Nell Irvin Painter


Nell Painter has written the following books:

I Just Keep Talking—A Life in Essays
Doubleday, April 2024.

image of book - I Just Keep Talking  
Click here for more information, including reviews and praise.  

From the New York Times bestselling author of The History of White People and Old in Art School, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, comes a comprehensive new collection of essays spanning art, politics, and the legacy of racism that shapes American history as we know it.

Throughout her prolific writing career, Nell Irvin Painter has published works on such luminaries as Sojourner Truth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Malcolm X. Her unique vantage on American history pushes the boundaries of personal narrative and academic authorship. Led by an unbridled curiosity for her subjects, Painter asks readers to reconsider ideas of race, politics, and identity. I Just Keep Talking assembles her writing for the first time into a single volume, displaying the breadth and depth of Painter’s decades-long historical inquiry and the evolution of Black political thought—and includes a dazzling new introduction and coda. From her mining of figures like Carrie Buck and Martin Delany for their resonance today, to a deep dive into the history of exclusion through the work of Toni Morrison, to a discussion of the American political landscape after the 2016 election, Painter nimbly portrays the trials of a country frequently at war with itself.

Along with Painter’s writing, this collection features her original artwork, threaded throughout the book as counterpoint. Her visual art shows a deft mind that contemplates the tragedy and humor of her subjects; pulling from newspapers, personal records, and original sketches, Painter’s artwork testifies to the dialectic of tremendous change and stasis that continues to shape American history.

These essays resist easy answers in favor of complexity, the inescapable sense of our country’s potential being thwarted by its failures. I Just Keep Talking will surely solidify Painter’s place among the finest critics and writers of the last century.


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The History of White People
New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Japanese edition, 2011, French edition, 2019.

image of book - the History of White People  

A mind-expanding and myth-destroying exploration of notions of white race—not merely a skin color but also a signal of power, prestige, and beauty to be withheld and granted selectively.

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, The History of White People 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.

Links for The History of White People:

Nell Painter’s videos discussing
her book The History of White People

This C-SPAN search page includes links to several videos:
Videos include:
2010 National Book Festival:
Nell Irvin Painter, "The History of White People"

(Nell's talk begins at 1:40:25 into the video.)

The Colbert Report on Comedy Central
with Stephen Colbert:

Nell Irvin Painter debates the meaning of white people
and arm-wrestles Stephen over the Scots-Irish.

Nell Painter’s NY Times front page book review
of her new book The History of White People:

ABC News with Dianne Sawyer:
Diane Sawyer and author Nell Irvin Painter
discuss what it means to be "white."
(Video no longer posted on ABC News site, but is posted on YouTube by ABC News:
The story link on ABC News:

Big Think Interview With Nell Irvin Painter:

Here is information on The History of White People:

some information on The history of  White People

MetroFocus: The Podcast – "A History of White People": Nell's interview by host Jenna Flanagan on the social construction of race and Nell's book ďA History of White People.Ē Nell explains how the notion of race evolves with time and outlines her position on current racial frustration in the United States.

The French edition of The History of White PeopleHistoire des Blancs, was released January 31, 2019. Here is more information, including French-language interviews and reviews.

The Japanese edition of The History of White People, released 2011.

Japanese edition of The History of White People

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Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present
Oxford University Press, Fall 2005

image of book - Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present none

Nell Irvin Painter's book, Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present was released by Oxford University Press in Fall 2005.

•  Purchase from the publisher
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Here is a magnificent account of a past rich in beauty and creativity, but also in tragedy and trauma. Eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter blends a vivid narrative based on the latest research with a wonderful array of artwork by African American artists, works which add a new depth to our understanding of black history.

