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The History of White Peopleby Nell Irvin Painter
Synopses & Reviews
Ever since the Enlightenment, race theory and its inevitable partner, racism, have followed a crooked road, constructed by dominant peoples to justify their domination of others. Filling a huge gap in historical literature that long focused on the non-white, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter guides us through more than two thousand years of Western civilization, tracing not only the invention of the idea of race but also the frequent worship of "whiteness" for economic, social, scientific, and political ends. 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 immigrations threaten the very existence of America? Americans were assumed to be white, but who among poor immigrants could become truly 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. As Painter reveals, power--supported by economics, science, and politics--continued to drive exclusionary notions of whiteness until, deep into the twentieth century, political realities enlarged the category of truly American. A story filled with towering historical figures, forcefully reminds us that the concept of one white race is a recent invention. The meaning, importance, and realty of this all-too-human thesis of race have buckled under the weight of a long and rich unfolding of events.
Book News Annotation:
The long and tangled thread of false reasoning on which the twin notions of race and white superiority have been connected are ably traced in this work, which guides the reader on a tour of the concepts from ancient Greece to the early 21st century. Painter (emerita, American history, Princeton U.) describes the creation and propagation of the concepts, most importantly that of race itself, giving the histories of those who created the terms and the scientific notions they concocted as support. Separate chapters discuss topics that include the invention of the term 'Caucasian' as equivalent to white-skinned, the rise of the concept that slaves are always only black, the supposed basis of race in classical thought, the actual attitudes towards non-Greeks of the ancient Greeks, and the combination of these separate false histories to support the American belief in race and white superiority. Annotation ©2010 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Beginning at the roots of Western civilization, historian Painter traces the invention of the idea of a white race, reminding readers that the concept of race is an all-too-human invention whose meaning, importance, and reality have changed over time.
A mind-expanding and myth-destroying exploration of 'whiteness"an illuminating work on the history of race and power.
Advance praise for : "Deeply researched, intelligent, and wonderfully common-sensical, this is a ground-breaking book, and if we're ever going to get to that so- called 'post-racial' society, a necessary book. It locates race where it actually exists, inside our heads, and shows us how recently it came to reside there."--Russell Banks, author of and "In this wide-ranging and passionate book, Nell Painter makes the story of American history into something new. Her array of writers, artists, and politicians, some familiar and some surprising, struggle mightily to create a concept many Americans of all backgrounds now take for granted: 'white people.' "--Edward Ayers, author of " is a brilliant meditation on the invention of the idea of 'whiteness.' Deeply researched and elegantly written, Painter's presentation will certainly spark conversation and controversy--as it should. Painter's high-octane intelligence makes her perfectly suited to the task."--Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Nell Painter's is an amazing race-bending narrative. With grace and energy, she confronts the myth of white people as race-less. She offers an eye-opening examination of slavery, the creation of white-ness, and the way in which racial categories have been both false and destructive. This is story-telling at its best."--Ellen Goodman, syndicated columnist, Writers Group "Not since Stephen Jay Gould's has there been such a synoptically provocative appreciation of the myths by which a now demographically challenged people sustained themselves and restrained others."--David Levering Lewis, professor of history, New York University Abu Dhabi, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of
Eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter tells perhaps the most important forgotten story in American history. Beginning at the roots of Western civilization, she traces the invention of the idea of a white race'"often for economic, scientific, and political ends. She shows how the origins of American identity in the eighteenth century were intrinsically tied to the elevation of white skin into the embodiment of beauty, power, and intelligence; how the great American intellectuals'" including Ralph Waldo Emerson'"insisted that only Anglo Saxons were truly American; and how the definitions of who is 'white' and who is 'American' have evolved over time.
A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White Peoplecloses an enormous gap in a literature that has long focused on the nonwhite, and it forcefully reminds us that the concept of 'race' is an all-too-human invention whose meaning, importance, and reality have changed according to a long and rich history.
About the Author
Nell Irvin Painter is the award-winning author of many books, including Sojourner Truth, Southern History Across the Color Line, Creating Black Americans, The History of White People, and Standing at Armageddon. She is currently the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University and lives in Newark, New Jersey, and the Adirondacks.
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