The Interview:
Nell Irvin Painter

By Harold Frost, 2010

“I was very much opposed to the history that I was taught in high school, which was Cold War history, and didn’t have any black people in it, didn’t have any examination of segregation, didn’t have any discussion of civil rights. It just seemed so (pause) – well, it seemed like a pack of lies.”

Nell Irvin Painter is Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University, and author of seven books. She served from 2007 to 2008 as president of the Organization of American Historians, the major association of historians who study the U.S.A. Her website is here.

Q. When did you discover you liked writing history, Prof. Painter?

A. This actually happened in 1962 when I was 20 years old. I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley doing a year abroad at the University of Bordeaux. I was very much opposed to the history that I was taught in high school, which was Cold War history, and didn’t have any black people in it, didn’t have any examination of segregation, didn’t have any discussion of civil rights. It just seemed so (pause) – well, it seemed like a pack of lies. So I wasn’t interested in that. I did anthropology at Berkeley. Then I discovered medieval history at the University of Bordeaux. The first history topic that caught my interest was the Hundred Years’ War. My honors thesis at Cal was in medieval art history, building on Bordeaux rather than my work in anthropology.

Q. After you graduated from Cal in 1964 you spent time in Ghana. You’ve written of the importance to your development of being overseas for a significant part of your young life.

A. This was the Ghana of Kwame Nkrumah. His dream was of African unity and African socialism: sort of power to the people. I joined my parents in Ghana to help make the African revolution. And there I started my graduate work in pre-colonial African history. So my master’s degree from UCLA is in African history. A coup d’etat occurred while we were there, and we left.

If I am sane – and sometimes I have my wonderments – if I am sane – (pause) – I know I’m not crazy, how’s that? (laughs) – it’s because I spent a lot of time outside the United States, getting beyond the cage of American-style race and racial thinking. You know, people ask me if I have been discriminated against; I really can’t say that I have been, I’ve been extremely fortunate, but I have found that living in the United States as a black person is very (pause) tiring. Getting out of that was, and is, a way to catch my breath.

Q. You came back to the U.S. after Ghana.

A. Yeah. Part of it was, my father decided he didn’t want to pay for any more overseas education. If I wanted to continue going to graduate school, it would be in the United States. I went to Harvard and got my doctorate there in 1974.

Q. Just to backtrack a few years – you grew up in Oakland, yes?

A. That’s right. I was born in Houston and grew up in Oakland. I come from what would be regarded as a very ordinary middle class family except that my family is African American, and in my generation, being middle class and African American was not something you could take for granted. I come from an academic family. My parents, who married very young, were united in their desire to leave Texas; they left completely; they never sent me back for summers or anything like that. I do not in any way consider myself a Southerner.

Q. At what point did you commit to an academic career? Please take us from there to the present day.

A. I should give you a bit of background. I come from a generation, and a family, who believed that anything worth doing is worth doing well. I believed that for a long time. I no longer believe it! But I did believe it then, and so, even though it was not notably easy for me to do well in my early years as a history scholar, I knew what to do and how to do it. I had the habits of mind. It was relatively easy for me to make progress in the field. I stayed in it and I enjoyed it.

Shortly after I received my doctorate in 1974 I published my first book (“Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction”). However, my vision of history was different from what was recognized as good history, so for the next few years I constantly was unsure if I was really doing the right thing. And in 1984 I had a crisis.

I felt I really could not continue in the field of scholarly history. For one thing, I was exhausted. A friend took me to a therapist, and the therapist said, “You’ve got to tell a lot of people ‘No’ because you’re exhausted.” When you’re exhausted – it changes your life. It makes things seem more difficult than they really are. It’s kind of like being depressed. There’s no pleasure in your life; there’s no meaning in your life; you always feel like you’re losing ground.

I questioned if scholarly history was what I wanted to devote my life to. I had to do a lot of re-examining and re-calibrating. I realized that I loved history, that I wanted to keep doing it, but I was going to start saying “No” to people, and I was not going to listen to people who were telling me that what I was doing was “not history,” or saying “What are you doing?”, or greeting what I was doing with silence. Those things make you crazy. It’s not possible, by the way, to disregard those things. People still ask me why sometimes things get me down – oughtn’t I know better by now? – well, yes, I know better in my head, but these things also affect the gut. Not as much now as back then; it was much worse back then.

