Southern History across the Color Line / Edition 1

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In this collection, Painter reaches across the color line to examine how race, gender, class, and individual subjectivity shaped the lives of black and white women and men in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century South. Through six essays, she explores such themes as interracial sex, white supremacy, and the physical and psychological violence of slavery by closely examining individuals like white plantation mistress turned feminist Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas and black Communist Hosea Hudson. Painter defies the usual boundaries of southern history, women's history, and African American history and transcends methodological barriers as well, using insights gleaned from psychology and feminist social science in addition to social, cultural and intellectual history.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Demonstrate[s] excellence marked by the transgressive verve of [an] innovative and progressive scholar. . . . An extremely successful attempt to move with intellectual rigor and consistency toward a meaningful interpretation of a world mapped in blood by cruelty and violence."
Southern Literary Journal

An important and welcome collection. Her essays are always timely, telling, and provocative. They take risks and often seek to confound categories, topically and conceptually. And they chart the intellectual range and growth of one of our leading historians and teachers. (Steven Hahn, Northwestern University)

Nell Irvin Painter is one of the major historians of our time. This invaluable collection brings together work that has influenced a generation of scholars and will continue to shape scholarship for the foreseeable future. (Hazel V. Carby, Yale University)

Steven Hahn
An important and welcome collection. Her essays are always timely, telling, and provocative. They take risks and often seek to confound categories, topically and conceptually. And they chart the intellectual range and growth of one of our leading historians and teachers.
Hazel V. Carby
Nell Irvin Painter is one of the major historians of our time. This invaluable collection brings together work that has influenced a generation of scholars and will continue to shape scholarship for the foreseeable future.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807853603
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 4/29/2002
  • Series: Gender and American Culture Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Nell Irvin Painter is Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University. She is author or editor of six previous books, including Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

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Read an Excerpt

Southern History across the Color Line
Essays by Nell Irvin Painter

By Nell Irvin Painter

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826928


Southern History across the Color Line

Fruit of many years' thought and living, Southern History across the Color Line points across and beyond a color line once all too solid in southern public life and still discernible in scholarship and everyday life. Preserved by residential segregation, class barriers, and the old bogey of "social equality," the color line seems practically indelible. It outlasted the legal framework and institutional superstructure erected in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 ruling, in Plessy v. Ferguson, permitting the existence of racially "separate but equal" establishments. The mid-twentieth-century civil rights revolution dismantled the laws separating the races, yet two generations later, southerners of all races still must go against the grain of their culture to reach for equals outside the churches, clubs, and habit-places of their own race.

Those habit-places house intellectual production, for an all-too-firm conceptual barrier still bisects the world of scholarship. Oh, yes, much has changed—thankfully. Before my time, but within the lifetime of John Hope Franklin—born in 1915 and a graduate student and young scholar during the 1940s and 1950s—the color line interfered materially with the pursuit of history. Legal segregation and traditions of unwelcome restricted the places where a historian could do research and eat lunch. Colleges segregated by race and gender offered unequal opportunities for professional advancement. Even the process of dismantling the color bar turned a black scholar's presenting a paper in a scholarly meeting into a public curiosity, as John Hope Franklin discovered at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association in the late 1940s.

Most historians followed (and all too often still follow) segregation's decree and wrote about the South as though people of different races occupied entirely different spheres. First, white historians made up a lily-white southern history that included no blacks, or only those blacks who loved serving whites, loved being enslaved or at least benefited from the institution, and who missed slavery after it was gone. Then, in the wake of the civil rights revolution, black historians and our allies tried to redress the imbalance by publishing the history of blacks as though white people existed only as faceless oppressors. My first book appeared in that era. My primary sources—full of the details characteristic of individual day-by-day experience lived according to necessity, not society's larger rules—showed me southerners tracking across the color line. But as a beginning historian, I lacked the writing skill to present a thoroughly racialized, steeply hierarchical, utterly repressive society in which some black and white people nonetheless looked and stepped across the line. I expressed my doubts only timidly and resolved better to capture nuance in future. Nowadays more and more historians write about southerners of many races as fully realized historical actors. The old habit of writing only or mainly about white people or only or mainly about black people dies hard, but it never fettered John Hope Franklin.

In a segregated world, Franklin received accolades in abundance as the author of From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947 and still, after ten revisions, in print and flourishing. Franklin very rightly deserves honors for this finest and most enduring history of black Americans. He also deserves recognition for a good deal else he has written. In addition to contributing a distinguished oeuvre in American history, Franklin also thought and wrote across the color line and probed the meaning of southern history as a whole.

