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Creating Black Americans

Nell Painter, author of Creating Black Americans: African-American History & Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present was a winner of the 22nd annual Myers Outstanding Book Awards, which recognize exemplary works that challenge social injustices, erase histories, and the pessimism that says change is impossible. Below is Painter’s acceptance letter.

This article first appeared in the Gustavus Myers Center’s Winter 2007 newsletter.

I’m honored by the Myers Award and delighted that the reviewers saw in my book what I hoped readers would get: the relationships between text and images and between trauma and black-americans.jpgcreativity.

In one sense the history of people of African descent in the United States breaks your heart. The sheer magnitude of this history’s violence — forced exile, enslavement, poverty, segregation, and discrimination — tests readers’ powers of empathy. Mere perusal of so much damage can induce a kind of depression. But I wanted my readers to know that African-American history isn’t just trauma. Amazingly, black people have continually transcended pain and produced incredible beauty. The beauty isn’t limited to visual art, which I focused on. But I faced a reality of page limitation: I couldn’t write one single book that would give poetry, creative writing, dance, music, and all the other arts their due. I hope my book will inspire readers to forge closer acquaintance with the work of black artists of all media.

Creating Black Americans received a warm reception, first as a coffee table art book, then as a narrative history. I’m glad its illustrations reach out to people not necessarily drawn to historical detail. My academic colleagues have sent me their appreciation of the text as well as the images. Their response gratifies the historian in me deeply.

The historian is still in me, but she now takes a back seat to the undergraduate student. That’s right. I’m now a full-time undergraduate student at the Mason Gross School of the Arts of Rutgers University—the State University of New Jersey. It will be years before I have the skills to produce work worth including in Creating Black Americans. But that day will come.

My BFA program includes the study of art history, which presents me with a conundrum. Like much conventional American historiography, American art history is pretty well segregated: You’d hardly know the professional artists in Creating Black Americans even existed or had to surmount discrimination in order to do their work. As a student I have tried to do my part in desegregating American art history, even as art history figures only as a program requirement, not my main interest. As you can imagine, I see a huge challenge looming before me even before I complete my first year in art school. I will have to resist the inevitable pressure to continue doing with what I know how to do well — write (art) history — and concentrate on learning studio skills I’ve only just begun to acquire.

Another challenge before me lies in alternating between art school during the semester and my outstanding book-writing projects during the breaks. Over the winter break I have been drafting the almost-last chapters of a book W. W. Norton will publish in January 2009, The History of White People. This book turns the epistemology of race on the considerable history of the white races. I concentrate on the 1795-1924 era, when Western intellectuals conceived of the existence of many white races. I end with the third great enlargement of American whiteness, which is going on right now. After a decent interval, I will return to my last book project, Personal Beauty: Biology or Culture. By then I may be able to illustrate it myself.

Meanwhile, please wish me luck with the drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, and alternating work on two sides of my brain!

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