Painter offers a history written for a new generation of African Americans, stretching from life in Africa before slavery to today's hip-hop culture. The book describes the staggering number of Africans—over ten million—forcibly transported to the New World, most doomed to brutal servitude in Brazil and the Caribbean. Painter looks at the free black population, numbering close to half a million by 1860 (compared to almost four million slaves), and provides a gripping account of the horrible conditions of slavery itself. The book examines the Civil War, revealing that it only slowly became a war to end slavery, and shows how Reconstruction, after a promising start, was shut down by terrorism by white supremacists. Painter traces how through the long Jim Crow decades, blacks succeeded against enormous odds, creating schools and businesses and laying the foundations of our popular culture. We read about the glorious outburst of artistic creativity of the Harlem Renaissance, the courageous struggles for Civil Rights in the 1960s, the rise and fall of Black Power, the modern hip-hop movement, and two black Secretaries of State. Painter concludes that African Americans today are wealthier and better educated, but the disadvantaged are as vulnerable as ever.

Painter deeply enriches her narrative with a series of striking works of art—more than 150 in total, most in full color—works that profoundly engage with black history and that add a vital dimension to the story, a new form of witness that testifies to the passion and creativity of the African-American experience.

* Among the dozens of artists featured are Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Beauford Delaney, Jacob Lawrence, and Kara Walker

* Filled with sharp portraits of important African Americans, from Olaudah Equiano (one of the first African slaves to leave a record of his captivity) and Toussaint L'Ouverture (who led the Haitian revolution), to Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X

Links for Creating Black Americans:

Reviews of Creating Black Americans:

Reviews of Creating Black Americans:
  • New York Post, December 4, 2005, excerpts from review by Kenneth R. Janken (click here for complete text in html, or as a pdf)
    Princeton history professor Nell Irvin Painter brings her considerable skills and insight to "Creating Black Americans." Her excellent introduction to the black American experience will serve any interested reader well, though it will find its largest audience in college classrooms. History, the author notes, exists in both the past and present. What we wish to know and how we understand it changes over time. And Painter's compelling use of black art, mostly created since the mid-20th century, to illustrate earlier times, emphasizes this point to great effect. Drawing on the research of a generation of African-American historians, Painter also sets the record straight on a number of questions of the country's past. She re-emphasizes that slavery was not just a Southern problem. Racial slavery in North America developed over several decades in the 18th century, laying the foundations for the entire American economy. Slaves grew the commodities that Americans exported across the globe, of course. But slavery and the Atlantic slave trade were the bedrock of vast fortunes in the North, too, including the precursors to the Bank of America and other financial houses. Artists—like historians, like ordinary people—sift the past to make sense of it for our times. Through word and image, Nell Irvin Painter has produced a narrative of African-American history that will profit its readers. —Kenneth R. Janken is a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

  • Booklist, September 15, 2005
    "Painter, a Princeton professor of history, integrates art and history in this fascinating book, filled with powerful images of black art from photographs to paintings to quilts that tell the story of black America. The book begins with the history and imagery of slavery through the Civil War and emancipation, then traces the cultural influences of the civil rights movement, the black power era, and ends with the hip-hop era. Through each period, Painter offers historical context for the artistic expressions and examines how more contemporary sensibilities shaped remembrances of historical events. She explores the ways that context and historical interpretation influence the artist's perspective and is subject to great variation over time. Although most of the works presented were created after the mid-twentieth century, they reflect a broader historical span as black artists have attempted to fill in the void of black images from earlier American history. Readers interested in black American art and history will appreciate this beautiful and well-researched book." —Vernon Ford

  • "Nell Irvin Painter is a towering intellectual figure and pre-eminent historian in American life. This overarching narrative is the best we have that makes sense of the doings and sufferings of black people from 1619 to 2005." —Cornel West, Princeton University

  • "A brilliant historian, Nell Irvin Painter has written an innovative account of African Americans from the colonial era to our own. She challenges us to think critically about the historical meanings conveyed via artistic creations. In other words, Creating Black America offers a new way of knowing, imagining, and visualizing the past of our present." —Darlene Clark Hine, co-author of The African-American Odyssey

  • "There is a philosopher's axiom, 'To be is to be perceived.' Nell Painter's fascinatingly significant Creating Black Americans captures its subject-matter through the self-images people of color have produced over time. She has written a critical history of self-perception that deserves wide review and lively discussion." —David Levering Lewis, University Professor and Professor of History, New York University

