THE BLOG
06/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Nell Painter's History of White People : It's Coming to an End

Nell Painter and I seem to have opposite takes on the great Ralph Waldo Emerson. In The History of White People, she makes Emerson "the philosopher king of American white race theory." On the contrary, I say he was one of the inventors of transnational, transracial America. Before there was a "melting pot," Emerson coined the phrase "smelting pot." Granted: he prized inconsistency. But in his Journal in 1845, Emerson wrote resoundingly:

I hate the narrowness of the Native American Party. It is the dog in the manger. It is precisely opposite to all the dictates of love and magnanimity; and therefore, of course, opposite to true wisdom... Man is the most composite of all creatures... Well, as in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed; so in this continent - asylum of all nations -- the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes - of the Africans and of the Polynesians -- will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages, or that which earlier emerged from Pelasgic and Etruscan barbarism. 'La Nature aime les croisements' [Or: 'Nature loves hybrids'].

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Journal, 1845.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, we are having a cordial time here -- click to listen to our conversation:

A prolific historian recently emerita at Princeton, now pursuing an MFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, Ms. Painter in this big new book flips the ethnographic mirror on white America. Now that we are all supposed to have absorbed the genomics of it -- that "race" is a social concept, not a scientific one; a construction, not a fact -- she is asking: who invented "whiteness" as a human category? (Answer: Germans thought up the theory. Brits refined the practice.) Who expanded and shrank that slice of the species over the years? It's old news, of course, that "white" came to be code for Anglo-Saxon beauty, intelligence and power. But in 2010 the icons of American beauty, intelligence and power are our radiant brown President and his darker-skinned wife, First Lady Michelle Obama.

The gift in Barack Obama's rise, Nell Painter suggests, is not least the affirmation that "mixed ancestry is an old story in America." It is Nell Painter's story, too. "People like Barack Obama have always been with us; we haven't always been able to see them as bi-racial people." Now we do.

It interests me that unlike Henry Louis Gates in his Faces of America PBS series, Nell Painter has not tested her DNA and finds that "roots" inquiry meaningless. It tells her only that "we're all related, but I knew that... What I am is what my parents made me, and what I have made of myself. I am not my biology. Your biology is not you."

The species, she says, is breeding its way to another history and another understanding.

NP: Anybody can be racialized. We have manifold choices in human difference. So we could build a race on the shape of the nose; in the nineteenth and century century, races were built on the shape of the head. So you can use anything. And whether it's what we see as a big difference or what we now see as a small difference, the point is to show that the people who are at the bottom, who do the dirty work--paid, unpaid--are there because of something inside them, intrinsic in them, and permanent.

CL: Phrenology, of course, the shapes of heads, has been exploded many times. We come to the age of the genome, and a realization, which I think is pretty common now, that we're all almost exactly the same stuff, and the human brain is almost everywhere the same thing. I think of it as a kind of universal carburetor that was tested and proven, evolved and improved, and then sent out from East Africa -- what, 50 or 75 thousand years ago.

NP: And the point is that they kept walking, and they kept migrating. People have not stopped moving. People are still moving, they're still meeting, they're still having sex, and they're still having babies. And their babies are growing up and having more sex...

Nell Irvin Painter in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 29, 2010.

In our children and grandchildren, it seems, The History of White People is dissolving.

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