Segregation may have encumbered Franklin's conditions of research, but it never shuttered his vision. He wrote perceptively of white as well as black southerners and of all Americans.[1] How much richer would history be if historians of all races followed his lead and peered beyond their own allotments! This is beginning to happen: I love the breaching of the conceptual color bar in southern history into which many now step. There are too many for me to name them all here, but I cannot resist the desire to mention some with whom I've had the opportunity to work closely: Crystal Feimster, Glenda Gilmore, and Walter Johnson, for example.[2] Much more work remains to be done, especially to keep black women as well as black men in view as full-fledged southerners. But, happily, the work is well launched.

In one sense, the very fact of my writing about white southerners lofts this book across the color line. While white historians often write about black people, black historians still rarely write about whites.[3] I regret this imbalance, if only because black historians are more likely than whites to read the vast literature of African American studies. The bibliography of this field, consisting of work by scholars from all racial-ethnic backgrounds, contains trenchant analyses of American culture from a black point of view ordinarily lacking in American scholarship. Unfortunately, the color line endures in the world of footnotes and citations and still distorts the intellectual history of African Americans and Americans generally. I lament the tendency of scholars of all races to overlook the publications of authors who were or are black.

In another, larger sense, I want to cross the color line by looking beyond color and race. I do not mean not looking at color and race. Race matters enormously and must figure in any analysis of American history, doubly so for southern history. For too long we have normalized whiteness, as though to be white were to be natural, and only those people not counted as white had racial identities. "Southerner" used to mean only "white southerner," as though black southerners somehow were not part of the South. Along the same line, "the South" and "the Confederacy" used also to seem interchangeable, as though the only people who counted as "southerners" supported the Confederacy. Yes, especially in southern history, race matters a lot. But race is not all there is to life or to history. Much more remains to be said. Playing with the vogue for quantification, I used to joke that race constitutes 49 percent of a southerner's human life: as the crucial factor, it counts for a plurality, but not the totality, of causes and effects. (Now that cliometrics has faded into historiography's mists, I must find another, up-to-date little formula.)

Responsible historians cannot halt their analyses at the color line, and now they can draw upon a generation's worth or more of new scholarship for guidance. African American studies and women's studies tell us—and rightly—to think through race, class, and gender simultaneously. No one goes through life as simply a unit of race, for race's significance varies according to one's class and gender. Womanliness or manliness means different things for people of different races. Wealth and poverty play out according to the race and gender of the subject(s) at hand. But even race, class, and gender together miss much in life and history. Keeping all three in mind always, historians must transcend them.

Race, class, and gender constitute three essential but blunt tools of analysis. Each contains a plethora of subcategories and variations: region, chronology, cultural context, sexual orientation, physical ability, education, and so on. Within race lies color, for instance. The shade of color of an African American woman's skin affects her life's chances, so that one black woman's experience with people of all races cannot simply be interchanged with another's. We are less likely to assume that all white women are identical to one another, but we need always to keep in mind their differences according to class-inflected levels of education and standing, even within the same region, the same era, and the same generation.

Beyond even the most finely tuned categories lies something exceeding race, class, and gender: individual subjectivity. Biography, if you wish. From the very beginning of my career in history, biography captured my attention. Even my purest work of social history, Exodusters: Black Migration after Reconstruction, contains biographies of the two leading Exodusters, Henry Adams and Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, both southerners, both former slaves, both men cognizant of the imperatives of manhood, but each distinct from the other in ideology and behavior. After Exodusters I wrote about another singular southern black man, Hosea Hudson, who reminded me of a sort of latter-day Henry Adams. But Hudson, a twentieth-century urban working man, was a radical in ways Adams was not. Having worked on such superficially similar but profoundly singular men, I remain curious about individual lives. I have never assumed that one person's experience determines the experiences of another—even someone of the same race, class, gender, or region.

The pursuit of individual subjectivity has taken me to psychology and psychoanalysis.[4] As a historian of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I recognize that my interest in psychology and other social sciences inspires a certain wariness among my colleagues. Some doubt the applicability of a field invented in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna by an upper-middle-class Jew to poor southern black people. They wonder whether "white" psychology works on "black" people. My psychologist sister-in-law warned me that you "can't psychoanalyze the dead." A kindly editor reminded me to let readers know quite clearly that I recognize the difference time-bound culture makes.

