Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reviewing Nell Irvin Painter's History of White People

So long between updates! I’ve been traveling a bit, and then was obsessed with the NCAA basketball tournament, and am now recovering (I hope) from KU’s shocking loss in the second round.

Anyway, thankfully today provides a distraction: my review of Nell Irvin Painter’s History of White People appears in this Sunday’s Boston Globe books section. You can read it here.

A snippet:

The violence of ancient white peoples, lauded by the Greeks and Romans, was also attractive to those who claimed them as ancestors. Ralph Waldo Emerson, father of American transcendentalism, saw himself as a son of these Saxons (who, in the goofy myth-making this book so ably mocks, were said to spring from Germany and Scandinavia but bestowed their manly beauty and superiority on American whites by way of the early English settlers). In his 1856 book “English Traits,’’ Emerson writes of the qualities passed on by such virile white stock, including “good sense, steadiness, wise speech, and prompt action,’’ but also “a singular turn for homicide.’’ Strangely, he means this as a compliment, though observers from different backgrounds saw the same quality less favorably. Black Bostonian David Walker, in his famous Appeal of 1829, pointed out that “whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority.’’ Painter avoids taking sides, but she wields a withering deadpan when delivering such quotes.

This is a great fun read about a totally bizarre and discouraging subject. I highly recommend it!


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