Nell Irvin Painter


Reviews of Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present

Reviews of Creating Black Americans
  • New York Post, December 4, 2005, review by Kenneth R. Janken (complete text, also available as a pdf)

    Princeton history professor Nell Irvin Painter brings her considerable skills and insight to "Creating Black Americans." Her excellent introduction to the black American experience will serve any interested reader well, though it will find its largest audience in college classrooms.

    History, the author notes, exists in both the past and present. What we wish to know and how we understand it changes over time. And Painter's compelling use of black art, mostly created since the mid-20th century, to illustrate earlier times, emphasizes this point to great effect.

    Drawing on the research of a generation of African-American historians, Painter also sets the record straight on a number of questions of the country's past.

    She re-emphasizes that slavery was not just a Southern problem. Racial slavery in North America developed over several decades in the 18th century, laying the foundations for the entire American economy. Slaves grew the commodities that Americans exported across the globe, of course. But slavery and the Atlantic slave trade were the bedrock of vast fortunes in the North, too, including the precursors to the Bank of America and other financial houses.

    Painter's examination of the Civil War shelves, once and for all, two enduring myths of the war: Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator and a view popular in the South that the conflict had nothing to do with slavery.

    When the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, it was common currency among white Northerners that this was a "white man's war." They fought to preserve the Union and had no intention of allowing blacks into the army. But Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists knew that separating emancipation from Union victory was a recipe for failure.

    The Union's military difficulties and demands for fresh manpower prodded Lincoln to admit the centrality of the slavery issue, and he initiated a process of enlisting black troops and proclaiming emancipation. It is doubtful the Union would have prevailed without the participation of 200,000 black soldiers.

    Yet black troops still had to contend with widespread hostility and discrimination in pay and promotion. Military service commands respect and confers rights and privileges, and Painter details the sometimes-heartbreaking struggles of African-Americans in our country's major wars since the Civil War.

    "Among blacks' reactions to the white supremacist violence that ushered in the Jim Crow era were the creation of schools, businesses and other institutions to sustain them during extraordinarily oppressive times. But the protest impulse never disappeared. Black Nationalism - as disparaged as it is misunderstood - has deep roots in African American history."

    Artists—like historians, like ordinary people—sift the past to make sense of it for our times. Through word and image, Nell Irvin Painter has produced a narrative of African-American history that will profit its readers.

    Kenneth R. Janken is a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of "White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP."

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  • Booklist, September 15, 2005
    "Painter, a Princeton professor of history, integrates art and history in this fascinating book, filled with powerful images of black art from photographs to paintings to quilts that tell the story of black America. The book begins with the history and imagery of slavery through the Civil War and emancipation, then traces the cultural influences of the civil rights movement, the black power era, and ends with the hip-hop era. Through each period, Painter offers historical context for the artistic expressions and examines how more contemporary sensibilities shaped remembrances of historical events. She explores the ways that context and historical interpretation influence the artist's perspective and is subject to great variation over time. Although most of the works presented were created after the mid-twentieth century, they reflect a broader historical span as black artists have attempted to fill in the void of black images from earlier American history. Readers interested in black American art and history will appreciate this beautiful and well-researched book." --Vernon Ford

  • "Nell Irvin Painter is a towering intellectual figure and pre-eminent historian in American life. This overarching narrative is the best we have that makes sense of the doings and sufferings of black people from 1619 to 2005." --Cornel West, Princeton University

  • "A brilliant historian, Nell Irvin Painter has written an innovative account of African Americans from the colonial era to our own. She challenges us to think critically about the historical meanings conveyed via artistic creations. In other words, Creating Black America offers a new way of knowing, imagining, and visualizing the past of our present." --Darlene Clark Hine, co-author of The African-American Odyssey

  • "There is a philosopher's axiom, 'To be is to be perceived.' Nell Painter's fascinatingly significant Creating Black Americans captures its subject-matter through the self-images people of color have produced over time. She has written a critical history of self-perception that deserves wide review and lively discussion." --David Levering Lewis, University Professor and Professor of History, New York University

  • "Utilizing her pathbreaking approach to historical writing, a hallmark in her brilliant career, Nell Painter interweaves straight-forward narrative with the vivid portraits of black artists to record how an unloved people created a vibrant but still endangered black America." --Derrick Bell, author of Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform

  • "From the Triangle Trade to Russel Simmons, this comprehensive review of African American history is a lively, lucid and indispensable resource. Nell Painter is our foremost chronicler of the black experience in the United States." --Patricia Williams, Columbia University School of Law

  • From Publishers Weekly
    "This new study by Princeton historian Painter (Standing at Armageddon, etc.) aims not merely to provide an updated scholarly account of African-American history, but to enrich our understanding of it with the subjective views of black artists, which she places alongside the more objective views of academics. The result is a book that contains both a compelling narrative and numerous arresting images, but that does not always successfully tie the two together. To be fair, Painter is a historian, not an art critic. Her primary purpose in including artworks is to illustrate historical points and to show black Americans as creators of their own history. Nevertheless, readers will likely be frustrated by the lack of analysis accompanying the images—Painter simply summarizes most of the art works, leaving much of their complexity and ambiguity unexplored. Thus, she inadvertently diminishes their power as complicated pieces of individual expression. Painter is clearly adept at writing straightforward history, however, and on this front the book is lucid, engaging and topical. It does an excellent job revealing both the African and the American dimensions of African-American history. And her work has the additional merit of following the past into the present, tracing the history of black Americans all the way up to the hip-hop era, the controversies surrounding black voters in the 2000 presidential election and the ongoing issues of incarceration and health care. 148 images, 4 maps. (Nov.)
    Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."
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