I have tried to heed all these warnings but still keep going. Because psychology and psychoanalysis only make sense within a particular culture's own orientation, at a given times and places, I use them sparingly. But I remain convinced that historians should keep in sight the fundamental lessons of psychology and psychoanalysis: that all people, even people who describe themselves primarily as raced or gendered, are individuals; that individual subjects develop within families; that families need not be related biologically; that attachment does not necessarily connote positive feeling; that attachment and grief do not stop at social barriers of color or class. Within southern history, the families of the oppressed have offered a haven to the physically afflicted, a bulwark against psychological assault. Families at every economic level inculcate the finest and the basest of values. Without attempting to psychoanalyze the dead, I want to read the people in historical texts with my eyes wide open. From psychoanalysis, psychology, and the other tools I borrow from the social sciences, I draw questions, not answers.

Three themes wind through the essays that follow, all related but worthy of individual mention. I entered the historical profession in the 1970s under the sign of Herbert Gutman, who when I first met him was immersed in—no, consumed by—the source material for what would become The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (1976).[5] He validated my interest in the 1879 Exodus to Kansas, making it available to me as a dissertation topic. Gutman's early Marxism bequeathed him an interest in working people and a focus on their roles as historical actors (what came to be summed up as historical "agency" in the 1980s). He excavated the history of ordinary black people and rightly recognized the novelty and value of his investigation. Considering myself a person of the Left, I was and remain attentive to material conditions: wealth and income, work, the distribution of power in the political economy, patriarchy, and white supremacy. These concerns bear the imprint of a Marxist or "materialist" orientation. But Marxist or not, they are matters every historian would do well to heed, even in these post-post-structuralist times. Thinking about class, however, can be even harder than thinking clearly about race. We Americans generally find it difficult to deal with class, preferring, to the detriment of historical analysis, to use race as a handy surrogate.

Another material theme in these essays that differs from traditional Marxist concerns is that of the body, particularly the body subject to torture. Before I could focus on personal violence, I had to learn a great deal more than what my graduate education had provided. My first big, post-dissertation auto-education took me through feminist scholarship, with its attention to the gendered body.[6] Physical violence and physical pain play a role in activist feminist literature, but this activism does not deal with the nineteenth-century evils of slavery. Southern historians, too, have averted their eyes from slavery's inevitable bodily torment. The mopping up of blood occurs between the historian's research in primary documents and publication.

Any sojourn in southern archives covers the researcher in blood, and slavery, particularly, throws buckets of blood in the historian's face. Yet violence and pain seldom appear in historical writings, for professionalism prompts historians to clean up the mess before going into print. I have tried not to wipe up so thoroughly as to lose what the enslaved wanted us to recall: that slavery rested on the threat and the abundant use of physical violence. Contrary to the images from nineteenth- and twentieth-century American popular culture and even from American popular history, slaves had to be coerced into playing their roles in involuntary servitude. Coercion meant physical beating and the anger it incites. Both the beaten body and the political economy belong to the materialist theme in these essays.

Culture, including cultural symbolism, constitutes my third main theme. While hierarchies of race and gender produce material consequences, some of the more obvious manifestations of patriarchy and white supremacy are cultural: assumptions that the concerns of men and white people take precedence over the concerns of women and people of color.[7] Persons and events bear more than just one meaning, depending on the identity of the witness and the point of view. Networks of meaning, symbols, and semiology acquire lives of their own, complementary to (but not substitutes for) material meaning. In my research I have found two examples of nonmaterial culture particularly striking: first, the religious faith in the rightness of slavery and the secular belief in the social hierarchy, both shaken by the fact of emancipation after the Civil War and given life in the journal of Gertrude Thomas; second, the potency of the notion of "social equality" during the era of segregation that emerges from Charles Manigault's autobiographical musings and the bloody work of Atlanta rioters in 1906. These cultural manifestations of racial hierarchy produced psychosexual consequences.

My fourth theme is sexuality, which led me straight to Freud. Writings by black southerners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries focus far less obsessively on sexuality than do the works of their white contemporaries, because whites were less able than blacks to face up to the consequences of unsanctioned sexual desire. The telling difference has to do with secrecy, for a lot of white people were keeping secrets from themselves in ways black people simply could not. Because people of mixed race were classified as Negroes, African Americans lived with the literal consequences of patriarchy and racism. The children of rape or other forms of sex across the color line became black southerners' own children, parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Harriet Jacobs, for instance, the North Carolinian author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), hesitated before exposing her intimate history but ultimately took it into print. For the great majority of white people, however, interracial sex remained a strange kind of secret: a secret as big as the elephant in the living room. Facing up to that secret tormented Gertrude Thomas and, I suspect, Wilbur J. Cash. Considering the potency of secrets, I would not be surprised if twenty-first-century historians discovered that black women, having been the most obscured people in southern history, hold the keys to that history.

