Robin Bernstein is the Dillon Professor of American History and a professor of African and African American studies and studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University. She studies theater/performance and childhood—sometimes together, sometimes separately—with the goal of producing new knowledge about US cultural history, particularly American formations of race, from the 19th century to the present.
During her fellowship year, Bernstein is writing a narrative history of a mass murder that occurred in 1846 just outside of Auburn, New York. This true crime opens a window onto a 19th-century North in which slavery and abolition entangled lethally with an emerging form of unfreedom: convict labor. The Tragedy of William Freeman shows how this combination of forces led to murder—and how that murder in turn inaugurated one of America’s most destructive folktales: that of the violent black male youth, his victimization of innocent white people (especially children), and the heroic criminal justice system that punishes him, protecting a white populace.
Bernstein is the author of Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York University Press, 2011), which won five awards. Her essays have appeared in such publications as African American Review, American Literature, Common-Place, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, Modern Drama, PMLA, Social Text, and Theatre Journal. She coedits the book series Performance and American Cultures from New York University Press. Bernstein earned a doctorate in American studies from Yale University and is an elected member of the American Antiquarian Society.