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Painter, Nell Irvin

Painter, Nell Irvin

August 2, 1942


The daughter of Frank Edward and Dona McGruder Donato Irvin, historian Nell Irvin Painter was born in Houston, Texas, but grew up in Oakland, California. She attended the University of California at Berkeley, including a year of study at the University of Bordeaux, France, where she discovered a love of history that influenced her approach to her major in anthropology. After graduation in 1964 she joined her parents in the Ghana of Kwame Nkrumah. In Ghana she taught French at the Ghana Institute of Languages and began graduate study at the University of Ghana's Institute of African Studies. Painter remained in Ghana for two years, leaving after a coup d'état deposed Nkrumah. She returned to graduate study and completed a master's degree in African history at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1967.

Painter completed her Ph.D. in U.S. history at Harvard University in 1974. Alfred A. Knopf published her dissertation under the title Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction in January 1977 (copyrighted 1976). She was promoted to a tenured associate professorship in history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977. Two years later Harvard University Press published her biography of Hosea Hudson, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South. In 1980 Painter joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a full professor of history. In 1986 W. W. Norton published her first general history of the United States, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 18771919. These three books represent her writing as a social/labor historian. In 1988 Painter became a professor of history at Princeton University. She remained at Princeton until her retirement in 2005, becoming the Edwards Professor of American History in 1992 and serving as director of the Program in African-American Studies from 1997 to 2000.

In the mid-1980s Painter undertook a self-education in women's history, feminist theory, and psychology, which resulted in her essays on several women, including the plantation mistress Gertrude Thomas (1990); a biography, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996); and Penguin Classic editions of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1998) and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (2000). In 2002 the University of North Carolina Press published her collected essays as Southern History Across the Color Line.

Painter's later books represent a break from southern history. Creating Black Americans (2005) presents the history of African Americans from 1619 to the present, illustrated by the work of black artists. In 2005 Painter was also working on books concerning what Americans and Europeans have said about white identity, and concepts of beauty as related to sex appeal and prestige.

Throughout her academic career Painter gained several honors. As an undergraduate she was on the dean's list and in Mortar Board. As a graduate student, she received the Coretta Scott King Award of the American Association of University Women and a Ford Foundation Fellowship for the writing of a dissertation in minority studies. As an assistant professor, she was a fellow of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History and the Radcliffe/Bunting Institute. As an associate professor, Painter was a fellow at the National Humanities Center and a Guggenheim Fellow. As a full professor, she was a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to several other fellowships, she has received honorary doctorates from such institutions as Wesleyan University, Dartmouth College, the State University of New York at New Paltz, and Yale University. Radcliffe College and the University of California at Berkeley have honored her as a distinguished alumna. She has served the learned societies of the historical profession in several capacities, including as national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, president of the Southern Historical Association, and president of the Organization of American Historians.

See also Biography, U.S.; Historians/Historiography

Bibliography

Painter, Nell. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Painter, Nell. The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Painter, Nell. Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 18771919. New York: Norton, 1987.

Painter, Nell. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York: Norton, 1996.

Painter, Nell. Southern History Across the Color Line. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

crystal n. feimster (2005)

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Painter, Nell Irvin 1942–

Nell Irvin Painter 1942

Historian; educator, author

Traveled Abroad

Obtained a Doctoral Degree

Became an Author

Sources

Nell Irvin Painter is a noted historian and author who specializes in late 19th and early 20th century American history. She is particularly interested in the experiences of African Americans, women, and the poor and working classes, people who have traditionally been excluded from positions of power. Her books include an examination of African American migration to Kansas during the 1870s, a narrative history of the United States from the end of Reconstruction through World War I, and a biography of legendary feminist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Painter explained to Randall Rothenberg of the New York Times Book Review that her historical subjects are not the dispossessed! Theyre most Americans! Its like calling blacks or women special interests. Im talking about the lives and concerns of the majority! Painters vibrant personality, provocative writing style, meticulous research methods, and wide range of interests have earned her a reputation among her colleagues as a force to be reckoned with. Thadious M. Davis, an English professor at Brown University, told Karen J. Winkler of The Chronicle of Higher Education. What always strikes me about Nell is her intellectual energy and curiosity. That makes her move into new areasbut its also exhausting.

Painter was born in Houston, I Texas in 1942. When she was If an infant, her parents moved to I Oakland, California. In the early 1940s, California offered well paying defense industry jobs and was less racially segregated than Texas. Overall it was freer and easier. For one thing, we didnt have to sit on the back of the buses. We went to stores. You could try on hats, or clothes or dresses or anything you wanted to. And that was mostly forbidden in Houston, Painters mother, Dona Irvin, told Randall Kenan in Walking on Water. Following the end of World War II Painters father, Frank Irvin, became an administrator in the department of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. Her mother was a housewife who later became an educational personnel officer.

