Podcast • March 31, 2010

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 ...

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.

Podcast • March 15, 2010

Whose Words These Are (21): Afaa Michael Weaver on Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Afaa Michael Weaver (20 min, 9 mb mp3) Afaa Michael Weaver leads off a week of poets’ reflections on the catastrophe in Haiti. His poem “Port-au-Prince” is not ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Afaa Michael Weaver (20 min, 9 mb mp3)

Afaa Michael Weaver leads off a week of poets’ reflections on the catastrophe in Haiti. His poem “Port-au-Prince” is not “news analysis;” it’s a stab at fitting disaster news, now two months old, into a context between heart and history.

Port au Prince

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where

there is hatred, let me sow love.”

–St. Francis of Assisi

If the sky were to crack, the floor of heaven

would be pearl white, a bed of ice after snow

in Montreal, asylum from Port au Prince,

the children under sheets, stiff and undone

near cement walls filled with sand on the bottom

stoops of Mary, Blessed Mother Erzulie,

complex chance of a soul torn from Ile Ife,

in the rubric of the crucifix planted on shores

of empires–

The seam of the spirit tears in earthquakes,

ripping the cloth of the breath, suspending

every wish you had in that single moment,

the wet mess of your heart suddenly slapping

the tiny plan of earth growing from the Earth,

some alien presence driving the real thing,

the evil of The Enlightenment, husbandry

of farmers ranking goats with black children,

ledgers for the wealth of banks, investments,

hedge funds, Blackberrys, joys we hold onto

like the monstrous Coscos on the hill

twisting the roots of our hearts, nowhere

to run, to scream in the coming apart,

human bodies slapped inside human bodies

pierced with jagged things, rocks and glass,

zombies the mute saints, pious and solemn,

the French language humming to itself.

“les negres ne sont pas Francaise”

Writing a letter, plotting to buy Louisiana,

the pen of Jefferson moves to contain what

cannot be contained, collapsed buildings,

family photographs lying on broken bodies

sticking their tongues out in the rubble,

reporters walking by with microphones,

selling news as if it were cheese and bread.

@Afaa Michael Weaver

Perspective is everything. Michael Weaver worked in the steel factories of Baltimore (the world of “The Wire”) for 15 years before he finished his college education and declared himself a poet — and before “Afaa,” the Ibo honorific meaning “oracle,” was added to his name. Afaa Michael Weaver is widely published and traveled by now, a professor at Simmons College in Boston, though he identifies himself still as “a working-class African American poet from Baltimore.”

I’m coming from what is popular knowledge among black people about the significance and the position of Haiti, which is that we generally understand that Haiti’s position is a matter of being punished for speaking back, for daring to be rebellious. There are all kinds of complexities around the history of Haiti. But it goes back to the original problem presented to the American government of how to deal with the first successful slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere and how to keep that information and that inspiration away from black Americans. It haunted Jefferson. It framed his national policy, and remnants of that national policy are still present. Jefferson came to a final conclusion that he hoped that the expansion of America’s economy and national policy beyond its own borders would somehow compensate for the contradictions in the democratic ideal. So Haiti’s situation begins there. This earthquake seemed to another in a long list of problems. So I had this kind of sad image of being punished for talking back.

Afaa Michael Weaver with Chris Lydon at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Cambridge, March 9, 2010.

Afaa Michael Weaver’s reading resumes our series with poets, “Whose Words These Are.” What our first score of poets confirmed is that they are still our “unacknowledged legislators,” as Shelley famously elected them. They’re the ones you can trust, after all, to tell you that your coat is on fire, or your country. Tomorrow: Fred Marchant.