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

February 28, 2013  |  

Zahra: What can I say, you’re right. So I want to tell you something—I think you’re so pretty, so gorgeous. You’re skin glows. You have a healthy physique. You’re beautiful.

Nell: Yes, my friend was just telling me that, and I always get compliments on my hair.

Zahra: But no interviewer remarks on your beauty. The one sort of exception is Stacey Patton who in the recent article describes your skin color.

Nell: She’s African American.

Zahra: See so I’m not a crank for bringing this up. I feel like you have been interviewed dozens of times you know. Multiple people have had the opportunity to remark on your beauty. I attribute this to the fact that you’re black; I mean sure you are a scholar but men of all kind remark on beautiful white women regardless of profession. What do you think of your beauty?

Nell: It’s true. Nobody ever asked me that before.

Zahra: I can’t believe it because you’re stunning.

Nell: Thank you. That’s really nice. One of the reasons that I can do all of these self-portraits, so many different images of myself, is because I feel like if I did somebody else, especially somebody else African-American, there would be all of these issues: What color are they? How did you do the nose? How did you do the mouth? But I can do myself because I’m OK deep down. I look OK so that if I make myself look funny, it’s fine.

Zahra: I find beauty to be currency. It’s right there for me with power. I went to Spelman for my undergrad….

Nell: You got a big dose of it.

Zahra: If you want to whack yourself you have so many ways to do it. If the people around were OK with my dark skin then I’d start to worry about my features so…

Nell: You’re such a woman.

Nell’s friend Madeleine from the rear of the studio: I want to spank her.

Zahra: (all laughing). I spank myself.

Nell: The thing is it never ends. Have you ever read what models have to say about themselves? They think they’re fat; they find flaws everywhere. It never ends. Did you read Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth?

Zahra: Yes.

Nell: Read it again. If you get hung up on beauty, you go down a rabbit hole. The way society wants you try to get beautiful is to spend money. It’s a racket. A dollar racket.

Zahra: And it’s a message for all of us right?

Nell: Right. No matter what you look like and the only way to get over it is to say to yourself I’m not going to do that, and (the other way is) to get old.

Zahra: I had Glamour and Seventeen subscriptions when I was younger. How engaged are you in the mainstream media?

Nell: Not.

Zahra: Uh huh.

Nell: I remember reading a study about kids…black kids or non-white kids and female kids. The more they watched television the worse they felt about themselves.

Zahra: I don’t know how recent that was but I recall something last year that said the only group television helps is…

Nell and Zahra: White men.

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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