  • "Utilizing her pathbreaking approach to historical writing, a hallmark in her brilliant career, Nell Painter interweaves straight-forward narrative with the vivid portraits of black artists to record how an unloved people created a vibrant but still endangered black America." —Derrick Bell, author of Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform

  • "From the Triangle Trade to Russel Simmons, this comprehensive review of African American history is a lively, lucid and indispensable resource. Nell Painter is our foremost chronicler of the black experience in the United States." —Patricia Williams, Columbia University School of Law

  • From Publishers Weekly
    "This new study by Princeton historian Painter (Standing at Armageddon, etc.) aims not merely to provide an updated scholarly account of African-American history, but to enrich our understanding of it with the subjective views of black artists, which she places alongside the more objective views of academics. The result is a book that contains both a compelling narrative and numerous arresting images, but that does not always successfully tie the two together. To be fair, Painter is a historian, not an art critic. Her primary purpose in including artworks is to illustrate historical points and to show black Americans as creators of their own history. Nevertheless, readers will likely be frustrated by the lack of analysis accompanying the images—Painter simply summarizes most of the art works, leaving much of their complexity and ambiguity unexplored. Thus, she inadvertently diminishes their power as complicated pieces of individual expression. Painter is clearly adept at writing straightforward history, however, and on this front the book is lucid, engaging and topical. It does an excellent job revealing both the African and the American dimensions of African-American history. And her work has the additional merit of following the past into the present, tracing the history of black Americans all the way up to the hip-hop era, the controversies surrounding black voters in the 2000 presidential election and the ongoing issues of incarceration and health care. 148 images, 4 maps. (Nov.)
    Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."
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Southern History Across the Color Line
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, April 2002. 2nd ed. April 2021.

Southern History across the color line 2nd edition  

The color line, once all too solid in southern public life, still exists in the study of southern history. As distinguished historian Nell Irvin Painter notes, we often still write about the South as though people of different races occupied entirely different spheres. In truth, although blacks and whites were expected to remain in their assigned places in the southern social hierarchy throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century, their lives were thoroughly entangled.

In this powerful collection of pathbreaking essays, 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. She explores such themes as interracial sex, white supremacy, and the physical and psychological violence of slavery, using insights gleaned from psychology and feminist social science as well as social, cultural, and intellectual history. The book illustrates both the breadth of Painterís interests and the originality of her intellectual contributions. The second edition features refreshed essays and a new preface that sheds light on the development of Painterís thought and our continued struggles with racism in the twenty-first century.

Links for Southern History Across the Color Line, Second Edition:

Reviews of Southern History Across the Color Line:
  • Fon Gordon, University of Central Florida. Published in Florida Historical Quarterly
  • Steven Hahn, Northwestern University
  • Hazel V. Carby, Yale University
  • Most reviews of this book at not available online.
    However, Harry B. Dunbar posted a review in June 2002. His website is no longer active, but here is our cache of the content of this former webpage.
  • H-Net Online Reviews:
    • Jeanette Keith, Bloomsburg University. Published by H-SAWH (July, 2002)
      here is our cache of this link's content
    • Stephen Wallace Taylor, Macon State College. Published by H-Amstdy (July, 2002)
      here is our cache of this link's content
  • Jonathan Scott Holloway, Yale University, in Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Volume 34, Summer 2003, pp. 100-101.

Southern History Across the Color Line, First Edition:
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, April 2002.

Southern History across the color line, 1st edition  
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Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction
New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. Norton paperback, 1979, 2nd ed., University of Kansas Press paperback (with a new introduction by the author), 1986; Norton paperback, 1992. A Notable Book of the Year of the New York Times Book Review and a choice of the History Book Club.

image of book - Exodusters  

"In 1879, fourteen years after the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of blacks fled the South. They were headed for the homesteading lands of Kansas, the 'Garden Spot of the Earth' and the 'quintessential Free State, the land of John Brown'.... Painter examines their exodus in fascinating detail. In the process, she offers a compelling portrait of the post-Reconstruction South and the desperate efforts by blacks and whites in that chaotic period to 'solve the race problem' once and for all." —Newsweek

