"HAVE THE CULTURE WARS ENDED? Battles Are Far
From Over in Culture's Private Clubs," The Chronicle of Higher
Education, 6 March 1998
From the issue dated March 6, 1998
By Nell Irvin Painter
Asking whether the culture wars are over reminds me of
a conversation some years ago, when a friend and I were comparing notes
about the stirring, thrilling, scary, shocking 1960s: Where were you when
John F. Kennedy was assassinated? When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was
passed? When Malcolm X was assassinated? When Martin Luther King, Jr.,
was assassinated? My friend couldn't remember in any of those cases. Was
she out of the country? No, she was married. Taking care of husband, kids,
I feel a bit like that housewife regarding the culture
wars. Sure, I've been here in the academy, but the sensational battles
have taken place in the popular media, on an entirely different plane
from my everyday academic housewifery. For ever so long, but thankfully
in the company of other reform-minded comrades, I have been urging my
white colleagues, male and female, to attend to the work of black scholars,
and urging my male colleagues, black and white, to read and cite what
Instead of waging culture wars in The New York Times
and speaking to power in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker,
I've been tending the same academic house -- scholarly meetings, editorial
boards, and manuscript reports. Twenty years ago, some of us were arguing
that African Americans and other people of color are, in fact, people
with a past, that African-American historians really are historians, that
their work truly counts as history.
My colleagues and I have had some successes, for over the
passage of time, we've redecorated the rooms of our academic house. Women's
studies, African-American studies, and even black-women's studies sit
at the dining-room table. Histories of people who used to be relegated
to the sub-basement now sit on the porch. I think there is broad agreement
that African Americans and other people of color are people with a past.
But more steps need to be taken. As the literary critic Ann duCille noted
in 1994, people of color, black women in particular, are still more often
the objects of study than the scholarly authorities themselves.
I am pleased that some of the work of scholars of color
has begun to appear in scholarly bibliographies. However, the implications
of this work seldom penetrate other people's texts, and the work itself
almost never draws acclaim from the broader profession. Of course, a few
exceptional African-American scholars have achieved recognition: in my
discipline of history, for instance, Robin Kelley, Evelyn Higginbotham,
and David Lewis. But the awards conferred upon them by scholarly committees
and the arbiters of the Pulitzer Prize remain rare. Many in the historical
profession do not yet see the work of most African-American historians
as real history. Those opening sessions of "stars" at the annual
meetings of history associations, for example, usually include a white
woman (representing all women historians), a conservative historian (usually
a white man), a liberal historian (also usually a white man), and then
(representing minority-group historians) a person of color -- who may
not even be a historian.
Meanwhile, the powerful news media continue to ignore the
achievements of people of color. It may seem as though the culture wars
and the whole mania over "political correctness" have been exhausted
while I've been distracted by my everyday struggle. But I see the cultural
battles as far from over in the private clubs of Pulitzer Prizes, six-figure
book contracts, and appearances on Nightline. Overwhelmingly, the
winners there are still white men. On any subject you please, from Presidents
to poor black children, from women to what blacks think of whites, books
by white men receive acknowledgment in the prestigious media, winning
the big prizes and the big money. Their writing tells us about "ourselves,"
whoever "we" are, to loud, sustained applause.
Of course I'll keep on tending my scholarly house, just
as I have for as long as I can recall, before, during, and after -- if
this actually is after -- the culture wars waged in Newsweek, Time,
and The New York Times.
Nell Irvin Painter is a professor of history
at Princeton University. She is the author, most recently, of Sojourner
Truth: A Life, A Symbol (W.W. Norton, 1996).
Reproduced from The Chronicle of Higher Education,
6 March 1998. Copyright Nell Irvin Painter.
Return to top Return to Articles