Magazine / A Luminary Historian Reconsiders Ideas of Race, Politics, and Identity

A Luminary Historian Reconsiders Ideas of Race, Politics, and Identity

Arts & Culture Book Bites Politics & Economics

Nell Irvin Painter is Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita at Princeton University, and a New York Times bestselling author. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2007, she has received honorary degrees from Yale, Wesleyan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Dartmouth. After a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, she earned degrees in painting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Below, Nell shares five key insights from her new book, I Just Keep Talking: A Life in Essays. Listen to the audio version—read by Nell herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. Whiteness is a racial identity, just as Blackness is a racial identity.

We tend to assume that White people are individuals, while racial identity applies primarily to people who aren’t White. When I was writing my 2010 book The History of White People, public discourse most often treated Whiteness as an invisible default, not as a race shaped and often protected by history and society. It was unusual to see White people as people of a particular race with its own history. The wonderfully rich Princeton University Library, where I did my research, has multiple shelves of books on race as Black, but hardly any books on race as White. Although commentary on race as White still lags behind commentary on race as Black, the virtual silence I encountered before 2010 on Whiteness is no longer so dense. It’s no longer widely assumed that White identity could be reduced to one of its worst aspects: White nationalism. It’s so much more with its own history.

What it means to see yourself as White has fundamentally changed in the time of Donald Trump. Being White has gone from unmarked default to racially marked, a change now widely visible. Being White no longer means, of course, being president and, of course, being a beauty queen and, of course, being the cute young people selling things in ads. It now includes having to make space for other, non-White people to fill those roles.

Just as times have changed, I suggest with changing times that we capitalize the W of White, just as we capitalize the B of Black. Use the capital W to reveal Whiteness not only as a crucial indicator of social position, but also as an important historical concept, one as crucial in American history as the concept of Blackness. After all, Blackness has never existed in a vacuum alone. Now and over times past, the relationships between Whiteness and Blackness have made all the difference in the world.

2. Biographical specificity is crucial to understanding people.

It’s tempting to see individuals as units of their social identity. People aren’t interchangeable even when they share important parts of their social identities, such as their race, gender, and class. Historical figures like Sojourner Truth and Ralph Waldo Emerson become even more interesting as we learn more about them, both in their own times and our own times. Keep all that in mind as you talk about other people.

My own history situates me in my own times, discussing the relationships between my life and my work, between myself as a Black American and the people I discuss, Black and non-Black. The first autobiographical essay on affirmative action was first published in the New York Times in 1981, but it could have been published yesterday.

“You may mistakenly assume that Sojourner Truth, a woman who had been enslaved, was from the South.”

Prominent among those whose biographies I explore is the nineteenth-century feminist abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Truth is widely associated with the phrase “ar’n’t I” or “ain’t I a woman.” Not only did she never utter that phrase, but a White woman journalist made it up twelve years after Truth spoke in Akron, Ohio. This brief phrase and the circumstances of its creation shortchange our understanding of Sojourner Truth: her identity as a New Yorker, her own fascinating life story, and her Black women abolitionist peers, women like the poet Frances Watkins Harper. If you know only the slogan, you may misidentify Sojourner Truth’s regional origin. You may mistakenly assume that Sojourner Truth, a woman who had been enslaved, was from the South. She was not.

3. History changes as the times we live in change.

Contrary to what we often think, history exists in two time frames: the past and the present. It’s tempting to conclude that what happened in the past is over and done with, frozen in its moment and the lifetimes of its protagonists, utterly unchanging despite the passage of time. But when you think about how much happens—in individual lives, in the lives of peoples and nations—you realize that to make sense of what took place—to create a coherent narrative—you need to select what is important from all the rest. At any given point, this selection takes place in the present, as we, the living, decide what’s meaningful to us now.

This means historical narrative changes over time: what we want to know about the past at one point in time differs from what we wanted to know at an earlier point. It also changes, for that matter, what we will want to know in the future. We can see such changes clearly in American history. Compared with generations ago, we now ask different questions of the past. Who were the women? What were they doing? Before the civil rights revolution of the 1960s—before Black people began widely to be seen as truly American people—American history was mostly the story of prominent White people who were men. We now ask for and find women and Black Americans as historical actors in ways rarely possible before the 21st century.

“What we want to know about the past at one point in time differs from what we wanted to know at an earlier point.”

New scholarship generated by second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s has changed our thoughts on gender, women and girls, and sexuality. This scholarship uncovers the meanings of personal violence and how violence affects people who live together—people who are linked as though in a family even when they aren’t related biologically and belong to different races. Even when “attachment” means dislike. Recent scholarship has helped me understand how the violence so fundamental to slaveholding reverberated among everyone concerned, whether they were enslaved or were enslavers, whether they were Black, White, or Native, and down the generations.

4. You can reread history by bringing together unexpected contemporaries.

Normally, we separate—we segregate—people who lived in different regions and had contrasting social identities, such as two 19th-century thinkers, the American novelist Sue Petigru King, and the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. They were not in contact with one another, but both saw problems facing young women in similar ways, especially issues related to sexuality. King’s looking at American southerners and Freud’s looking at people in Vienna reveal parallels in thinking about interactions between the sexes, whether or not race was part of the picture.

Though we may think we know about the historical South, we can look again through today’s lenses at what seemingly disparate observers had to say about how the mores of Southern society influenced American society. Examples of these observers include Harriet Jacobs, Hector Saint John de Crevecoeur, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Dickens. We see that those mores continue to make the South different from the rest of the US, especially in terms of the prevalence of personal violence. The views of 19th-century observers are more likely to resonate with us since the rise of passions swirling around the figure of Donald Trump and anxieties around gun violence. If we can’t put disparate observers in proximity, we miss how much they could see back then. Their distinct perspectives help us understand our own present times.

5. Images enrich understanding of our worlds.

Images convey important meanings and delight the eye with color and composition. I Just Keep Talking contains scores of my own works of art, produced in full color and large format on good, heavy paper. You can enjoy the images just for themselves, and you can follow my eye and hand into and beyond meanings conveyed in words. My images appear throughout the text, each image living where it belongs.

To listen to the audio version read by author Nell Irvin Painter, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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