The scholarship of Dr. Nell Irvin Painter has ranged freely over her multi-decade tenure as a historian, professor, author and artist, from a biography of Sojourner Truth to a comprehensive look at Black history as seen through visual art and now, to making her own art, including 28 pieces she created last spring in Italy just before the coronavirus pandemic, called “American Whiteness Since Trump.” (Should we be capitalizing “whiteness?” Dr. Painter argues in the affirmative.)

Dr. Painter speaks tonight, Feb. 18, with moderator Jessica McDaniel for a discussion series from Central Arkansas Library System’s Six Bridges Book Festival called “Creating Black Americans,” after Painter’s 2006 book of the same name. Last week, we caught up with Dr. Painter by phone from her home in the Adirondack Mountains, where she and her husband had waited out the pandemic.  

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You wrote this great piece for the New Yorker last year about art from the 60s that denounced police brutality, like that of Emory Douglas, who was the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture, and in it, you talk a little about different movements being feminine or masculine.

Well, the Black Panthers weren’t masculine in their leadership and in their activities, but their self-fashioning was masculine. 

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I was struck by that, and what you said there: “Today’s anti-racist activism, led by women, is beautifully feminist and eschews macho posturing. What’s different about a movement when women are running it, do you think? 

I’m gonna be entertaining gross generalizations here, but certainly in the case of the anti-racist activity, the Panthers on the one hand, and even Black power in the 60s and early 70s, Black nationalism in the 60s and early 70s, those movements were very macho. And they attracted men — I mean, they would work really well with Trump people. Full of guns and talk about strength and fighting and defending and all that kind of military posturing. It’s not exactly pre-feminist, because second and third wave feminism was coming up at that same time. But feminism is more mature now. I mean, we’re talking about two generations or more. The 60s and 70s were the olden days. I’m surprised I’m still here. Other people are, too! 

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[Laughs.] I’m glad you’re still here.

Aw, thank you. I remember once when I was teaching in North Carolina back in the 20th century — this was when the Klan was beating up people in Greensboro — my students asked me what I knew about the Klan. Because I grew up in California, so I didn’t grow up with the Klan. And I said, “Well, in the 50s I was reading books like Howard Fast’s “Freedom Road,” which is a very left-wing book,” and my students looked at me in shock. Like, “You could read in the 50s?”

Anyhow, I’m still here. We’re in a different time now. We’re in the 21st century — we’re not even in the early 21st century. And women’s power has made a big difference. Title IX has made a big difference. Access to higher education has made a big difference. So women and men now are in a different place than women and men were in the United States in the 60s and early 70s. For the Panthers, the people who were doing the basic work that I think of as valuable, which is the breakfast movement, feeding kids, the health clinics, that social welfare work. Women did that. And the men were kind of proving their masculinity against the police. I don’t want to make light of police violence in Oakland. It existed and it still exists. That was something that needed to be taken on. But the way that the Panthers took it on was very masculine in stark contrast to the kind of gender egalitarianism that anti-racist groups led by women come to make decisions. 

You’ve written a lot about the ways in which whiteness is a matter of ideology and not biology, and how radically our ideas about who is and who isn’t white have shifted over time. What, in your eyes, is the harm that comes from not examining whiteness and its place in history?

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Well, white supremacy is one! And the naturalization of a racial hierarchy — thinking that’s it just normal, natural and permanent. The basic lesson of my book, “The History of White People,” is that definitions change. Constructions change. The way we talk about whiteness changes over time. And the book was published in 2010, so I have to do it again. I’m going to do it again this fall, in words and images. I’m calling it “A New History of Whiteness,” illustrated by the author. Our in-house title is “The History of White People for Dummies.” At any rate, it needs to be redone because the ways in which we talk about whiteness and think about whiteness, since Trump, those ways have changed. And they have changed since January 6, 2021. I presented and read a little piece for the Brooklyn Public Library a couple of weeks ago in which I talked about American democracy, colorized. And that colorization is 2021. If you think about the election — and particularly Georgia, on the 5th and 6th of January — on the one hand you have American democracy embodied. And here I’m talking in iconographical terms, not literal terms. I’m not talking about populations. But the images we see and the way we think in our mind’s eye that democracy is embodied by Black people, notably in Georgia. When you think about lines of people lining up to vote and then doing it again, even though there were lots of white people and brown people and yellow people and red people doing that, the symbol is Black voters. And over and over again in the election of 2020, we heard about the importance of Black voters. So, voting and Blackness and democracy have been going together in a strong new way.

