doll alters how we understand the logic underlying the Brown v. Board of Ed decision. Victoria Ford Smith’s work uncovering the multiple collaborations between canonical Victorian authors and children in their lives has, to my mind, changed the conversation about how we imagine the creative process.

JUNTO: What is the future of the history of childhood and youth? What areas of research are you most excited about?

DUANE: Oh, there’s so many things to be excited about! I’m inspired by the work that’s being done on how childhood’s vulnerability is intensified its intersections by race, disability, class. And perhaps one of the most revelatory sites within this larger field has been focusing on the experiences of enslaved children—an endeavor that has generated a host of creative approaches and has uncovered new aspects of slavery’s logics and practices. Last year, I published an edited collection designed to explore how rhetorics of childhood and slavery reinforced one another in ways that intensified children’s oppression under slave regimes, and largely exempted children and youth from the rights associated with freedom upon emancipation. The breadth of analyses the contributors brought to the question was dazzling.  To take just a few examples, Karen Sanchez-Eppler made a case for reading the WPA Narratives as a meditation on childhood, while  historians Micki McElya and Jessica Pliley demonstrated how the image of the imperiled white girl at the center of the White Slavery Scare effectively erased the harms done to African American girls and women by chattel slavery. This work, in addition in conversation with the incredible studies by Wilma King, Catherine Jones, Vanessa Holden, Crystal Weber and others, has demonstrated that any study of slavery and its legacies that ignore the experiences of childhood and youth is missing something vitally important.

Critical Age Studies also promises to add to and complicate the conversations we are currently having. Scholars like Sari Edelstein are asking us not only to consider age as a category of analysis, but to think about how we might do so without falling into the trap of viewing senescence as decline.  It’s testimony to the work historians of children and youth have done that so many scholars now want to think about age as a broad category of identity across the lifespan, and I’m excited to see how this expanded focus will in turn sharpen our own thinking about the field.

Thank you so much to Dr. Anna Mae Duane for closing out this roundtable series. 

Each participant provided insightful perspectives on this growing field along with helpful  suggestions for further reading on a variety of regions and time periods across the early Atlantic.

Inspired to write a guest post about the history of childhood and youth? Get in touch with me (Julia M Gossard)!



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