Nell Irvin Painter: Her textbook on black history criticized

Historians in the News

... Anyone who doubts the value of Shelby's criticisms of black cultural identity politics should read Nell Irvin Painter's textbook on African-American history, "Creating Black Americans." With the odd exception of the field of economics, writing textbooks is not an especially prestigious undertaking in the historical and social sciences. So the decision of a distinguished scholar like Painter to publish one is to be welcomed, especially by college students burdened with books churned out by committees and academic hacks.

Painter would seem to be an ideal choice for such a task. Her many important works are models of clarity, especially her beautifully wrought biography of Sojourner Truth. Alas, the same cannot be said of this plodding and distressingly chauvinistic volume. Beginning with a chapter on Africa, it travels the familiar route through the slave trade, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and so on up to the present. Part of Painter's problem is that she tries to cover the whole complex panorama of African-American history in 359 pages, about a third of them taken up with illustrations. There is simply no space to evaluate the relative importance of the events she touches on, or engage the reader with the fascinating moral, cultural, political and intellectual issues raised in the study of them.

The book's main claim to novelty is its reproductions. Painter tells us that she will "share the story" of black history with these artists because, being free from the demands of scholarship, they give us "the emotional dimension of this history."

I was indeed often moved by these black artists' attempts to imagine the hidden depths of suffering as well as the resistance, creative energy and unbroken dignity of their ancestors. But I began to grow uneasy when told that they would "present the unknown greatness of the African-American past." And my unease turned to dismay with Painter's comment that she has excluded virtually all nonblack artists from her selection. Since, according to Painter, there were "pitifully few black artists working before the 1920's," this meant replacing all works done by whites from the 16th century to the 20th with renditions by modern African-Americans. Because of this questionable decision, readers are denied, for example, any of the many fine portraits of Sojourner Truth by contemporaries.

Painter is neither an art historian nor a keen observer of art, so there is really no illuminating dialogue between artist and historian here, of the kind found, say, in Simon Schama's studies of 17th-century Dutch life and culture. Instead, the art works and commentary too often get in the way of the narrative. Thus 7 of the 21 pages devoted to the slave trade are taken up with images and attendant commentary that add little to the subject. Still, "Creating Black Americans" may prove useful to history teachers in fine arts departments and, possibly, to Afro-American studies departments wary of traditional biases in the treatment of the black past.

The assumption throughout this book is that black artists have valuable insights to offer on events and personalities in black history hundreds of years before their time, and that these insights trump the vision of any white artists of the period. The fact that an important scholar could embrace such a view attests, more than anything else, to the dangers of black cultural identity and the urgency of Shelby's overdue critique.

Read entire article at NYT

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