Nell Irvin Painter


Miscellaneous Writings:
Autobiography for the 30 year reunion of the Class of 1959, Oakland Technical High School.
Unpublished. 27 July 1989.

East Stoneham, Maine
Thursday, 27 July 1989

Dear Jim,

How I wish that I could attend the Tech High '59 reunion in the fall. I was at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford during the last academic year and hoped and hoped that the reunion would occur this spring. But my luck didn't hold, and I'm back in the East now for the duration. If you produce anything written out of the reunion, I'd love to have it and will, of course, be glad to cover the costs of production and mailing.

I don't know that I have three major events in my life. Pretty much it has unfolded in a way that has been haphazard within fairly narrow limits. Because of the enormous changes in American public life since we were in high school, particularly in regards to what women and black people can do, I could never have predicted what my experiences would have been in 1959. I went to college (Berkeley) because that was what one did in my family. But who knew about the rest back then? In the 'fifties none of the universities where I have taught history (University of Pennsylvania, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Princeton) had black women faculty. So I just sort of drifted about until the late 1960s, when things began to open up for people like me, thanks to affirmative action, which made it possible for such universities to even entertain the thought of hiring black women professors. In the normal course of events, I'm not sure that the idea would have occurred to such institutions.

I took one gigantic step in my larger education well before then, however. Right after I graduated from Cal, I joined my parents, who were in Ghana, West Africa. We spent two years there, which changed my life fundamentally--although without imparting any strong sense of direction. First, I learned about the Third World first hand, about socialism and about class conflict. In my previous education (formal and informal) in the United States, I had discovered a lot about race and racism, but nothing about class and economic development. This awareness has informed my world view ever since.

The other intellectual innovation that occurred while I was in Ghana was academic--I started graduate school and admitted that I loved history. Having hated, and I mean really "hated" the history I had encountered in high school, I had sworn never to touch the stuff again. That had been Cold War United States history, full of gush about how wonderful America was but not one word about black people, segregation, lynching and other racist violence (Emmett Till was murdered when I was at Claremont Junior High School), and the general absence of democracy in the South. I managed to graduate from Berkeley without taking a single course in American history and only the bare minimum in European. In Ghana, however, I discovered pre-colonial African history, which reminded me of the medieval French history that I had studied and loved at the University of Bordeaux.

When it wasn't American history, I found that the study of history was enormous fun. A few years later, when I learned that I could write American history myself--instead of merely study what other people had written--I moved over into that field, where I have remained. I got my Ph.D in '74 and have been specializing in the American South since then, with the exception of my third book, STANDING AT ARMAGEDDON: THE UNITED STATES, 1877-1919, (New York, W.W. Norton, 1987) which, as you can tell from its title, deals with more than just the South. More recently I have returned to my old field and am working on a book on sexuality and race, class, and gender in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century South.

Last year (1988-1989) I lived in California for the first time in twenty years and, much to my surprise, found myself liking it. California is a "great" place to eat! And drink wine. I missed a real winter but loved the lack of humidity. The people were unfailingly friendly and helpful. As my parents are still in Oakland, I spent a good deal of time there, also in Berkeley, and rediscovered how very interesting and stimulating they are. (As a Golden Bear, I can't get all that enthusiastic about Stanford, which still seems sort of stick-in-the-mud to me.)

I suppose the best thing about California and being a Californian is the utter lack of tradition, virtually of history, that is so different from Massachusetts and North Carolina, where I spent a total of sixteen years. I found myself relishing freedom from the past and realizing that much of the irreverence that characterizes my work as a historian is closely related to the fact that I am a Californian.

The upshot is that the year brought me to terms with my own past, which is getting to be of a quite respectable duration within the framework of American history. The year also brought me a totally unexpected bonus--a man, a real mensch, the sort of man I had come to believe no longer exists in American academic life. He is, of all things, a Kansan and a statistician at the University of Kansas. He is enlightened, having spent many years as an undergraduate, graduate student, and faculty member at Princeton. We'll be married in mid-October at Princeton.

This letter has grown much longer than I had intended, but I guess you understand that a historian would find it hard to write briefly on a historical topic, even autobiographically. I hope the reunion is a rousing success.

With All Best Wishes,
Nell Irvin Painter

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