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Back in the Day

The Souls of White Folk

Nell Irvin Painter unpacks the evanescent notion of race in The History of White People.

Book Cover Behind what some readers might consider an audacious, tongue-in-chic title lies a fairly simple thesis about racial taxonomy and historical invention. Historian Nell Irvin Painter’s (Southern History Across the Color Line) new book The History Of White People (WW Norton) argues that “race” is a human contrivance, made malleable by shifting historical circumstances and forces.

Perhaps you can follow historian Painter’s intention from this pronouncement:
I might have entitled this book Construction of White Americans from Antiquity to the Present because it explores a concept that lies within a history of events. I have chosen this strategy because race is an idea, not a fact, and its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm. American history offers up a large bounty of commentary on what it means to be non-white. Moving easily between alterations in the meaning of race and color, from “colored” to “Negro” to “Afro-American” to “black” to “African American,” always associating the idea of blackness with slavery. But little attention has been paid to history’s equally confused and flexible discourses on the white races and the old, old slave trade from eastern Europe.

Let me state categorically that while this is not history in white versus black, I do not by any means underestimate or ignore the importance of black race in America. I am familiar with the truly gigantic literature that explains the meaning, importance and honest-to-god reality of the existence of race when it means black. In comparison with this preoccupation, statutory and biological definitions of white race remain notoriously vague—the leavings of what is not black. But this vagueness does not indicate lack of interest—quite to the contrary, for another vast historical literature much less known today, explains the meaning, importance, and honest-to-god reality of the existence of white races.
Actually, one would do well to skim past Painter’s introduction and statement of her thesis to the rich and significant historical data that she has mined—though it might have been more clear if the book had been more appropriately entitled, The History of White People (in America).
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