My Conversation With Legendary Historian & Artist Nell Painter: A Must Read Interview For Black Women

February 28, 2013  |  

Nell: So when I met you, you were holding tight to these categories as if to say if I don’t hold tight to these categories I’ll just ooze out.

Zahra: (laughter). Oh my. Yes, that’s me! So what do you say to black women like me who get nervous when Oprah gains weight or when other black women bash Gabby Douglas? Of course I beam with pride when things are going right. Do you have any empathy for my community-above-the-individual soul?

Nell: First of all, I would not dare offer any kind of recommendation unless someone came to me just as you had. What I have to say to you, Zahra, is not what I might have to say to somebody else. But the big thing is, and this sounds so new age, you’re the one who decides how you’re going to think about yourself. It is a struggle.

Zahra: Is it a struggle for you?

Nell: Absolutely.

Zahra: How do you stay so disciplined?

Nell: It’s like every day I say to myself, “I’m not going to go there; I’m not going to engage that.” But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t creep in.

Zahra: That it’s not at the door.

Nell: Right. I mean I have to hold myself down in my Facebook page when people throw up atrocities.

Zahra: What do you mean by that?

Nell: They pull up some horrible thing some racist or some Republican has said and say “see how much they hate us!” And I think, “why are you circulating this thing?” I actually did say that one time…somebody had a picture of a gruesome lynching and said we must never forget. I wrote “Forget.” Forget…because it is so depressing. Talk about a strategy to keep you from daring to do what you want to do!

Zahra: But, how do we…?

Nell: Just stop.

Zahra: Wait, I have to get a shot of your socks (laughter).

Nell: If (the reader) looks at these socks, they will not have to worry (about forgetting).

Zahra: (more laugher). I love this because you know I’m smart enough to know that it’s this narrative of lack that is a window always to inequality—what I tell myself about the experience of being black.

Nell: I mean, it’s a continual struggle.

Zahra: So remember what I said about feeling a certain way when something happens to a black woman or a black person?

Nell: Yes.

Zahra: So you honestly don’t have these reactions.

Nell: I don’t have a strong visceral reaction. It’s not that it’s nothing but it’s not “oh my god this is going to ruin my day.”

Zahra: It’s not confirmation of a permanent weight or condition.

Nell: Right…that it will never get better. That is one of the meanest, slyest tricks of white supremacy…of reinforcing ideas like: “we hate you,” “they hate you”; “things will never change.”

Zahra: Yup. I sang the whenever we catch up, they change the rules song.

Nell: When I was teaching…I started teaching at Princeton in southern history, and I would say to my students you all know about the K-K-K. Have you ever heard of Lillian Smith? And they’d say “huh?” See, there is another narrative in southern history; it’s not as bloody, and before the Civil Rights Movement it’s not as effective, but the Civil Rights Movement could not have happened without allies. So there have always been some black people and non-black people who have stood up to white supremacy. We need to know about them as well as about the atrocities and the terrorists.

Zahra: Right.

Nell: So there is this anti-racist strand that gets disappeared as we constantly reinforce the atrocity story. That’s how white supremacy works and keeps going.

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  • Jean

    Painter has a beautiful way of thinking, but I’m not sure that I can follow in her footsteps. I think of what she calls “categories” as always already there. We live in a world where categories pre-exist, and it’s up to us collectively to be able to understand how they originate and how we are impacted by them as a society.

  • Meyaka

    I can’t commit to this right now but I will read it when I get to my desktop tonight.

  • Sean Singer

    This is a terrific interview. It’s great to have an intellectual conversation and not just garbage about celebrities. People should be citizens and not just consumers.

  • Demetrois

    Thank you for introducing me to Nell
    Painter. My criticism of this article is that it offered me no new
    insight in how a black person/woman can negotiate what I like to call
    the “mind-field” which is American culture, without losing my darn mind.
    I believe I was secretly hoping you would move from abstract to
    concrete examples of how Ms. Painter “arrived” so to speak.
    Understanding that race is a social construct (never mind that you never
    touch on the implications of such construct), that you should know
    yourself, see yourself though your own eyes and controlling our visceral
    responses when faced with blatant racism/sexism, etc. are all wonderful advice. However, I would like to propose that most people already know this and practice it daily. Nevertheless, this was a very worthwhile read if for
    no other reason other than I was just introduced to Nell Painter. Thanks