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

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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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