The six essays in this book date mainly from the late 1980s and early 1990s, written (with the exception of "Hosea Hudson") between Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (1987) and Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (1996). They chronicle a transformation from relatively pure social history to a methodology more imbued with psychology and semiology. The most heavily political essay here is also the oldest. But even as I examined Hosea Hudson's life as a Negro Communist in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1930s and 1940s, I investigated his psychology by looking at his youth: his family attachments, his fears, his quartet singing. I cannot draw lines of causality between the hardship of Hudson's childhood and his fractured relationship with his father. But I tried to convey his individuality, his working-class urban culture, and his personal triumphs and tragedies. Hudson became the sort of figure who is still largely invisible in southern history, an urban industrial worker. (I am still amazed at how rarely enslaved and segregated workers figure in American labor history.) His experience reveals much about the twentieth-century South, even as he remained a uniquely tough-minded radical until his death in 1988.

An early product of my move into interdisciplinarity, "'Social Equality' and 'Rape' in the Fin-de-SiŠcle South" tries to do too much to succeed fully. If I were to take on its themes today, I would expect to write a book rather than a single essay, for the topic needs much more fleshing out. This essay touches on the material, symbolic, and psychological consequences of white supremacy, running through laws, customs, dreams, literature, and lynching with the aim of exposing both the material and symbolic components of segregation. I wanted to show that white supremacy is more than ideology—more personal, more intimate, more psychological. Segregation burrowed into the psyches of southerners of all races and affected their gut-level feelings about themselves. If historians overlook the importance of symbols and what this essay terms "pornographic" domination, we cannot understand or explain the tenacity of white supremacy in southern, or actually in all of American, life.

"The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas" came out of systematic study in 1988-89 at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, a haven for psychologists. Colleagues there helped me find scholarship on intimate relationships and adultery, the keys to parsing hidden meanings within Thomas's 1,380-page journal. Once immersed in the literature of psychology, I never re-emerged. Three essays in this collection and Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (as well as my editions of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) attest to that immersion. At Stanford I also attended the excellent seminars of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. There I found feminist collegiality—usually in short supply in the academic world and always appreciated—along with assistance in reading and thinking through the works of feminists from several disciplines.

"Three Southern Women and Freud" grew directly out of my work on Gertrude Thomas. While Thomas fascinated me, I sought an opportunity to round out her experiences and place them in historical context. As a more historical treatment of the themes of sexuality and gender in the antebellum Low Country of the Carolinas and Georgia, "Three Southern Women and Freud" complements the exclusively biographical character of the Gertrude Thomas piece.

One characteristic inherent in personal testimony is the blocking out of references to people painful to the author. In the hundreds of pages of Gertrude Thomas's journal, the woman whose existence caused her so much pain—her husband's other intimate partner—never once appears. I wanted to tell her side of the story using the testimony of another woman who had been in the invisible woman's situation, though not, of course, in her place. Harriet Jacobs cannot stand in for this invisible woman whom Thomas saw as a competitor, but Jacobs can at least begin to balance the scales historiographically. In "Three Southern Women and Freud" I deal with three characters: Lily establishes the widespread nature of Thomas's personal preoccupation with competition between women; Harriet Jacobs offers a view from the other side of the color line. And Freud? Freud examines through an ostensibly un-raced lens the masculine phenomena that appear in all societies with a sexual double standard.

I doubt I would have written the essay on Wilbur J. Cash had Paul Escott not invited me to participate in Wake Forest University's celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Mind of the South. As a white southerner obsessed by sex and an amateur Freudian, Cash presented me with a likely subject. In the end, he fit in perfectly with my existing cast of characters. At the time, though, I annoyed some members of my audience. My paper especially piqued the reporter from the Raleigh News and Observer, who took me to task for insufficiently appreciating a great man and a fine book—and for powdering my nose before a televised interview.

My most popular essay, "Soul Murder and Slavery," opens this book. Appearing originally in hard-to-find places, "Soul Murder and Slavery" has consumed endless e-mails between me and readers wanting to secure a copy of an article that seeks to reckon the wider meanings of slavery. In this essay, I focus on the results of what historians usually gloss over: personal violence and its psychological sequelae. Pulling together social science scholarship on child abuse and other forms of torture, I figure up the accounts of damage on both sides of the color line. My attempt to bring psychology to bear on slavery may seem initially to go down a path scorched and burned by Stanley Elkins and his critics. I separate myself from Elkins by citing slaves' sources of strength, principally family and religion, and by bringing the families of owners into the picture as well. Elkins's denatured victims and unscathed tyrants do not appear in my piece.

