Nell Painter, an Ivy League educated woman, has had a very celebrated career. From her published art and literary pieces to her tenure as a professor at Princeton University, this 70 year old Houston, Texas native, has seen and experienced enough to pass along her wisdom to the next generation. In an exclusive interview with MadameNoire writer, Zahra, she shares some of her insight on the imaginary concept of race, succeeding as a black woman and being optimistic. She stops short of kicking Zahra in the butt, trying to get her to grasp certain concepts. You’ll kick yourself if you don’t read all the way through.
This interview takes place at Nell’s Newark, NJ studio.
Zahra: I’m oversimplifying here but you said in 2003, before you retired, that black women scholars are somewhat invisible when it comes to positive recognition. I think black women and positive recognition have a contentious relationship in general.
Nell: I think that’s a very good way of putting it. That it’s a fraught relationship. That black women scholars cannot take recognition for granted even if they do all the things they are supposed to do. But on the other hand, I can’t complain about my career. I had a wonderful career. I was rewarded. So clearly you can’t say that if you do all of the right things no matter what you will not get rewarded. Social scientists say that optimists and pessimists go through the world differently…that pessimists see the world more correctly but optimists get more stuff done because they just keep at it.
Zahra: Uh huh. Wow.
Nell: If you try more, you get more. The other side of it, and this is something that artists say, is if you’re not getting turned down multiple times you’re not making enough applications. Pessimists will say “My god, what are my chances, which are miniscule” and not bother to try. I think that’s the kind of relationship between recognition and black women. That you have to be an optimist to think something’s going to work out and just keep trying because if you concentrate on the really awful actual facts of life, then you’ll just crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head.
Zahra: (laughter). That’s where I end up at times. I want to talk about place. For some reason, place came to me when I was thinking of you. Where do you feel comfortable? I mean it’s hard to feel at home sometimes.
Nell: You know it’s almost a commonplace that we don’t feel at home.
Zahra: The human condition?
Nell: I wouldn’t go that far. But I think it’s an American condition. Part of it has to do with so much migration in our history. So when I think about my friends and myself and my parents, everybody’s got migration/immigration in their past. That just sets us up for feeling either that our roots are shallow or that we have no roots. All of that is to say that I do have a hard time feeling at home.
Zahra: Even you?
Nell: What do you mean even me? (laughs).
Zahra: For me, you’re a celebrity.
Nell: That’s sweet.
Zahra: You know we put our celebrities on a pedestal. So even you! I am taken aback by what I have read of your parents: their intellect, values and longevity. We know that there is a very social reason for inequality and some argue a genetic basis for it, but I wonder if we should not talk more about parenting.
Nell: Well it depends on what the conversation is. The last time we met I kept trying to shake you out of going so quickly and easily into categories because the categories you’re using, the categories Americans use, are so gross. Gross in the sense that you can’t think of yourself in a sophisticated, careful, sensitive way if what you’re saying about yourself or thinking about yourself applies to millions and millions of other people.
Zahra: I mean, Nell, that is so true right—the social construction of race. It just is. It’s so delicious to me, what you just said because I’m a thinker. BUT damn it when I live my life I’m living in these categories, perceptions, taxonomies. We are constantly checking boxes.
Nell: Actually, we are not constantly checking boxes.
Zahra: Hmm. That’s true. I’m thinking job and school applications.
Nell: These are things that you do at most three times a year.