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

February 28, 2013  |  

Nell: So my lesson that I keep coming back to with your various questions is you have to protect yourself against our American culture.

Zahra: Yes.

Zahra: Do you actively celebrate Black History Month?

Nell: No. But I did buy Rosa Parks stamps. And I’m reviewing the new biography of Rosa Parks for the NY Times, but I don’t celebrate Black History Month.

Zahra: Why?

Nell: I know enough black history. I wrote the book.

Zahra: (laughter) Yes, you did. Creating Black Americans. Would you support a Black Women’s History Month?

Nell: Yeah, sure.

Zahra: March is Women’s History Month. I ask that question because you supported the National Political Congress of Black Women regarding adding Sojourner Truth to the statue of white suffragists.

Nell: Yeah. But I think of commemorations as something different from history.

Zahra: Talk about that.

Nell: Commemorations are about our view of our public life, of our society. Every year a chorus of people says we don’t need Black History Month any more, and I say bullshit.

Zahra: So you think Black History Month is for the newest generations?

Nell: It’s for whomever needs it.

Zahra: It’s not passé.

Nell: That’s right. You’re talking to someone who’s 70 years old. I’ve already done a lot of things, and I don’t have to keep doing them. I’m not in the same situation as millions of other Americans.

Zahra: You’ve said two things throughout the years that I think will awaken the spirit of people who hear it. You said that the idea of race is a kind of witchcraft—it’s been clear for a long time that race makes no sense at all, but people still believe in it. That comment of yours is so quietly kept, and when I read it I thought if I was hearing this for the first time it should save my life, the way I think of my life should begin to evolve.

Nell: In working on The History of White People, it helped me see that all of us Americans are implicated in this discourse of race. Black people can be as invested as anybody else in the belief that race is real. I would like all of us to know that it’s a discourse. That it doesn’t have to spin out your thought or your behavior. As Bob Marley said only you can free your mind.

Zahra: That’s great. So the readers of Madame Noire are diverse even as they have checked similar boxes in their lifetimes. So I want a jewel from you to them.

Nell: I want you, and when I say you, I mean you plural, to stop seeing yourselves through other people’s eyes. See yourself through your own eyes. That is absolutely crucial if you’re not going to lose your mind. When the morning comes you have to drink your coffee and not obsess about what American culture thinks of black women.

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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