So I made the decision to do history my way. I had been doing it my way, but I was always of two or three minds about it, and, as I say, I let the nay-sayers affect me. Now I became of one mind and got better at disregarding the nay-sayers. So, for instance, in the late ’80s I wrote a big essay on a 19th century plantation mistress, Gertrude Thomas, and I used 20th century social science to understand what was going on with her. I got some criticism for that – “You can’t psychoanalyze the dead.” With that piece, and with my book on Sojourner Truth in 1996, “Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol,” and with my introduction in 2000 to the Penguin Classics edition of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” I used psychoanalytic techniques. I felt – I still feel – that psychology is very helpful as a tool for understanding or at least groping toward what was going on in the past in the human relations. I just went ahead and did it.

I actually did two introductions for Penguin Classics in 1998 and 2000 – the first was for “Narrative of Sojourner Truth” and the second was for “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” I enjoyed writing them both very much. I got to deal with the characters psychologically and in terms of their families. One of the things that’s so important to American history, particularly African American history, is to get beyond thinking of people merely as units of race, or units of race and class, or units of race, class, and gender, and to see them as individuals who grew up in particular families, with particular family relations, so that one woman is not interchangeable with another woman, and one black person is not interchangeable with another black person. I got to look very closely at those two individual women, which was gratifying for me.

In 2002 I published “Southern History Across the Color Line,” a collection of essays. This should have been a very easy job. All of the pieces had previously been published. But it took a lot of work – that was not a simple overnight job by any means. I was really glad to get the book out.

Oh – I should mention, as long as we’re doing the basic chronology of my intellectual life – in 1996-’97 my husband and I spent the year in Paris. I sat in on two seminars in French historiography at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, which is a center for the social sciences. This was a delightful year in several ways. One, I learned a lot of French history. Also, I discovered how much I like the way Europeans talk, in the sense that they keep talking. That’s what I do – I tend to keep talking. Sometimes Americans think I’m fighting with them when I keep talking, or that I have bad manners, or there’s something wrong with me that I’m still expecting them to be engaged and push ideas beyond the obvious. Well! Europeans do that all the time! Europeans just….keep talking! The other thing I enjoyed about that year was getting into a French, or I might say a European, way of dealing with the story of the past. One of my teachers was Pierre Nora, who looks at how we remember the past and what we forget. Of course, Europeans are very interested in this question, with their tumultuous and roiling history in which your enemy of last year is your friend of last month. So, yes, ’96-’97, my luxurious intellectual year in French history and historiography, and history and memory.

After that I came back to the U.S. and I was head of African American studies for three years at Princeton. This was very hard. We tried to increase the number of black faculty, and with our help, several departments found people whom they wanted to hire, but the administration was not cooperative. That was a frustrating time and also very interesting. I was able to help increase the number of African American graduate students in the history department. And those people are now publishing their first books. So it’s very exciting.

In 2001 my husband and I spent the winter and spring semester in Berlin. Which was also very gratifying, primarily for the same reason as our year in France – the conversation. And that’s where I got started on the book that’s now being published, “The History of White People,” working on what was then the first chapter, examining why white people are called Caucasian.

In 2005 I published a book that turned out to be much more work than I thought it would be – “Creating Black Americans” – a textbook. Usually people write textbooks in teams, but I decided to write it myself, because my view of African American history, like my view of American history, is my own. And so I did it by myself. My gosh was it a lot of work. And getting the permissions, for artwork and so on, was a nightmare. I learned about the nightmare of permissions, which recurred with “The History of White People.”

As you know, there is a strand of thought in academe which says to be clear is to be a popularizer, and to be a popularizer is not to be a good scholar. Part of my declaration of independence was my complete rejection of that kind of thinking, and my embracing of clarity linked to excellent scholarship.