On the other hand, we have anti-democracy, we have the Trumpists saying lies about what happened in the election. And then January 6, we have this horrific mob attacking the citadel, the symbol of American democracy. I think there might have been maybe one or two Black guys in there, but the image of that mob is white people. White men. So anti-democracy, in symbolic terms, is white. I wouldn’t have said that even in early 2020, which was kind of just yesterday. But certainly not in 2010.  

Right. Speaking of voting, I was also so taken with how you described voting lines in that op ed for the New York Times in November of 2020. I mean, it was two days after election day, and in your reflecting on it, you recall a taxi driver you met in 2000 who was new to America, and who was shocked that our election in that year was going down without citizens taking up arms. 

He was delighted! 

Yes! You said in that op ed, “Will our exemption from fear hold? Or will these armed protesters — like those invading the Michigan State Capitol in April, May and September — waving Confederate flags reappear? Will those advised to stand down no longer stand back?” 

And now we know the answer. I had forgotten that. How chilling. 

Exactly. In a way those words resonated to me as prophetic, and in another way it was entirely predictable, and had been building up for years. 

Well, maybe the guys who did it predicted it, but we as laypeople couldn’t have imagined that. That doesn’t happen in our country! 

It made me wonder where you were on Jan. 6 when the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, and about your gut reaction. 

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We were horrified. We don’t have TV up here, but we were stuck in front of our iPads. And it looked awful. And we’ve been stuck in front of our iPads for the last two days now for the impeachment presentation, and it was even worse than what we could see then. And it was horrifying then. I don’t understand how Republicans can turn their back on that. 

Mm-hmm. I’ve found myself wondering the last couple days what headspace the Republicans in that room are in. Like, if they’re just tuned out. 

Sounds like it. 

You began a project while you were in Italy last February and March, right — “an artist’s book, a visualization of my research on the history of white people in the U.S. today,” you said. 

Yes. It’s been clear to me and to my agents that I need to bring “The History of White People” up to date. The book stopped before Trump. And now we know that history stops before George Floyd, and again before January 6.

And you were working on these images of Trump in this picturesque place in Italy. 

Yes. So my residency in Bogliasco was for the middle of February to the middle of March. My husband was there with me as a partner, and so we got there on the 11th or 12th of February and I started working. And my studio was in a gorgeous family — rich family — library in this villa overlooking the Ligurian Sea. Ah, so lovely! So I’m working in this very comfortable place. I have a desk and two couches and on the other side of the library are collections of French literature, the kind of stuff people have on their bookshelves to show off, not necessarily to read. Although my husband read some of it. So it was a very comfortable place, and they fed us. It was really nice. I love artist residencies because you can concentrate on your work without thinking, “Well, what am I gonna fix for dinner?” That kind of thing. My husband is a mathematical statistician, and he was working on a biography of a French mathematical statistician. So coronavirus as we left the United States was something that was happening in China. It wasn’t in our minds as we left for Italy, By the first of March, it had reached Europe and my husband went to Paris to do research, and things were kind of…quiet. The Bibliotheque Nationale was not closed, but there were very few people. So he could do his work very easily. But there were rumors in Italy and France about coronavirus, and my husband said as he was leaving Paris, “You know we should just go now. We should leave. I should go back to New Jersey from Paris and you should go back to New Jersey from Genoa.” And I said, you know, “No, I can’t leave! My work, etc.” You know, whiny. And so he came back.

