Nell Irvin Painter. Southern History across the Color Line. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 256 pp.
Nell Irvin Painter. Southern History Across the Color Line. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 256 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-5360-3; $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2692-8.
Reviewed by Kate Wittenstein (Department of History, Gustavus Adolphus College)
Published on H-South (July, 2003)
Reflections in Black and White
Reflections in Black and White
The cover illustration of Nell Painter's Southern History across the Color Line provides clues to the themes that bind the six essays of the book together. On the cover is artist Emma Amos's striking reworking of Man Ray's 1926 photograph, Noire et Blanche. Ray shows a white woman holding and glancing sideways at an African ceremonial mask. The mask faces outward. As an object it cannot return her gaze. In Amos's painting, Yo Man Ray Yo, the mask becomes a subject--a woman of African descent. The black and white women reflect upon each other through partially closed eyes. How, over time, have African Americans and whites seen and not seen each other? What roles have gender and class played in framing those visions? How has the color line shaped the ways in which black and white, male and female historians have written about southern history from the mid-twentieth century forward? Given their own subjectivity, what methodologies might historians employ to break through the "habit places [of] intellectual production" that continue to "bisect" the history of the South (p. 1)?
The essays that comprise the volume give us Painter's thoughts (but not firm conclusions) on these questions of historiography, subjectivity, and methodology. For Painter, doing history across the color line requires methodological experimentation. In the introduction, she discusses four approaches that guide her inquiry: two are material considerations--class in and of itself rather than as "handy surrogate" for race, and the physical body as a site of the coercion and torture that maintained slavery in the nineteenth- and white supremacy in the twentieth-century South. Archival research into southern history, Painter states, "throws buckets of blood in the historian's face" (p. 6). Her goal is to make the facts of violence, abuse, torture, and coercion central to the study of the South's past. Painter's third approach seeks out the nonmaterial yet cultural and symbolic realities of patriarchy and white supremacy that created competition between black and white women and "produced psychosexual consequences" (p. 7). Finally, Freud's writings suggest avenues for exploring both white southern historians' obsession with sexuality and black and white southern women's reticence and secretiveness regarding interracial sex.
In "Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting," Painter draws on the historiography of slavery, feminist studies, psychology, and sociology to explore the psychological effects of slavery on children and families. She argues that soul murder is the "depression, lowered self-esteem, and anger" that often result from the kinds of child sexual abuse and domestic violence which were the material realities of day-to day life under slavery and which often impacted families intergenerationally (p. 16). Soul murder can extinguish one's sense of identity. Painter's exploration into psychology and the problem of identity formation within the slave population leads to a reconsideration of the strengths and limitations of Stanley Elkins's 1959 work, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. As a proponent of psychological insight in historical analysis, Painter appreciates Elkins's early yet flawed effort to consider the black experiences under slavery from a psychological standpoint. Indeed, she believes that the backlash against slavery prevented African American historians of the 1970s and 1980s from considering the psychological effects of slavery, thereby contributing to an historiography that inadvertently denied the individuality and the full range of emotional life to those held in bondage.
Painter's second essay, "The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas: A Testament of Wealth, Loss, and Adultery," examines Thomas's diary/autobiography written over a forty-one-year period from 1848 to 1889. The diary casts light on the "emotional costs of the South's peculiar institution on a wife of the planter class" (p. 40). Painter reads the diary's noticeable silences to explore Thomas's psychological make up and the family secrets and denials that accompanied patriarchy and interracial sex under slavery. The mutual gaze of black and white women, here in the form of competition, constitutes a major theme of this essay.
"Three Southern Women and Freud: A Non-Exceptionalist Approach to Race, Class, and Gender in the Slave South" is an interclass analysis of two autobiographical and one fictional text: Gertrude Thomas's diary, Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Sue Petigrue King's mid-nineteenth-century novel Lily. Again, the theme is competition between women black and white and its centrality to "the psychodrama of southern history" (p. 110). Writing across lines of color, race, and class, Painter notes: "The relationship between black and white women through white men deserves to be named, for slavery often made women of different races and classes into co-mothers and co-wives" (p. 108). Writing across the color line, Painter argues, allows us to appreciate southern history in all its "complexity and contradiction starting with family life" and extending to politics and economics (p. 111). She offers James Henry Hammond as a case in point. For Hammond, the personal became political when his wife left him after he took a "second slave wife" (p. 110). The resulting psychological turmoil he experienced had a negative impact on his already faltering political career.
