Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The History of White People

Nell Irvin Painter is out with a must-read new book, The History of White People.  Painter's resume is impressive.  Award-winning author of many books, including Sojourner Truth, Southern History Across the Color Line, Creating Black Americans, and Standing at Armageddon, Painter currently serves as Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University and lives in Newark, New Jersey.

Here's just a taste of what's in store for anyone who engages this challenging history:

Our story begins in Greek and Roman antiquity where the concept of race did not exist, only geography and the opportunity to conquer and enslave others.  Not until the eighteenth century did an obsession with whiteness flourish, with the German invention of the notion of Caucasian beauty.  This theory made northern Europeans into "Saxons," "Anglo-Saxons," and "Teutons," envisioned as uniquely handsome natural rulers. 

Here was a worldview congenial to northern Europeans bent on empire.  There followed an explosion of theories of race, now focusing on racial temperament as well as skin color.  Spread by such intellectuals as Madame de Stael and Thomas Carlyle, white race theory soon reached North America with a vengeance.  Its chief spokesman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, did the most to label Anglo-Saxons--icons of beauty and virtue--as the only true Americans.  It was an ideal that excluded not only blacks but also all ethnic groups not of Protestant, northern European background.  The Irish and Native Americans were out and, later, so were the Chinese, Jews, Italians, Slavs, and Greeks--all deemed racially alien.  Did immigrants threaten the very existence of America?  Americans were assumed to be white, but who among poor immigrants could truly become American?  A tortured and convoluted series of scientific explorations developed--theories intended to keep Anglo-Saxons at the top:  the ever-popular measurement of skulls, the powerful eugenics movement, and highly biased intelligence tests--all designed to keep working people out and down.

Click on the book's title above to order you a copy or visit your public library to check it out.


Anonymous said...

"Click on the book's title above to order you a copy or visit your public library to check it out"


Larry James said...

No, I'm not kidding at all. Dr. Painter is a highly respected historian and merits our attention. I first encountered her scholarship while working on a PhD in American history at Tulane U. Not sure what your statement implies. It could be that you, like others, refuse to allow yourself to be exposed to this sort of careful analysis and understanding. The unwillingness to reflect on differing perspectives, especially concerning others and their own life story, is unproductive and short sighted to say the least. So, I'll say again: read the book.