Traveled Abroad

As a teenager, Painter attended Oakland Technical High School and was active in youth programs at the Downs Methodist Church. She maintained a good academic record, and welcomed opportunities to augment

At a Glance

Born on August 2, 1942 in Houston, TX, daughter of Dona McGruder (a personnel officer) and Frank Edward Irvin (a chemist); married Colin Painter, 1965, married Glenn R. Shafer, 1989-. Education: University of California at Berkeley, B.A., 1964; University of California at Los Angeles, M.A., 1967; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Ph.D., 1974; also attended the University of Bordeaux, France, 1962-63, and the University of Ghana, 1965-66.

Career: University of Pennsylvania, assistant professor, 1974-77; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, associate professor of American and Afro-American history, 1978-80, professor of history, 1980-88; Princeton University, professor of history, 1988-91, Edwards professor of American history, 1991-; author of Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction, 1976; The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South, 1979; Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919, 1987; Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, 1996.

Awards: Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, 1976-77; John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, 1982-83; Black Alumni Club, University of California, Berkeley, Alumnus of the Year, 1989; American Antiquarian Society, Peterson Fellowship, 1991; National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, 1992-93.

Addresses: Office Princeton University, History Dept., Princeton, NJ, 08544-1017.

her formal studies with reading, travel, and visits to museums, concerts, and theatrical performances. As a student at the University of California at Berkeley, Painter majored in anthropology in order to pursue her interest in the culture of Africa and the African Diaspora. She did not take courses in American history, believing that historical approaches of the time failed to adequately address the actualities of American life, especially with regard to racial issues. Painter spent the summer of 1962 in Nigeria as a part of an American student program that was designed to assist in raising the standard of living in various African countries. From Nigeria, Painter traveled to France and spent her junior year at the University of Bordeaux. She then returned to Berkeley to complete her undergraduate studies.

After receiving her bachelors degree, Painter traveled to Ghana to attend a post-baccalaureate program at the University of Ghanas Institute of African Studies. While in Ghana, she was exposed to historical scholarship that included studies of imperialism, class consciousness, and the economic aspects of political issues. Painters experiences in Ghana sparked a newfound interest in history. She returned to the United States and earned a masters degree in history at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1967. Painter then enrolled in a doctorate program at Harvard University, in part because her parents encouraged further education and were willing to pay for it. While at Harvard, she gradually shifted her focus from African to American history. I dont think Harvard ever knew just how little history I knew. Im sure my spotty background has a lot to do with my odd pattern of writing history: Ive never been properly formed as a historian, Painter told Winkler.

Obtained a Doctoral Degree

Painters doctoral dissertation examined the post-Civil War migration of freed African Americans from the South to settlements in Kansas. These former slaves settled in Kansas to escape racist laws that were put in place by state legislatures in the South. The freedpeoples struggle was against what they saw as actual or effective reenslavement. And in fact, the forces ruling their states after Reconstruction did set about constructing a set of laws that would make and keep nearly all of them a powerless, immobilized, landless agricultural work force. The impulse to flee came from the conditions that freedpeople lived in and that they anticipated for the futureFirst and foremost, this is a study of the grass roots that seeks to delve into and explain the meaning of economic and political emancipation for the masses of Southern Blacks after the Civil War, Painter wrote in the introduction to Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction, a book version of the dissertation originally published in 1976 and reprinted with a new introduction in 1986.

Following completion of her doctoral studies in 1974, Painter accepted a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania. Although she proudly acknowledged that she had obtained the position through the help of affirmative action, Painter believed that it had little bearing on her qualifications for the job. Admitting that you have been helped by affirmative action is usually tantamount to admitting deficiency. To hear people talk, affirmative action exists only to employ and promote the otherwise unqualified, but I dont see it that way at allI had worked hard as a graduate student and had written a decent dissertation. I knew foreign languages, had traveled widely and had taught and published. I thought I had been hired because I was a promising young historian, Painter wrote in an article published by the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, adding that Without affirmative action, it never would have occurred to any large, white research university to consider me for professional employment, despite my qualifications.

Became an Author

In her second book, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson, Painter recounted the experiences of an African American steel worker who was a union organizer and Communist Party operative in Alabama from the 1930s through the 1950s. The book, which Painter wrote after sifting through hours of taped interviews with the semi-literate Hudson, is an oral biography which resembles the slave narratives of the 19th century. I wanted to write southern social history using Hudsons life as an illustrationHe is a unique informant, an expressive representative of the unlettered workforce that built the new urban South and peopled its cities, Painter wrote in the books introduction. Critics enthusiastically embraced The Narrative of Hosea Hudson. Moving, fearful and funny, Hudson and Painters Narrative is as valuable an American life as has ever been wrested from anonymity, wrote Benita Eisler in The Nation. Painters own political views fall short of Hudsons radical activism. Im not a real leftist. As a kind of wishy, washy liberal, I feel my doing is my writing, Painter explained to Rothenberg.

