Nell Painter’s History of White People: it’s coming to an end

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Nell Irvin Painter. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Nell Painter and I seem to have opposite takes on the great Ralph Waldo Emerson. In The History of White People, she makes Emerson “the philosopher king of American white race theory.” On the contrary, I say he was one of the inventors of transnational, transracial America. Before there was a “melting pot,” Emerson coined the phrase “smelting pot.” Granted: he prized inconsistency. But in his Journal in 1845, Emerson wrote resoundingly:

I hate the narrowness of the Native American Party. It is the dog in the manger. It is precisely opposite to all the dictates of love and magnanimity; and therefore, of course, opposite to true wisdom… Man is the most composite of all creatures… Well, as in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed; so in this continent – asylum of all nations — the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes – of the Africans and of the Polynesians — will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages, or that which earlier emerged from Pelasgic and Etruscan barbarism. ‘La Nature aime les croisements’ [Or: ‘Nature loves hybrids’].

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Journal, 1845.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, we are having a cordial time here. A prolific historian recently emerita at Princeton, now pursuing an MFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, Ms. Painter in this big new book flips the ethnographic mirror on white America. Now that we are all supposed to have absorbed the genomics of it — that “race” is a social concept, not a scientific one; a construction, not a fact — she is asking: who invented “whiteness” as a human category? (Answer: Germans thought up the theory. Brits refined the practice.) Who expanded and shrank that slice of the species over the years? It’s old news, of course, that “white” came to be code for Anglo-Saxon beauty, intelligence and power. But in 2010 the icons of American beauty, intelligence and power are our radiant brown President and his darker-skinned wife, First Lady Michelle Obama.

The gift in Barack Obama’s rise, Nell Painter suggests, is not least the affirmation that “mixed ancestry is an old story in America.” It is Nell Painter’s story, too. “People like Barack Obama have always been with us; we haven’t always been able to see them as bi-racial people.” Now we do.

It interests me that unlike Henry Louis Gates in his Faces of America PBS series, Nell Painter has not tested her DNA and finds that “roots” inquiry meaningless. It tells her only that “we’re all related, but I knew that… What I am is what my parents made me, and what I have made of myself. I am not my biology. Your biology is not you.”

The species, she says, is breeding its way to another history and another understanding.

NP: Anybody can be racialized. We have manifold choices in human difference. So we could build a race on the shape of the nose; in the nineteenth and century century, races were built on the shape of the head. So you can use anything. And whether it’s what we see as a big difference or what we now see as a small difference, the point is to show that the people who are at the bottom, who do the dirty work—paid, unpaid—are there because of something inside them, intrinsic in them, and permanent.

CL: Phrenology, of course, the shapes of heads, has been exploded many times. We come to the age of the genome, and a realization, which I think is pretty common now, that we’re all almost exactly the same stuff, and the human brain is almost everywhere the same thing. I think of it as a kind of universal carburetor that was tested and proven, evolved and improved, and then sent out from East Africa — what, 50 or 75 thousand years ago.

NP: And the point is that they kept walking, and they kept migrating. People have not stopped moving. People are still moving, they’re still meeting, they’re still having sex, and they’re still having babies. And their babies are growing up and having more sex…

Nell Irvin Painter in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 29, 2010.

In our children and grandchildren, it seems, The History of White People is dissolving.

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  • nother

    A sparkling conversation. It strikes me that most of the conversations Ms. Painter will have on her book tour will be to describe her book, but it might be said that in the big picture she wrote the book so as to stimulate the kind of conversation that happened here.

    Ah yes, in the billion words that Mr. Emerson wrote through his life, some fallibility can be culled, I have no doubt. But RWE was about principles, and his principles are the letters I subscribe to, not the parsing of random speeches.

    “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE”

    -Emerson “The Oversoul”

    Mr. Painter describes RWE as the “embodiment of the American Renaissance,” but I feel that puts him in a box. My Emerson is an embodiment of the American identity born through a specific principle. The principle that W.E.B. Du Bois quotes in chapter III of The Souls of Black Folk.

    “By Every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

    The same identity-through-principle that Ellison’s Invisible Man grasps on to at the end of the book: “and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I no longer had to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and the Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.”

    The same identity that James Baldwin’s African American protagonist comes to embrace at the end of his trip to Europe and his story What it Means to Be an American. “It is the day he realized that there are no untroubled countries in this fearfully troubled world; that if he has been preparing himself—for anything in Europe, he has been preparing himself—for America. In short, the freedom that the American writer finds in Europe brings him, full circle, back to himself, with the responsibility for his development where it always was: in his own hands.”

    It’s same identity and principle that even the fallible Booker T. Washington pinned his hopes on in Up From Slavery: “This country demands that every race shall measure itself by the American standard.”

    But here is my revelation even in writing this blog, Mr. Washington isn’t just talking about the black race rising up to the “American standard,” he’s also talking about the white race coming down off it’s perch to the “American standard” – and thus to the American principle; American identity; equality. But hold your horses! We’re not come’n down quietly!

    “Well, the black man functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an unmovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

    – James Baldwin

    Ms Painter tells us “anybody can be racialized,” and thats a vital message, although it only tells half the story. Where do we go from there? We know what to avoid, but what to embrace? PRINCIPLES! Anybody can also be principlized! How do I know? Ralph Waldo Emerson told me so!

  • nother

    I’ve always been intrigued by the Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois dispute.

    Growing up I was under the impression that Du Bois had won hands down, but for the first time, I don’t see it as so cut and dry. If the “Age of Obama” is post racial, which Nell Painter seems to back up, it feels like Booker T Washington was closer to that ideal then Du Bois.

    Of course the debate cannot be reduced to who won and who lost. Maybe we can look at it as the ol’ Good cop Bad cop dynamic. First Washington tempered the fears of the oppressors with calls for patient integration, then Dubois shook them up by embracing “Black Consciousness” and activism. We needed both.

    But might it be that as we move into this post racial era, Washington’s take becomes more prescient for the long view?