Our member, Dr Jacob Breslow (LSE, UK) talks about his new book, Ambivalent Childhoods: Speculative Futures and the Psychic Life of the Child (University of Minnesota Press, 2021).
Ambivalent Childhoods is about the role that childhood plays in shaping and challenging the disposability of young black life, the steadfastness of the gender binary, the queer life of children’s desires, and the precarious status of migrants.
The book brings together critical race, trans, feminist, queer, critical migration, and psychoanalytic theories to explore the ambivalence of childhood as it is mobilised within, and against, four different social justice movements in the first two decades of the 21st century. In doing so, it offers new theoretical interpretations of childhood in its particular connections to Black Lives Matter and the murder of Trayvon Martin; trans justice and antitrans discrimination; reproductive justice and the sexually active queer child; and the intergenerational politics of antideportation movements.
However, unlike other texts on the uneven distribution of childhood, Ambivalent Childhoods does not put forward an argument for a more universal inclusion of marginalized individuals and populations within the frame of childhood. Nor does it argue that childhood is too tainted an object to be demanded for in the moments it is resoundingly denied to those experiencing intersectional forms of violence and erasure.
Rather, while it understands the impulse behind both of these arguments, it prioritizes interrogating the psychic work that the desire for inclusion facilitates, and the political violence that exclusion and inclusion allow for. As such, Ambivalent Childhoods argues that childhood requires sustained attention as a complex and ambivalent site for negotiating national belonging and contesting the workings of power, and not just for children.
Prior to becoming an academic I spent many years working with multiple queer youth activist organisations in the California Bay Area. My work with them as a child, a young person, and as an adult, opened my eyes to the ways in which childhood—as a subject position and as an idea—simultaneously enabled and curtailed the work we were able to do.
On one hand, we were celebrated as children and young people who were striving to make legislative and cultural changes. On the other hand, however, our queerness and our commitment to an intersectional and anti-racist politics—generated from the queer children of colour who were central to our organisations—routinely troubled our hold on the category of childhood. Understood as precocious yet infantile, exceptional yet problematic, our activism was always fractured by the ambivalences that give childhood meaning.
The project of Ambivalent Childhoods, then, came from a longstanding interest in the work that the very idea of childhood does within, and against, social justice movements.
In early 2012, when I first began to undertake the research that would become Ambivalent Childhoods, Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. This horrific execution of a black child—alongside the media landscape that emerged in its wake, which sought to render Trayvon an adult—informed the project’s direction, and its urgency. I felt it was increasingly pressing that a conversation be had about the ambivalent work that childhood does in a moment of extraordinary antiblackness, heteronormativity, transphobia, and state violence.
Four portraits of black children hang on a wall plastered with pink and white polka-dot wallpaper in a gallery whose plush pink carpets and pink ceiling are punctuated by a scattering of multicolored marbled balloons. In one of these portraits, a fourteen-year-old girl, playfully crossing one of her eyes and curling her bottom lip, is surrounded by a highly saturated panoply of glitter, sequins, butterflies, and foliage. An arched array of pink and purple beads encircles her head like a halo as she simultaneously returns and avoids the viewer’s gaze.
While each of these children are practically subsumed by the vibrant collages that embrace them like saints, her childhood vivacity contrasts her with her more earnest male peers. It draws you to her. As the subject of Ebony G. Patterson’s 2016 installation for the Studio Museum in Harlem . . . when they grow up . . . this girl and her magnetism exist within the titular ellipses of Patterson’s ebullient and larger-than-life life images.
These ellipses, however, are not just filled with glee and exuberance. Their palindromic open-endedness marks both a statement and a question. When they grow up becomes a question of if they grow up, and Paterson’s portraits, which are punctured with holes that reveal the wallpaper underneath and are decorated in a style that evokes the mournful celebration of death in Afro-Caribbean cultures, tread the line between eulogy and a prospective futurity.
Lingering in these ellipses is a wish. A wish that she will grow up, that this portrait will not be her eulogy, and that she’ll experience all the joys and pains of childhood. It is a wish, that is, for childhood itself. But what is childhood? Who gets to be a child?
Patterson’s work, in all its colorful buoyancy, is responding to these very serious questions. Produced in direct riposte to a culture of antiblackness that, as I show throughout Ambivalent Childhoods, routinely disavows black childhood, these portraits simultaneously pose this line of inquiry and offer an important response. “We somehow seem to deny these children the same sense of innocence that any other child would be afforded, as if somehow they’re different,” Patterson says, as she explains the importance of representing black childhoods at this particular time in history, “because of their blackness, they’re not allowed the possibility of humanity” (Patterson quoted in Felsenthal 2016).
Asserting this young black girl’s childhood in abundance, Patterson’s portrait is thus not a neutral act of representation. As an affirmation, it is an act of refusal and survival. Patterson’s representation of this girl’s childhood thus contains within it an awareness of something that I argue is vital to an analysis of childhood in the contemporary United States: There are structures of power whose harmful effects are interrupted by the rearticulation of someone’s location in childhood.
As many scholars have documented, the importance of reaffirming childhood has a long history. Robin Bernstein (2011), for example, writes that during the Civil Rights Movement the invocation of black childhood was a key strategy for countering the longstanding violences of white supremacy directed at black children … Across various social and political moments within American history, claiming childhood for one’s self or for others—as Patterson’s work does so beautifully—has been, and continues to be, an essential strategy within social justice movements.
The need for this rearticulation is not, however, limited to a rebuttal of the dehumanizing and adultifying of young black girls. While antiblackness has shaped the very contours of childhood from its inception, as I show throughout this book, the need to make this re-affirmation for children is an unfortunate burden that is additionally and unevenly carried by transfeminist, queer, and antideportation projects that work to mitigate the effects of racism, transmisogyny, heteronormativity, and border making. As such, critically engaging with this question of who gets to occupy childhood is of vital importance for children who are girls, trans, queer, undocumented, poor, and of color—children, in other words, who are, and have historically been, precariously understood within the frame of childhood itself.
However, implicit within this necessary assertion is the assumption, or rather the wish, that childhood’s very confirmation can counter power’s subjecting force. In Ambivalent Childhoods I argue that this wish—this psychic and political investment in childhood as a straight- forwardly productive object—is structured by a twinned fantasy. This fantasy assumes that childhood, in its contemporary political life, is itself separable from the very things we have come to understand as race, gender, sexuality, and nation; and that the persistence and force of racism, transmisogyny, heteronormativity, and the violences of the border are not themselves co-produced with childhood as well. … Childhood, [I argue] functions as an exclusionary frame of protection and prioritization limited to privileged and historically contingent groups of young people, and as a longstanding means of marking marginalized populations as inferior.
Frantz Fanon, for example, describes infantilization as one of the mechanisms through which colonial and racist violence is enacted. Fanon’s argument, that infantilization is a central tactic of colonial subjugation, has been elaborated on by scholars uncovering the ways in which childhood has been central to the workings of racism and sexism in a range of global contexts. … While the space of childhood is therefore protective for some, enshrining their acts under the banners of innocence or ignorance, and granting them the right to inhabit dependency, or to be a recipient of care, this version of childhood is unevenly distributed. For others, childhood means living within forced dependency, being dismissed, pushed out of the public sphere, and understood as incapable, immature, and in need of discipline.
Acknowledging the longstanding link between violence and the uneven and often incoherent distribution of these versions of childhood, then, begs the question of what it means to seek out inclusion within the category of “child.” Does reaffirming one’s location within childhood interrupt power when childhood itself is ambivalent at best, and deadly at worst?