And then the next week, the other fellows started peeling off, leaving early. The woman from Rome, the woman from Beirut, started leaving, and it was kind of emptying out. My husband had finally prevailed that we should leave early for what felt like 36 hours, and so we ended up leaving the day we were scheduled to leave anyway. I didn’t feel panicky until the President said he was closing the borders and then the question was, “Well, can we get back in?” And we got the last plane out of Genoa, anywhere. And we arrived in JFK the day before utter chaos in the U.S. airports.

So we came up here from Newark. We didn’t even unpack our bags. And we came up here to this year-round house, but where we’re usually at during the summer, and I’ve got a wood stove and I’m cozy. I don’t know what our future is. 

What was it like to come back to the states and then be sort of back in this world that you had visualized from afar? Do you think your illustrations of Trump would be different had you not explored them from a distance? 

Like if I had been at MacDowell? Or at home?

Sure.

I’m not sure. Because I generally have an international frame of mind. My husband and I are both fluent in French, and can make our way in German, and I resuscitated my rusty Italian. So I’m not afraid of sources that are not in English. So when I discovered people like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller talking about this book, “The Camp of the Saints,” I read it even though it was in French. It wasn’t strange to me that they would be paying attention to something that had been published in 1972 in France, because the theme of the invasion of the “swarthy hordes” was clearly circulated on the ultra-right during Trump times. So I don’t think it would have been different. The big difference is that [my project] “American Whiteness Since Trump” ended on the 13th of March, so there’s no coronavirus. And I don’t know how coronavirus is gonna play in the updated history of whiteness.

Nell Painter’s “American Whiteness Since Trump,” 2020, ink, graphite, and collage on paper

I have a question about just your writing style. You strike me as a writer who’s hyper-focused on taking what we might think of as these super lofty historical narratives with all this context, and just making them crystal clear. Like, breaking them down for a reader who has no prior knowledge of this topic.

Or don’t agree with me. 

Right! I guess what I’m trying to say is that when I read your writing, I feel like, “Oh this is a teacher. Someone who knows how to make complicated concepts understandable.” First of all, is that how you see your writing? 

I do! And I claim that to be great strength! I claim as my great strength that I can do comprehensive research, so that you don’t feel like “Oh, she didn’t look at this,” or “Oh, if she had looked at that she wouldn’t have said that.” I do comprehensive research and I wrote in a way that is both clear and nuanced. That is hard to do. And I write, like, a billion revisions of my work. I do not publish even my fifth draft. I am a very careful writer. 

My second question about that is: Did it drive you crazy, kind of, to be in academia, where so often ideas about race and class come to us really dressed up in fancy clothes or dense verbage, sometimes to the point of being inaccessible? 

No! I loved being a professor. I’ll tell you what I got tired of. And that was having to fight the same battles over and over again, which is probably a product of academia in a way. You know, you discover that there’s some issue that needs to be addressed, and so you have a committee and then you have the woman in the committee chair it and do all the work and write the report and say, “Well, you could do this to fix this,” and they say, “Oh, yeah, we’ll do that,” and then like eight years later the thing is still there. It hasn’t been sorted out. And then they say, “Well, we’ll need a committee.” And they get the woman to chair…[Laughs.] Yeah. 

I love history. I was fortunate to be a faculty member in places where I did not feel that I was in hostile territory. I felt often that I was walking on an incline, or carrying a light weight. So you’d get tired. I was tired a lot when I was a professor, because there was so much explaining I often had to do. Or pushing for things that were a lot of work, like getting departmental status for African-American study. The hardest part was being tokenized, because wherever I was, I was in a small minority. But the institutions intellectually were welcoming and open, so it wasn’t like having to teach in some place where, say, all the students came from right-wing or evangelical backgrounds. 

Register for Dr. Nell Irvin Painter’s CALS’ speaker series talk tonight on Zoom here.