Q. This warms my heart! This is my path too, I think.

A. It’s a worthwhile path. I have worked very hard on being clear. You may remember, I dedicate the new book to my editor, Edwin Barber, and to the Princeton University Library. I couldn’t have done the book without the library and without my editor; he read, and read, and read, and asked questions; I’d revise; he’d read again and ask more questions, and challenge things. There are lots of places in the book where I say things like, “It may seem odd that….” and then explain something. That’s what he said to me in notes: “This seems odd….” So for instance, there’s a good deal of writing about a man who’s so obscure now – Georges Vacher de la Pouge – here is this rightwing anti-Semite who was over in a corner intellectually but was very important in the first quarter of the 20th century – he was one of the few French people whom the Nazis liked. My editor said, “Why do we have so much on him?” I had to explain why, very carefully, to my editor’s satisfaction; I couldn’t take a single thing for granted. Another example – I was explaining how Ruth Benedict was such a great step forward with her scholarship of the 1940s; my editor said, “She sounds like a bigot!” (Laughs.) No, she wasn’t! I had to explain very carefully what it was about her writing that was such a great step forward.

So. History has been my life for, what, 35 years. I love history. But I have two sides to my life. One is scholarly and one is visual. I’m currently a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, RISD, here in Providence. I’m studying painting. My father taught me how to draw; my mother taught me how to write; I was my mother for a long time, and now I’m returning to my father.

I majored in art for a while as an undergraduate. But I was very bad at sculpture. I thought, as a youth – and I re-encountered this feeling recently – that talent was all. (Pause.) I thought that talent was all and hard work was nothing. So I didn’t do any work in sculpture and I got a “C.” And I thought, “Well, that proves I don’t have the talent.” Looking back at it, that’s a very silly way, a very young-person’s-way of reasoning. I certainly know now that hard work goes a long way. But at the time, that was why I did not persist with art. I took the path of less resistance and became a historian.

Q. Do you feel freer, creating visual art?

A. I remember a friend telling me once that she thought I was very controlled – this was probably in the early ’90s or so. I think that aspect runs very deep in me. I would not say I am unfettered today. But I think I am continually moving toward being freer, and I will say, I have expressed myself more openly here in art school. I made one of my fellow artists feel very bad just last Saturday, and I was sorry for that, and there would have been a time when I would have (pause) been more careful. And would not have said what I said. But I’m not as careful now.

Q. Are you saying the process of becoming unfettered has a downside? As in what you said last Saturday? The risk of offending people?

A. It certainly had a downside for her. (Laughs.) I had asked her what she was working on. She was working on an autobiographical project, and her definition of autobiography went beyond straightforward self-portraiture. Well. One of the artists who leaps into my mind in this regard is David Hammons, who is an African American artist of pretty high visibility. He’s not some tucked-away invisible person – he’s a well-known artist – and she had never heard of him! I expressed impatience about this and criticized her art education for not exposing her to David Hammons. And that made her feel bad.

Q. Do you feel bad about having said it?

A. No. (Pause.) No. (Laughs.) No, I don’t feel bad. I’m sorry I made her feel bad. She’s a very nice woman.

Q. I would like to ask you about a rather arcane aspect of scholarly history that people outside the field may not be familiar with. Please describe the work of a couple of your doctoral students, and how you helped them through the dissertation process, deciding what to write about.

A. What I have tended to suggest to my dissertation advisees is that they find a question that first of all has a deep body of source material. I have always insisted that you look stupid if you try to write out of a very thin body of source material, no matter how smart you are, no matter how much insight you bring to that material. Very often you can find your question in places where historians have already dug – not in the last year or two, but 10 years before, or 20 years before – topics that are recognizable, so that you don’t have to explain what your topic is. Questions that people can understand and want to know the answers to.

I can only think right now of one person who really had to persuade me about her dissertation topic, and that’s Crystal N. Feimster, who just published her “Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching” to good reviews. And who is moving this fall from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to Yale. At first she wanted to do the project as a term paper. She wanted to work on black women as lynch victims. I said, “This is a strong topic, but you’re just doing a term paper, you don’t have time to go digging in obscure repositories to uncover sources.” So she went and did a bibliographical search, and sure enough, she found enough material to do her term paper, which was very good. And she wanted to continue with the topic as a dissertation. Once again I said, “You’ve got to show me the sources if you want to do this as a dissertation, because I don’t want you to waste your time on a topic that’s just going to be frustrating, or that people won’t recognize, or that will be too thin.” And once again she found the sources. She also included white women, which made for a much better texture. She wrote a good dissertation, it’s a terrific book, and she’s having a fine career.