"What makes this book so important is ... [that it] is the first full-length scholarly study of this migration and of the forces that produced it.... Most previous studies have focused on nationally recognized black leaders; [Painter] calls for attention to the black masses." —David H. Donald, New York Times Book Review

"A genuine folk movement, the Exoduster migration has ... been undeservedly ignored. Nell Irvin Painter has produced a book which rescues the Exodusters from obscurity and demonstrates her considerable talents as a researcher and writer." —American Historical Review

Reviews of Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction:
  • Gerald Weales, “Off the Shelf: Kansas fever,” Pennsylvania Gazette, 75, 6 (April 1977): 7.
  • David Brion Davis, “Education of Henry Adams,” The Manchester Guardian (3 April 1977): 18.
  • Theodore Rosengarten, “Books Considered,” New Republic (12 February 1977): 21-2.
  • Monroe H. Little, “Making a Way Out of no Way,” Reviews in American History 5, no. 4. (Dec., 1977): 524-528. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at JSTOR.
  • William I. Hair, “Reviews of Books; United States,” The American Historical Review 82, no. 4. (Oct., 1977):1079. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at JSTOR.
  • David Herbert Donald, New York Times Book Review, 30 January 1977: 7. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at ProQuest.
  • Alden Whitman, “Books of the Times: Kansas: Black Lodestone,” New York Times, 29 January 1977: 17. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at ProQuest.
  • Margo Jefferson, Newsweek 89:81 17 January 1977
  • William Schenck, Library Journal 102:104, 1 January 1977
  • Choice, 14:442, May 1977
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Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol
New York. W. W. Norton, 1996; Norton paperback, 1997. Nonfiction winner of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. A choice of the Book of the Month Club and the History Book Club. [Sample pages at]

image of book - Sojourner Truth  

"The vividly imagined and forcefully written portrait of the iconographic Sojourner Truth is one of the finest biographies of recent years. In her dual roles of historian and cultural critic, Nell Painter is brilliant." —Joyce Carol Oates

"Nell Painter makes Sojourner Truth come alive in all her splendor as a woman, a black, a believer, a crusader, an American legend. Painter has written a moving and masterful biography." —Roger Wilkins

SOJOURNER TRUTH: ex-slave and fiery abolitionist, figure of imposing physique, riveting preacher and spellbinding singer who dazzled listeners with her wit and originality. Straight talking and unsentimental. Truth became a national symbol for strong black women—indeed, for all strong women. Like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, she is regarded as a radical of immense and enduring influence; yet unlike them, what is remembered of her consists more of myth than of historical fact.

Now, in a masterful blend of scholarship and sympathetic understanding, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter goes beyond the myths, words, and photographs to uncover the life of a complex woman who was born into slavery and died a legend. Inspired by religion, Truth transformed herself from a domestic servant named Isabella into an itinerant Pentecostal preacher; her words of empowerment have inspired black women and poor people the world over to this day. As an abolitionist and feminist, Truth defied the stereotype of "the slave" as male and "the woman" as white—expounding a fact that still bears repeating: among blacks there are women; among women, there are blacks.

No one who heard her speak ever forgot Sojourner Truth, the power and pathos of her voice, and the intelligence of her message. No one who reads Painter's groundbreaking biography will forget this landmark figure and the story of her courageous life.

Links for Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol:

Reviews of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol:
  • The Nation v 264 Jan 13-20 1997. p. 25 Available online, through subscribing libraries, at
  • Ms v 7 Jan/Feb 1997. p. 78
  • Jean Harvey Baker, “Reviews of Books; United States,” The American Historical Review 102, no. 2 (Apr 1997): 521-522. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at JSTOR.
  • MultiCultural Review v 6 Mar 1997. p. 80
  • The New Republic v 215 Nov 4 1996. p. 37.
  • Ira Berlin, “Sojourner’s World, The New York Times Book Review. 22 September 1996: 29 Available online, through subscribing libraries, at ProQuest.
  • Darlene Clark Hine, “The Inner Truth,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 13 (Autumn, 1996):127-128. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at JSTOR.
  • Waldo E. Martin Jr., “Book Reviews,” The Journal of American History, 84, no. 2. (Sep., 1997): 651-652. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at JSTOR.
  • Karen Sánchez-Eppler, “Ain't I a Symbol?,” American Quarterly 50, no. 1 (March 1998): 149-157. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at Muse (
  • Sarah J. Shoenfeld, “Book Reviews,” The New England Quarterly 70, 4 (December 1997): 665-669. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at JSTOR.
  • Christianity Today v 41 Feb 3 1997. p. 61
  • Choice v 34 Mar 1997. p. 1228
  • Library Journal v 121 Sept 1 1996. p. 194
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Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919
New York, W. W. Norton, 1987, Norton paperback, 1989.Winner of the Letitia Brown Book Prize of the Association of Black Women Historians. A Notable Book of the Year of the New York Times Book Review.