Younger historians wondering about the rewards and perils of working across the color line sometimes ask me about my intellectual trajectory. My initial attempts at an answer produced only hurt, anger, and recrimination. Having been so blessed—so fortunate with regard to parents, opportunities, friends, husbands, professional advancement, and publication—I realized that any expression on my part of that same hurt, anger, and recrimination would run two big risks: I would appear not to appreciate my own enormous good fortune; and I would appear to underestimate the achievements of my peers who have overcome adversity. Better, I thought, considering the emotional dimension of an intellectual itinerary, to leave out my professional autobiography.

Pressed now again with the query, I will once again attempt a response, beginning with the admission that despite much success, I have experienced my work as struggle against the conventions of American education and scholarship. I feel I have wrestled for half a century with what I have been taught. For this black woman, at least (and I do not pretend to speak for any but myself) Western knowledge is not to be trusted. Everything in it needs careful inspection for insults and blind spots, which turn up all too often, diminishing the authority of prominent authorities in my eyes. Such a critical process means that education proceeds slowly and patchily. But I have kept at the struggle.

Therein lies the key to what kind readers see as my originality. I question (nearly) everything, and so many questions produce some good answers. Fresh, perceptive insight exhilarates me and my readers. At the same time, I have also met refusal and accusation: my work is not history, is not good enough, is wrong-headed, is just plain wrong. The hard part lies in separating needed criticism—for anyone's work, mine included, can in fact be not history, not good enough, wrong-headed, just plain wrong—from criticism in bad faith. How, in the formula of the late poet Audre Lorde, does one try to dismantle the master's house using the master's tools? Lorde decided that feminists, especially feminists of color, could not take down the master's house with the master's tools, and she may prove right in the end. But I can try to tell you a little of how I chipped away at the building with the tools I had at hand.

I spent some of my formative years outside the United States (in Ghana, France, and the West Indies), an escape I recommend to every black person in America. Unremitting existence in the situation of despised minority drives one crazy, and I marvel that any African American who has not lived in a majority black country can keep his or her sanity. (Actually, every nonblack American would also do well to live for some time in a black place.) Ghana allowed me to peer past race and see class and much else that was not-race that the American obsession with race had hidden from my view. Ghana led to Exodusters, in which poor southerners took the making of history into their own hands, and The Narrative of Hosea Hudson, in which a southern worker formed his own class analysis of the southern political economy. The power of the working-class and farming people at the center of those two books led me to the analysis in Standing at Armageddon, in which the impetus for positive reform comes from below.

Exodusters had encouraged me to write southern history across the color line, for my research revealed a South more racially complex than any that appeared in the then-current historiography. In the mid-1980s, my southern social history research took me to the Duke University archives, where I found the journal of the Georgia plantation mistress Gertrude Thomas. This long, rich document begged for a psychological analysis I did not then know how to undertake. Much of my later work grew out of questions in Gertrude Thomas's journals.

The southerners herein led me to themes that preoccupied me throughout the late 1990s and that appear in Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol and the books now in my pipeline. With the Truth biography, I wanted to explore history and memory—in this case, the relationship between historical existence and legend, both "the life" and "the symbol." Writing about Truth, who did not herself write, brought me to the analysis of photographs. Not only did I dedicate a whole chapter of Sojourner Truth to her photographic portraits, but I remain situated in visual analysis as a facet of the study of history and memory. In the late 1990s, for example, I wrote an essay on the figures of Honest Abe and Uncle Tom in Civil War memory.[8] My current work in progress concerns the visual expression of African American history and a discussion of personal beauty. I am also writing a history of white people, partly as a means of repossessing Western knowledge, partly to embed in the new field of whiteness studies the views of African Americans, the world's experts on white people as a race.

Ending this autobiographical excursion recalls the pleasure I have always taken from research and writing. I entered the historical profession because I liked the work. I still like the work. Despite my love of the field, I am ready for a new vocation. After I finish my book on beauty, I am going to art school. Scholarship will give way to artistic creation.

April 2001

Excerpted from Southern History across the Color Line by Nell Irvin Painter. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Southern History across the Color Line 1
1 Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting 15
2 The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas: A Testament of Wealth, Loss, and Adultery 40
3 Three Southern Women and Freud: A Non-Exceptionalist Approach to Race, Class, and Gender in the Slave South 93
4 "Social Equality" and "Rape" in the Fin-de-Siecle South 112
5 Hosea Hudson: The Life and Times of a Black Communist 134
6 Sexuality and Power in The Mind of the South 177
Notes 199
Acknowledgments 231
Index 233
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