Another student, my last student at Princeton actually, Eric A. Yellin, has not published his book yet but will soon, it’s on the segregation of black bureaucrats in the federal workforce in Washington. Their expulsion from the workforce, actually. He was able to find the documents that made these workers into people. Into individuals with their own stories.

Still another student, whose book came out last summer, is Samuel Roberts, who has a wonderful field to work in – the history of medicine. Historians of medicine have been wanting to be able to deal with race, but have not been trained to do so. Sam found a winning combination when he put knowledge of the history of medicine together with knowing where the records were to add race into the mix. He just got tenure at Columbia. His book is “Infectious Fear.”

Some of this work that I’m describing to you is not so much about finding obscure people and bringing them to life – which of course was the great revolution in historical scholarship in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s – but reappraising well-known figures or events through fresh eyes and minds – examining taken-for-granted figures. This I think is a very important thing going on today. A good example is Annette Gordon-Reed’s “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” which re-visions Thomas Jefferson in terms of his family life and completely revolutionizes what we know of the turn of the 19th century in Virginia. This idea of reappraisal is something I explore in “The History of White People” – I give three chapters to Emerson. I re-assess him. I don’t know if I would have done that 10 years ago.

 A. Regarding fresh eyes and minds. Some people are confused by the fact that Ulrich B. Phillips, a major historian of slavery who worked in the first decades of the 20th century, and a historian today, can look at the sources, at raw data from the antebellum period, and come to dramatically different conclusions about what was happening on the plantations. Phillips promulgated the “Sambo” idea of slave docility that has now been thoroughly refuted. People sometimes say, “How can that be? Why has the history changed so much?” I wonder if you could give a brief explanation of how this happens.

A. It’s a matter of asking different questions and of believing different sources. Phillips used sources generated by plantation and slave owners – their letters, their diaries. He saw through their eyes. The historiographical revolution of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s said, in essence, those are not the only sources you need to use!

This comes out clearly not only in slavery studies but also Holocaust studies. You can see it in Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” I was in France when he was touring there; he was answering questions about his thesis that Germany was a nation of Hitler’s executioners, that the Holocaust was enabled by the actions of ordinary Germans. His answer was, in part, that he had taken Jewish sources into account and listened to them as much as he had German sources. He said that not to do so would be like writing the history of slavery and not listening to the slaves. I was sitting in Paris listening to this interview and I thought, “That’s what American historians did for years with regard to the slaves – they didn’t listen to them! That’s what Phillips did!” Historians who came after Phillips have access to, and are encouraged to use, a much wider range of material than Phillips’ generation. These sources show that slavery was a system based on personal violence. Beatings of adults and children were central to the system. Phillips completely missed that. If you bear this broader range of sources in mind, slavery starts to look different from the Sambo interpretation that Phillips offered, that was picked up by a lot of people, including many historians.

Q. You write in one of your essays that “Western knowledge is not to be trusted; everything in it needs careful inspection for insults and blind spots.” I wonder if you could elaborate on that statement. My understanding is, the essence of Western knowledge is careful inspection of all the evidence, critical thinking, so I’m not clear what you’re saying there.

A. Let’s take, for instance, somebody like Kant, who is revered in the United States and especially in France and Germany – gosh, you know, any discussion of anything must start with Kant! But Kant was a misogynist. Kant assumed that people of African descent were almost not people. So what he says about humanity cannot, to my eyes, be taken on face value. That’s what I mean. Just because somebody with a big name like Kant or Nietzsche or Hume wrote it, doesn’t mean that for me it’s all true. So what this boils down to in terms of scholarship is not just looking at the secondary sources but also looking at the primary sources. It means taking the time to get through the material, more time than it might take if I felt that I could believe everything somebody wrote. That would be like reading Ulrich B. Phillips and thinking, “Oh yeah! Columbia University historian….very careful guy….he must be OK!”

Q. I want to ask you about the writer W.J. Cash and his book “The Mind of the South.” You articulated your view of the work a number of years ago to considerable controversy. This is a book that many readers of this interview will have read; it was a standard source of information about the American South for a long time, used in many college history courses. This is a good example of your willingness to take on sacred cows.