image of book - Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919  

"Lucid and compelling.... The first general treatment of this era that does full justice to the struggles of working people. It will provide future historians with a good model for how to do narrative synthesis 'from the bottom up' ".
—George M. Fredrickson, Stanford University

"A vivid portrayal of people's history with the politics left in. With analytical cohesiveness, intellectual grasp and wit, Painter succeeds not only in integrating issues in Afro-American and women's history with the whole but also in relating the role and presence of the modern state to the trends in ordinary people's lives.... A gripping and forceful narrative."
—Nancy F. Cott, Yale University

Short Study Guide. In 1999, Robert F. Zeidel wrote to Nell Irvin Painter asking her for some background that might help high school students in Advanced Placement classes to make better use of Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919.
Here is Professor Painter's reply.

Reviews of Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919:
  • John Braeman, The American Historical Review 94 (April 1989): 527. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at JSTOR.
  • History v 74 Oct 1989. p. 479
  • Charles Tilly, “When Radicals Were in Flower, The New York Times Book Review, 4 October 1987: 13. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at ProQuest.
  • Norman Pollack, “Book Reviews,” The Journal of Southern History 55, no. 1 (February 1989): 137-138. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at ProQuest.
  • Choice v 25 Mar 1988. p. 1163
  • Library Journal v 112 Sept 15 1987. p. 79
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The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South
Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1979. Harvard paperback, 1980; Norton paperback, 1993. A Notable Book of the Year of the New York Times Book Review.

image of book - the Narrative of Hosea Hudson  

Born into a Georgia sharecropper family in 1898, Hosea Hudson moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to work in the steel mills in the turbulent 1930s and 1940s and became an active member of the Communist Party as well as president of a CIO union local. It was a hard, dangerous life, to be black and communist and pro-union, and Hudson talked about that life to Nell Painter, who brilliantly recreates it in this collaborative oral autobiography.

"Valuable and exuberant ... artfully organized and edited .... Its strength is Mr. Hudson's remarkable memory, his ability to evoke the drudgery and minutiae that are at the core of any devoted party member's life, black or white, North or South." —Joe Klein, New York Times Book Review

"Among the many exemplary qualities of this narrative is their lack of sentimentality. For Hosea Hudson, there is no romance of American Communism; instead, his relationship with the Communist Party is a model of mutual exploitation.... [A} marvelous book. Moving, fearful, and funny, Hudson and Painter's Narrative is valuable an American life as has ever been wrested from anonymity." —Benita Eisler, The Nation

Nell Irvin Painter's introduction to The Narrative of Hosea Hudson has been republished as a chapter in her Southern History Across the Color Line.

Reviews of The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South:
  • Charles H. Martin, “Book Reviews,” The Journal of Southern History 46, no. 3 (August 1980): 453-454. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at JSTOR.
  • William H. Harris, “Book Reviews,” The Journal of American History 67, no. 1. (June 1980): 194-195. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at JSTOR.
  • Thomas A. Johnson, “Books: Black Communist,” New York Times, 10 January 1980: C21. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at ProQuest.
  • Joe Klein, “The Onliest Ones,” New York Times Book Review, 18 November 1979: 13. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at ProQuest.
  • Benita Eisler, Nation 230:22 5-12 January 1980. Available online, through subscribing libraries, at
  • Choice, 17:136 March 1980
  • M.A. Miya, Library Journal 105:197 15 January 1980
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