Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Nell Irvin Painter’s understanding of America is beautiful and bracing. We should listen.

“I Just Keep Talking: A Life in Essays,” by Nell Irvin Painter  (Doubleday)
By Robin Givhan Washington Post

From the opening sentences of her new collection, “I Just Keep Talking: A Life in Essays,” historian Nell Irvin Painter addresses readers in a voice brimming with knowledge, clarity and, most delightfully, confidence. As she writes, it would have been a terrible thing had she died young, “during the full-blown era of White-male-default segregation, discrimination, and disappearance that wound down only yesterday. I would have disappeared from memory, just another forgotten Black woman scholar, invisible to history and to histography.” And poor readers would have been deprived of her droll wit and self-assured wisdom.

It’s no small thing that in an era filled with grievances based on injuries that are sometimes profound and often perceived, Painter makes it clear that she has not come to this memoir to reclaim a lost or damaged part of herself. She recounts her response to an admirer who once inquired about what she did for healing. “‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I’m not broken.’ Not broken, but on occasion frustrated, indignant - self-righteously - pissed off with cause, often exhausted, but mostly and permanently grateful for the people who have protected me, mentored me, supported me over so many decades.” This is an invigorating introduction, full of certainty and strength. Painter has moved through her professional life always knowing her worth, never doubting her intelligence and believing that those who might refuse to listen to her insight would be lesser for their decision.

Perhaps it requires a historian to fully grasp the importance - or at least the impact - of telling one’s own story with a certain brio. Painter, 81, is an esteemed historian retired from Princeton University who studied painting later in life, including at the Rhode Island School of Design. (She wrote about that experience in an earlier memoir, “Old in Art School.”) The essays in “I Just Keep Talking,” which reflect upon the meaning of “Whiteness,” our understanding of enslavement and the power of nuance, among other subjects, are accompanied by her artwork, which sometimes amplifies her words and sometimes stands in their stead. It is a beautiful book. But its power ultimately rests in the sentences, not the pictures.

In some cases, Painter turns her attention to long-ago history, such as the legacy of Sojourner Truth. She informs readers that the 19th-century abolitionist and women’s rights activist did not utter the most famous phrase attributed to her: “Ain’t I a woman?” If Truth had, in fact, asked the question, Painter says, society’s answer would have been “no.” The answer not only would have reflected the circumstances of the times but would have undercut the way in which Truth understood her power and the skill with which she used it.

The Truth sketched by Painter, in an essay from 1994, is more complex than the one who has been reduced to a misattributed slogan. Truth eschewed the trappings of intellectualism and freedom as used by orator Frederick Douglass, and built her “public persona to establish that what had happened to her - her enslavement, rather than her reason – lent her a unique wisdom.”

Painter’s assessment of Truth is searing, sad and deeply revealing to a lay reader. Truth understood a reality of her time, which is that “in the eyes of most 19th century Americans to be both memorable and woman at the same time simply was not possible. Black women’s individual experience had either to be reconstructed as something emblematically Negro – that is, as enslaved – or to be erased.”

As always, understanding our history means understanding ourselves. We carry our history with us: what we’ve learned in textbooks, what has been burnished in familial oral histories and what has been prettied up by politicians. Painter reminds us of history’s complications and subtleties. She encourages civilians – not just activists or academics – to ask all the pertinent questions, even the uncomfortable ones or those that are contrary to our individual politics and preferences.

What did slavery do to those who were in bondage? But also, what did it do to those who enforced it? Painter is insistent in her refusal to cave to the “national hunger for simplifying history.” She is a dogged corrector of the public record. She has even included in this book a letter to the editor she had published in the New Yorker in 2022, in which she carefully disentangles Truth from the famous slogan.

Painter does not limit her sharp critiques to distant ancestors and abolished institutions; she considers still-vibrant personalities and more recent upheavals. She takes us back to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991, during which Anita Hill, in the pre-#MeToo era, testified to Thomas’s sexual harassment of her. Painter highlights the way in which Thomas forced Hill into the role of spoiler of circumstances that were not yet a fait accompli.

“In a struggle between himself and a woman of his same race, Thomas executed a deft strategy,” Painter writes. “He erected a tableau of White-Black racism that allowed him to occupy the position of the race. By reintroducing concepts of White power, Thomas made himself into the Black person in his story. Then, in the first move of a two-step strategy, he cast Anita Hill into the role of Black woman as traitor to the race.”

Painter continues: “The most common formula expressing minority status is ‘women and Blacks.’ As the emblematic woman is White and the emblematic Black is male, Black women generally are not as easy to comprehend symbolically.”

The racial and gender dynamics that were evident during that 20th-century Shakespearean drama continue to resonate in this century. Black music mogul Sean Combs faces accusations of harassment and violence by women over whom he wielded power. Justice Thomas remains a controversial figure, facing scrutiny over his ethics on the bench and questions about potential conflicts of interest. And Hill has become a revered standard-bearer of a new generation of women who have spoken their truth under daunting circumstances, including Christine Blasey Ford during the 2018 confirmation hearings of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

History simply refuses to remain in the past.

Painter is also the author of “The History of White People” (2010), an exploration of how and why certain individuals were sorted into that racial category. Its sweeping audacity left some observers bemused, not by what it said about our construction of race but by the skin color of the woman who wrote it. Painter has swagger. And in this memoir, she takes advantage of all the privileges of a historian to take an arm’s-distance look at a people, not just those who look like her. She explains Whiteness and how the concept politically evolved during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Whiteness had always been the default, the standard against which all others were measured. Social and political acceptability were based on how closely one hewed to the White ideal. To claim Whiteness as an identity, however, was problematic, because those who did so were white nationalists and supremacists. They were members of the Ku Klux Klan. White pride was a political hand grenade.

“What the time of Trump does for us now is make White Americans visible as raced Americans, as raced counterparts to Black Americans. Long-standing assumptions - that only non-Whites have racial identities, that White Americans are individuals who only have race if they’re Nazis or White nationalists - those assumptions no longer hold,” Painter writes in an essay from 2018. “I’m turning the glass around to focus on what living in a slave society did to non-Black Americans and to the society as a whole.”

Painter puts muscle and heart into history so that her readers can easily, but thoughtfully, draw the lines between past and present. Her history is inclusive, not in a pandering or self-consciously correct way, but because her artful telling of it is full of complexity that’s both beautiful and bracing.

“Once we can write the words ‘trauma’ and ‘slavery’ in the same sentence, we will have enriched our understanding of slavery’s human costs, for enslaved, enslavers, and bystanders,” she writes.

In her memoir, Painter offers an intellectual history of herself, but also a history of us. We’re lucky that she continues to talk. What she has to say can help us more fully understand ourselves – but only if we’re willing to listen.