A. Wilbur Cash published his book in 1941 – Alfred A. Knopf published it – it was well-reviewed but was not considered the be-all and end-all of insight into the American South. Then came the 1960s. The South came into national view through the civil rights movement. Suddenly people were saying, “We must learn about the South! Where do we go to get insight?” The book was re-issued it as a paperback and became a bestseller. People loved it. Well. It has its strengths. It’s written well. It has a nice warm tone to it. It has a nice sweep through the years. It’s a very seductive read, if you read it quickly – it seems to make sense in a certain way. But if you sit down and read it carefully, the analysis falls apart. Cash really has no time for poor white people or poor black people. And forget about women from either race. I said these things in 1991 at a big conference at Wake Forest celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, and some people got really pissed. They admired Cash tremendously; they thought of Cash as a liberal Southerner. I suppose he was, in the context of his times, but here we were in 1991 and they still thought of him that way! When the re-issue of the book was reviewed in the ’60s he was revered by white men; they liked him and were really easy on him, they didn’t talk much about his class bias or the racial blind spots. Cash speaks of black people as an alien race, which, as I say in “The History of White People,” is the same language that he grew up with, applied to Italians and Jews. So to my reading “The Mind of the South” does not hold up. To a casual reader, even today, I think the book might be attractive, because it hints at credible insights into the mind of the South, though it does not deliver these insights.

Q. What are three books you love?

A. I read so many books – golly. Let me name some books that have crossed my mind recently. One – I’ll mention it again – “The Hemingses of Monticello: A Family History” by Annette Gordon Reed. Which is a wonderful piece of historical writing, ranging from the political to the familial, from international travel to the dynamics of the family – it’s a terrific book. (Editor’s Note: Reed won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.)

A novel that stays with me is Russell Banks’ “Cloudsplitter.” I also want to mention the book I learned to read on, “The Wizard of Oz.” My mother taught me to read before I went to school and that was the book that did it for me.

Q. You mentioned earlier that you no longer believe that everything worth doing must be done well. Could you elaborate?

A. I have realized that some things you only need to do to get to the next thing. You only need to do them adequately. I no longer feel it’s important to get an “A” in everything; some things you just need to get a “C” in. (Laughs.) Just to get by. Because that may not be your particular trajectory. So for instance, I am here in art school in a painting program, and most of my fellow students are in their 20s or early 30s; they are going to be artists who show their work in galleries. I am not going to be that kind of an artist. I am going to be an illustrator, I’m going to illustrate my own books. I have come to realize, and this has taken me all year, that I don’t have to work LARGE. This is the admired way of being an important painter, to make BIG paintings. Physically large: six feet by six feet, or even bigger. The bigger the better. But my work will primarily be seen in reproduction; this is the work of the illustrator, and whatever gets bought will be purchased because it’s the original of an illustration. So you know what? I don’t have to get an “A” in big painting! I mean, they don’t grade us exactly that way, but you see what I mean.

Q. So you are setting aside a certain fraction of perfectionism.

A. Yeah. (Pause.) Yeah.

Q. That sounds pretty liberating to me.

A. It’s a hard struggle! And it took me years. My mother died February a year ago – her death helped in this regard, actually – as I mentioned, I grew up in a family where you were supposed to do EVERYTHING RIGHT. And it’s just not necessary. Some things just have to GET DONE.

Q. When can we look for your next book? Which, as I understand it, is to be titled “Personal Beauty: Biology or Culture?”

A. The new working title is “The Truth About Beauty.” When? Ahhh….not right way. Maybe 2014-2015.

I’m going to illustrate it, and I’m excited about that. Because of the whole permissions nightmare with “The History of White People,” I thought, “I am going to illustrate my next book.” I first said that last summer, as we were taking a vacation, our first vacation in years, driving across Canada, a country I very much admire. At first I said it just out of exasperation: “ARRGH, I’m going to illustrate my own book, darn it!” Driving across Canada kind of relaxed me, and I thought, “You know, that’s a good idea! I would enjoy that!” As the months have gone by, I realized that this book is going to call for very few words. The truths about beauty are so simple. The real basis of beauty is sex, and youth, and health. And the perception of wealth. And that’s about all it is. So, a few words, and my illustrations. I have an art show coming up in 2012, which will be about Brooklyn, my paintings of people from Brooklyn, taken from photographs taken by a woman named Lucille Fornasieri-Gold in the 1970s and ’80s. It’ll be in the Brooklyn Historical Society.