Nell Irvin Painter


"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, 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 women write.

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.

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