"'Social Equality' and 'Rape' in the Fin-de-Siecle South" unpacks both the symbolic meanings and materialist realities embedded in the rhetoric of "social equality." White elites used the term's symbolism to inextricably link the notion of equal association between the races to the inevitable intermarriage of black men and white women. This rhetoric served to mobilize the white working class to support the Democratic Party at the polls at the same time that it reflected the materialist interest of the white elite by insuring the continued subjugation of the black (and white) working class. In this sense, "social equality" sustained economic as much as racial hierarchy. The essay illustrates the benefits of avoiding the conflation of race and class in southern history. But economic domination was not the only goal of the white supremacists. Painter argues that the rhetoric had sexual and psychological dimensions that "counted fully as much" (p. 117).
"Hosea Hudson: The Life and Times of a Black Communist" tells the story of Hudson's (1898-1988) political development from a Georgia sharecropper to a leading black communist in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1930s through his undying commitment to a united working class movement and his rejection of black power and black nationalism during the 1960s and 1970s. Painter's ability to explain Hudson's ideology, which was remarkably stable over time, benefits from her refusal to conflate race and class in Hudson's life. For instance, the article contains an especially informative discussion of how class functioned within Birmingham's black community in the 1930s and 1940s. For black workers, the Communist Party filled a gap left not only by the absence of unions but also by the close and often exclusionary connection between the NAACP and Birmingham's black elite--an elite whose position was reinforced by housing patterns that effectively segregated them from the black working class. The CP in the south, says Painter, was a "working class black organization, as Hudson's narrative clearly shows" (p. 150).
In both "Hosea Hudson" and in the final essay, "Sexuality and Power in The Mind of the South," Painter reflects most directly on two of the questions posed in her introduction: how can historians break through the "habit places of intellectual production" that "bisect" southern history into black and white, and how does the historian's subjectivity with respect to her/his own class, race, and gender position find expression in the writing of southern history? Painter uses the frank acknowledgement of her own subjectivity to break though those "habit places." At both the beginning and the end of the Hudson essay, she revels in her twelve-year relationship with her subject. The Narrative of Hosea Hudson (1979) was a "labor of love" and remains her "favorite." In writing the book, she resisted all advice that the subject matter would "retard my career" and limit her "professional advancement." But in pursuing the project, in identifying with her "too far left, too southern, too working class" subject, she empowered herself as an African American, female historian. One senses that writing the book was a political act for both historian and subject. Perhaps it is not taking Painter's psychoanalytic turn too far to suggest that her final description of Hudson as "too strong, too opinionated, too convinced of his rightness to be lovable in the way that so many Americans want to love black people," also refers to Painter's understanding of how her "most trusted advisors" may have seen her in 1979 (p. 176).
"Sexuality and Power in the Mind of the South" is yet another reflection of Painter's fascination with perception and subjectivity. Her racial, gender, and class locations are given full expression in her reading of Wilber J. Cash's seminal and still widely read 1941 study, The Mind of the South: "[Cash] could not have imagined my existence as a critic. Not only am I able to speak as an equal, I can deploy part of his theoretical conceptualization--that based on Freudian psychoanalysis--to read his work against the grain, but not without a certain sense of irony." It is unlikely that Cash ever imagined being "confronted by a critic who is educated, black, female, and feminist" (pp. 177-178). Though critical of the South, Cash was a product of the pre-civil rights era, and his book retains many of the assumptions that characterized white southern male thinking of the time. Primary among these, Painter argues, is his conception of sexuality and power: "Cash conjoins race and sex often in The Mind of the South. His maps of sexuality and power overlap, but they do so in reverse. The figures who are most powerful are less sexualized, those who are powerless are very sexualized" (pp. 185-186). Painter engages in a conversation of sorts with Cash across lines of race, gender, and time and her position allows her to discern the power relations of race, class, gender, and secrecy in Cash's work. Because Cash could not see beyond the color line, his interpretation is marred by "blindness," "half-sight," and "blocked vision" with respect to the complex power dynamics embedded in his own analysis (pp. 197-198).
Taken together, these exploratory essays suggest approaches historians might pursue to take the writing of southern history to a new level--to begin writing southern history in such a way that blacks as well as whites are subjects interpreted as fully fledged southerners and to look closely at and for black/white interaction in many forms and many places. It is one of the strengths of this collection that Painter is willing to look everywhere (from psychoanalysis, social science methodologies, and feminist scholarship, to past generations of scholarship produced by white males) for new ways of seeing southern history.
. For further discussion of Painter's assessment of the value of Elkins's work see Nell Irvin Painter, "The Shoah and Southern History," in Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon, eds., Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000): 308-310.
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