Monday, August 19, 2019

Nell Irvin Painter, A Fascinating Author

I have just read a fascinating book dealing with the intellectual and social history of the United States. I found it because its author, Nell Irvin Painter, wrote a very enlightening op-ed about the history of Jamestown that's being celebrated this week. The op-ed was "How we think about the term 'enslaved' matters: 400 years ago, the first Africans who came to America were not ‘enslaved’, they were indentured – and this makes a crucial difference when we think about the meanings of our past." (link)

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter describes the way that Western societies historically created the concept of races and at the same time, developed a wide variety of race prejudice and bigoted, unscientific racial theories. Simultaneously, Painter demonstrates the interconnection of racial theories with the institutions of slavery and social inequality. One reason I liked the book is that it so often highlighted issues that have plagued our country from the beginning; for example, consider this: "The U.S. census of 1850 was the first to collect statistics on immigrants." (Kindle Locations 2242-2243).

The History of White People begins in ancient Greece. The Greeks are relevant not because they invented modern racial consciousness -- they did not -- but because their views of who they were (and who other people were) influenced 18th and 19th century European writers' construction of racial definitions and racial inequalities. In turn, the European theorists provided American intellectuals with a theory of race that supported emerging injustice, exploitation, and abuse of a number of immigrant groups, as well as a justification of enslavement of blacks. While I had heard of many of the European and American thinkers and writers that Painter describes, I had a very naive and unformed view of how their ideas on race influenced American society and prejudice.

Among the many 18th and 19th century Americans Painter discusses, I was especially interested in her portrayal of Ralph Waldo Emerson -- a famous American whose essays I read in high school and who then basically dropped out of my experience with history and literature. Painter writes:
"Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) towers over his age as the embodiment of the American renaissance, but not, though he also should, as the philosopher king of American white race theory. Widely hailed for his intellectual strength and prodigious output, Emerson wrote the earliest full-length statement of the ideology later termed Anglo-Saxonist, synthesizing all the salient nineteenth-and early twentieth-century concepts of American whiteness."(Kindle Locations 2449-2452).
In a later chapter on Emerson she says:
"Without his saying so directly, his definition of American excluded non-Christians and virtually all poor whites. Native American Indians and African Americans did not count. In English Traits, when he tallies up the American population, Emerson explicitly excludes the enslaved and skips over native peoples entirely." (Kindle Locations 3011-3013). 
Painter includes descriptions of many other towering figures in the American development of race-consciousness, race definition, and discrimination against an ever-changing list of "races" such as the Irish, the Jews, the Slavs, the Mexicans, the Chinese, and many more. She describes how each group gradually achieved the status of equality to the mainstream "white" race, obviously always leaving out black people.

She also describes the thinkers who contributed to a change in intellectual support of racist views. One of these was the anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942), an immigrant from Germany. Several of his students including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, and others, were important in opposing earlier anthropologists who propagated prejudicial views of races and immigrants. Boas was ahead of his time in challenging contemporary prejudice. Painter writes:
"In 1906 he made another brave gesture toward racial tolerance by accepting an invitation from the pioneering African American social scientist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) to deliver a commencement address at Atlanta University. Not only was Boas a white scholar willing to go to a black institution; he came with a message of encouragement for young people about to enter a hostile America. Quite amazingly for 1906, he assured them they had nothing to be ashamed of. Other races— the ancestors of imperial Romans and the northern European barbarians— had endured their own dark ages. Now, if educated young black people could understand the 'capabilities of [their] own race,' they could attack 'the feeling of contempt of [their] race at its very roots,' and thereby 'work out its own salvation.'" (Kindle Locations 3715-3721). 
The effect on American attitudes towards race of the two World Wars, the Depression, the New Deal, the post-war GI Bill, and a variety of other government programs are all presented in fascinating detail, but I can't possibly reproduce all of Painter's amazing way to look at 20th century history. One example: the following passage about the New Deal:
"The New Deal coalition, in fact, was as lumpy as could be, with certain parts working against the interests of others. The needs of working-class northern black voters, for instance, took a backseat to the powerful southern Democrats’ obsession with white supremacy and abhorrence of labor unions. Southerners in Congress kept the New Deal segregated, so that black people were largely excluded from policies regarding labor, housing, education. The newly created Social Security Administration, for example, excluded the two largest categories of black workers, those laboring on farms and in domestic service. The military, of course, remained either segregated (Army, Navy) or exclusionary (Marines, Air Force). African Americans got the worst of it, and President Roosevelt also balanced the interests of his Jewish constituencies against the preferences of his Catholics, as in the case of the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin." (Kindle Locations 5540-5547).
Painter's account continues with interesting summaries of the Black Power movement and other trends of the late 20th century. It ends about 10 years ago as the book's publication date is 2011. Unfortunately, many of the offensive ideas from early times that are described in the book seemed to have been put to rest by many events in society, including that when she wrote, we had President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama "whose skin color alone would have condemned her to ugliness in the twentieth century, figures as an icon of beauty and intelligence on the global stage." (Kindle Locations 6195-6196).

Unfortunately, we've now regressed, which makes The History of White People all the more important. On a recent trip to Detroit, I especially thought about how the centuries of mistreatment of Black people documented in this book brought about the terrible living conditions that you see when driving through neighborhoods of derelict homes, boarded-up businesses, and vacant lots. The contrast is painful between these areas and the prosperity visible just over the dividing line with Grosse Pointe. It's a tragic reality.

I think the following sentences make a good summary of the most basic premise of the book:
"In a society largely based on African slavery and founded in the era that invented the very idea of race, race as color has always played a prominent role." (Kindle Locations 2138-2139).
"No consensus has ever formed on the number of human races or even on the number of white races." (Kindle Locations 6103-6104).  

This post is written and copyright © 2019 by Mae E. Sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com. 
If you are reading this at another blog, it's been stolen.


Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Coming from a country where race inequality was the law, my stomach turns at the phrase "justification of enslavement of blacks". A very thought provoking post Mae.

Mae Travels said...

@Tandy -- The history of slavery and abuse unfortunately is full of examples of scientists, intellectuals, and very respected authors who claimed to justify injustice. Your country, mine, and many others were involved. Thanks for your comment. The book concentrates on the experience in the US, but has much to offer people elsewhere too, if you would be interested to read it.