In her 1987 book Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919, Painter examined the impact of industrialization on the American working class. In the forty-two years this book covers, the United States traded the fears and struggles of a mostly rural, fundamentally agrarian society for the fears and struggles of one that was largely urban and industrial, Painter wrote in the books preface, adding that My central concern is politics, which is where and how citizens of a democracy express public concerns. But I have not written a political history in the sense that historians have defined the genreThis is mostly a hybrid political-labor history, but it also pays attention to social changes such as the temperance crusade and the entry of women into political life. In his review of Standing at Armageddon for the New York Times Book Review, historian Charles Tully wrote that Painter lets the leaders of American popular movements speak for themselves. She offers a narrative of politics emphasizing swings from prosperity to depression, transformations of American capitalism, successive Presidential campaigns and Presidencies, major social movements and their issuesShe does dispel any thought that unruly protest is un-American, that the normal state of the American polity from the 1870s to the 1920s was civic obedience or that absorption of Americans in the pursuit of material gain in those years made them immune to appeals for radical action.

Painter firmly believes that African American women, because they must contend with both race and gender issues, occupy their own special position in American society. According to Painter, African American women have been marginalized by a white-dominated womens movement and a male-dominated African American civil rights struggle. Because black women have been harder than men to fit into cliches of race, we often disappearDisregarded or forgotten or, when remembered, misconstrued, the symbolic history of black women has not functioned in the same way as the symbolic history of black men. If the reality of the Scottsboro boys and other black men accused of rape showed that the charge was liable to be false and thereby tempered the stereotype, the meaning of the history of black women as victims of rape has not yet penetrated the American mind, Painter wrote in the essay Hill, Thomas, and the Use of Racial Stereotype, which is included in her 1992 book Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality.

Painters interest in the effects of race and gender inspired her to write a biography of the 19th century abolitionist and feminist, Sojourner Truth. She claimed that the idea to write a biography of Truth came from Truth herself. Sojourner came to me and told me to write it. I hadnt decided what my next project would be. I heard a voice saying, Write about me! And it was her voice, Painter explained to Jill Petty of Ms. Writing the book, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, was a difficult task for Painter. It was hard to assemble facts about Truths life because she had spent the first 30 years of her life in slavery, and few accounts of slave life were recorded. Also, since Truth was illiterate, she did not leave any dairies or letters that could provide a glimpse into her life. Painter spent much of the book exploring how Truth was used, both during her life and after her death, as a symbol and how the meaning of that symbol has changed over the years. She told Petty that in recent decades the complexities of Truths personality have been flattened out by whites and blacks to create this strong, unafraid, sassy black woman. In place of a heroic, vulnerable, and brilliant individual, weve created an icon to suit our own needs. Painter has little regard for the alterations to Truths character. In the obituaries that appeared after her death [in 1883], one word kept coming up: intelligent. Todays stereotype of black women is one of militance. Its angry, sassy, castrating, but not intelligent.[which] takes away a part of our humanity, Painter told Donna Britt of the Washington Post.

Painters biography of Truth was well received by most reviewers. Brenda E. Stevenson of Emerge called the book an important contribution to American history, a stimulating monograph about a fascinating woman. Loretta H. Campbell in QBR: The Black Book Review declared that the book is a biography that yields not only insight into the real life and the symbolism of Sojourner Truth, but into her family, community, and colleagues.

In 1997, when Congress agreed to relocate a statue of three white 19th century suffragists Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony from the basement of the Capitol to the more prestigious Capitol Rotunda, Painter gave her support to a campaign by the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCBW) to halt the move. Led by C. DeLores Tucker, the NPCBW objected to the statue because it did not include Sojourner Truth, the leading African American suffragist of the 19th century. They charged that the absence of Truth implied that the womens suffrage movement was an entirely white undertaking. As Painter told Britt, a statue that included Truth would acknowledge that black women existed in the nineteenth century, and not just as victims.

Painters study of the visual representations of Sojourner Truth spurred her interest in her next project, which is a study of the concepts of beauty and how they are developed by and transmitted to society. Painter explained to Petty, I want to enter this raging discussion of beauty, and whether or not beauty is simply determined by genetics, as many people are now arguing. What about the impact of fashion, ideology, social movements, and photography, the medium through which we usually consume beauty? Isnt it a bit more complicated than having symmetrical features?

Painter has taught history at Princeton University since 1988, after nearly a decade at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She married Glenn R. Shafer, a professor of business, in 1989. An earlier marriage to Colin Painter, a teacher of linguistics, ended in divorce. Her spare time activities include swimming and knitting. Despite being a respected historian, Painter admitted that she sometimes feels uncomfortable, Maybe thats a reaction to always feeling that Im on display. People ask me what its like to be an educated black person. Its tiring-l feel like Im always being judged, she told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sources

Books

Kenan, Randall. Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Notable Black American Women, Book I. Jessie Carney Smith, editor. Gale Research, 1992.

Race-ing, Justice, En-gendering Power. Toni Morrison, editor. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Periodicals

Black Issues in Higher Education, November 3, 1994, p. 24.

Chronicle of Higher Education, September 13, 1996, p. A18-19.

Emerge, October 31, 1996, p. 74.

Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Autumn 1996, p. 127-129.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 15, 1995, April 5, 1995.

Ms., January-February 1997, p. 78.

New York Times Book Review, September 22, 1996, sect. 7, p. 29.

QBR: The Black Book Review, February 28, 1997, p. 16.

Washington Post, September 15, 1996, Book World, p. 9; May 2, 1997, p. B1.

Mary Kalfatovic

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