Nell Irvin Painter


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Review: Southern History Across the Color Line.
By Nell Irvin Painter.
(2002, The University of North Carolina Press.
ISBN 808078-5360-7)

Reviewed by Harry B. Dunbar

In his book, Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903 and cited among the best books of the twentieth century, W.E.B. sDuBois characterized Black people in the United States as a mass huddled in a valley under a veil of race. In the book DuBois "stepped within the Veil, raising it that [readers] may view faintly its deeper recesses." Now, a century later in Southern History Across the Color Line, historian Nell Irvin Painter looks at the veil itself, from both the white obverse and the black converse perspective, and offers us the opportunity to see "across and beyond the color line." To prepare herself for a work which would demand skills beyond those normally gained in historical apprenticeship, Painter made an intensive study of psychology, psychoanalysis, race, class, culture, and yes, violence. Using the tools of the historian, the biographer, the psychologist and the psychoanalyst, Nell Irvin Painter pursues "individual subjectivity" to "excavate" the history of ordinary black people and to explicate, to analyze and to bring remarkable insight to her source material. Under Painter's analysis the veil morphs into a patina which encrusts "the gorgeous surface that cultured slave owners presented to the world." Moreover, as an historian she feels compelled to heed the wisdom of psychologists and look beneath, as she says, "because our mental health as a society depends on the ability to see our interrelatedness across lines of class and race, in the past, as in the present." Each of the six essays, which draw on her past work, contributes to the theme of Southern History.

The introduction to Southern History Across the Color Line gives insight into the life, perspective, point of view, and indeed the lack of ego needs of Nell Irvin Painter. (It also gives us a preview of works to come. Her promise of a "history of white people" is as significant as is her forewarning that after finishing her work on beauty she will leave the discipline of history per se, attend art school and move into the creative arts.) Most significant, here we have an acknowledgment from Painter that the psychological analysis that she brings to the Thomas journal in the second essay is an insight that she did not know how to undertake before doing the above-mentioned study in psychology, psychoanalysis, race, class, culture and violence.

The first of the six essays in this book points up the legacy of soul murder that was inherent in slavery and establishes the background for the Painter portrait, no pun intended, of the plantation South which is on exhibit for us here. The essay "The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas" is a masterful analysis of a significant memoir by a Georgia plantation mistress (1834-1907) who had all of the privileges bequeathed to wealthy, white, planter class women, including one enjoyed by only a tiny minority of her peers: a college education. Painter deftly shows us the offsetting baggage that was a part of the heritage of wealthy, white, planter class women: the high emotional cost of the South's peculiar institution on the wife of the planter class.

While this review gives short shrift to two of the essays in this book, an assessment Painter makes in "Three Southern Women & Freud: A Non-exceptionalist Approach to Race, Class, & Gender in the Slave South," is instructive and commands a mention. Here Painter says "Southern history demands the recognition of complexity and contradiction, starting with family life, and therefore requires the use of plurals. Southern history must take race very seriously, but southern history must not stop with race." In the essay "Social Equity" and "Rape" in the Fin-de-Siècle South" Painter observes that, "Although the word class almost never appeared in turn-of-the-century writing about the South, the hierarchy of racism expresses a clear ranking of classes, in which the word white, unless modified, indicated a member of the upper class, and black, unless modified, equaled impoverished worker.

For the essay, "Hosea Hudson. The Life & Times of a Black Communist," labor historian Painter dons her biographer's hat and provides an insightful and informative piece, this time from the perspective of a black Communist in the Deep South. Drawing on her previous work on Hosea Hudson (1898-1988) done earlier in her career, Painter looks at Hudson's life and time through a new prism. As an experienced historical scholar she was able to interview Hudson late in his life, at length, in his home, and with access to his papers. Absent now was the risk to her career which mentors suggested would accompany her taking on this subject when she was a beginning scholar. As a consequence we have a significant work providing remarkable insights into the interface of the Communist Party, the labor movement and blacks in Birmingham, Alabama from the 1930s, and into the life of a remarkable man. Citing the papers of this unlettered man who was 36 years of age before he could read well, referencing her many interviews with him, Painter reveals to us how hundreds of blacks in Alabama in the 1930s not only became Communists but "also made the Party their own." This essay, in and of itself, is a significant contribution to the subject of the color line and the labor movement in the South from the 1930s. No one else, to this reviewer's knowledge, took on the task of telling this story. But for Nell Irvin Painter, the contribution of this man who was " too strong, too opinionated, too convinced of his own rightness to be lovable in the way that so many Americans want to love black people" would never have been known.

It is said that a biographer is most successful when he or she universalizes his or her experience. Nell Irvin Painter does exactly this throughout Southern History Across the Color Line. In the essay entitled "Sexuality & Power in The Mind of the South," Painter is at her best in this regard. From her position as a black female intellectual she insinuates herself into the history of the South, transcends the color line and universalizes her experience in the context of that of the wealthy white planter women, the poor white women, the poor black women, the wealthy white men, the poor white men that constitute the cohorts found in the extant histories of the South. (Neither wealthy black women, nor wealthy black men are subjects in this book.) Painter analyzes Wilbur Cash's 1929 essay "The Mind of the South" prefacing her analysis with the observations that Cash did not foresee the changes that have occurred since the original publication of this essay, and that he could not have imagined her as a critic. After observing that she personifies the changes that have undermined the pertinence of much of what Cash had to say, Painter launches an insightful analysis of the Cash essay that is nothing short of trail blazing.

This is an important book. It should be read and digested by every person who has visions of expediting a society in which our interrelatedness across lines of class, race and gender is manifest. Nell Irvin Painter is a significant scholar, teacher and writer who heralds this society. Would that more of her caliber find their way into the classrooms of our colleges and universities, there to impact first rate minds enabling them to catch this vision. is a superb resource on books, articles and reviews by Nell Irvin Painter. Moreover, background information included here on Nell Painter, on her family and friends, constitutes a treasure trove for serious students of Nell Painter, the person, the scholar, the teacher and mentor. The 60th birthday tributes (including our own) to Nell Painter from 136 friends, colleagues, students and family members are a testimonial to the regard in which she is held in the academic and the wider community.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.    - Mark Twain
Copyright 2002 by Harry B. Dunbar. All rights reserved Queenhyte Publishers Dunbar On Black Books

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