“The History of White People”



The History of White People by Nell Painter

We were told that the election of Barack Obama meant that we—America—had transcended into a beatific state called “post-racial.” We were proud of having overcome three centuries of a history of stubborn slavery and an even more intransigent segregation, both of which were based on bogus “racial” “theories.” We proudly and overwhelmingly elected an African American as the President of the United States. Once the tears of joy and pride had been wiped way and clear vision was restored, it was shamingly clear that, far from being a phenomenon of the past, racism was alive and well and virulent in the “land of the free” and the “home of the brave.” The years-long assault on the legitimacy of a Presidency, the determined and unrelenting efforts to force “failure” upon, not only one man—because he was black—but upon the general population has spanned a gamut of accusations: “Muslim,” “Kenyan,” Socialist,” “In over his Head,” “Ineffectual,” even “Monster,” and so on. Make no mistake, racism is hiding behind each and every one of these words.

Whatever words are used, they all add up to one word “black,” which is the opposite of “white,” and, in the minds of these retrogrades racists, there are two words that should never come together: “Black” and “President.” It is important to understand that the (right-wing, Conservative, Tea Party, whatever) attitude that Barack Obama can never be a “legitimate” President is fundamentally different from that of the Democrats who felt strongly that George H. W. Bush had not been elected President twice and had been put in the office through a unilateral action on the part of the Supreme Court but bowed to the rule of law and lived peacefully (if unhappily) under his Presidency. The complaint of the Democrats was a legal one, while the complaint against Obama is a racist one. Over time, Democrats learned to live with what seemed to them to be a coup d’êtat and let the subsequent career of Bush determine his fitness to serve, but, in contrast, the refusal to accept the very basic fact that Obama is an American citizen (born in Hawaii) continues.

The question is why?

Of course, it is impossible to get inside of the psychology of a sizable group of people, but it is possible to get into the history of the culture that created the concept of “whiteness” and the racial dialectical that similarly constructed its polar opposite, “blackness.” Until recently, the very thought of “white” was an absent presence: there but invisible, unspoken but acted upon, reiterated but not acknowledged. “White” as a “race” existed and exerted an unquestioned power but “white” was not seen. This social “white noise” was embedded in the cultural common consciousness, coming from everywhere and no where. The power of “white” rested upon the fact that its source and origin remained both operative and obscured.

Some twenty years ago, “white” came out of the dark and into the light of history and “whiteness studies” was born. This 2010 book by Nell Irvin Painter is part of these academic attempts to examine “whiteness” or “white” as a concept, but, in this book, she examines how the description of a skin color, “white,” became a loaded term, implying innate superiority of one skin color over anther and, by extension, of one “race” over another. To those who watch The Colbert Report, Painter was the game author who attempted to get it across to Stephen Colbert that “white” was an intellectual construct. Colbert asked a very interesting question, trying to determine if her book was a straight historical account of the comings and goings of white people. The History of White People is not what its title infers and the title is probably both ironic and provocative.

With a Ph. D. from Harvard and an academic position at Yale, Painter, a gifted artist and celebrated historian, took up the task of tracing the history of what I could call the “need to define” “white people.” This self-imposed task separates the work of Painter from the theoretical field of “whiteness studies,” for she has produced what is a fairly straightforward account in which she traces to the formation of a discourse on “white people.” It is only recently that an African American has been in the position to write about white people. Or to put it another way, white people have written a great deal about black people but society and culture prevented the objects of this whitened scrutiny to write back. The sheer fact that Painter is black gives the title an extra punch, mitigated by her easy and congenial manner: she comes in peace not in condemnation. As Painter explains on the first page,

I might have entitled this book Constructions of White Americans from Antiquity to the Present, because it explores a concept that lies within a history of events. I have chosen this strategy because race is an idea, not a fact, and its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm.

One of the oddities of “white people” is that unlike “German people” or “British people,” there is a paucity of literature devoted to defining “white people.” This scarcity is particularly notable when compared to the enormous amount of time, energy and ink spent on defining “black people.” There is, in fact, an excess, a surplus, an overflow of writing on “black,” giving the relative silence on “white” the kind of power only wielded by withholding. Withholding of “white” gave “white” not just a powerful potency but also created an assumption of what white meant, a blankness that allowed “white” to be over/written by whatever qualities the culture desired. In other words, “Blackness” was defined from the position of “Whiteness,” which was the vantage point of power and privilege which claimed in inalienable right to Represent. This is power indeed.

Painter’s book in interesting because of the way in which she lays out her argument that the “history” of “white people” is a discourse devised for socio-economic purposes dedicated to the maintenance of domination. First, she tracks down the basis of the word “Caucasian” and then linked the term to “white” which is then linked to “beauty” which was then connected to “intelligence, leading to the logic of superiority. Second, she establishes how the historical connection between color, “black” with bondage and “white” with free, and slavery was made. The importance of taking these two steps or of establishing these two separate discourses, is that the discourse of racial superiority and the discourse of slavery are separable. Painter has to separate the concepts because, once slavery was abolished, the discourse of racial superiority could live on unchanged. Slavery is easy to outlaw; the concept of one race being “superior ” to another is an idea and cannot be abolished.

Slavery can die but racism can live on.

How Racism began, without “Race”

Nell Painter begins her journey into understanding how two neutral words, “white” and “people” became conjoined with ancient Greece, supposedly the “cradle of Western civilization.” The ancient Greeks had no concept of “race” and differentiated among the peoples they came into contact with in terms of place or locale. Historians divided various tribal groups in a accordances with the physical and social distinctions due to climate or terrain. But there was one group that was beyond their empirical reach, those mysterious and legendary inhabitants of the region the Greeks called the “Caucasus.” Here was the land of myth. As Painter laconically describes it, this modern territory,

…is a geographically and ethnically complex area lying between the Black and Caspian Seas and flanked north and south by two ranges of the Caucasus Mountains. The northern Caucasus range forms a natural border with Russia; the southern, lesser Caucasus physically separates the area from Turkey and Iran. The Republic of Georgia lies between the disputed region of the Caucasus, Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan.

Today this region is still remote and isolated, only occasionally breached by modernity but through a historical accident that is rather arbitrary, “white people” have been named “Caucasians.” Like the Greeks, the Romans had no concept of “race” but the contribution of the Romans to racial thinking was both considerable and accidental. It was the Romans, who, in search of Empire, classified most of the inhabitants of Europe. The Romans were interested in the “civilization” or cultural traits of the non-Romans compared to the Empire builders. “For Roman purposes,” Painter writes, “politics and warfare defined ethnic identities.” Painter points out that it was Julius Caesar who gave many of the names we know and use today, from “Gaul” to “Germania,” to the peoples he encountered. In discussing the differences among these scattered and disparate tribes, Caesar was assessing their relative battle worthiness and determining how he would subdue them.

The Romans, as Empire builders, were imperially promiscuous, the better to blend the subjugated peoples to the conquerers. The result was centuries of intermixing and intermarriage resulting in a hybrid culture that some say diluted the social foundation of the Romans and gradually eroded the Empire. In contrast, the Germans or the Germanic tribes would be very resistant to the benefits of Empire and were hostile to outsiders. In the early years, during the time of Caesar when the Romans were striving to understand their northern neighbors, important differences were imagined. As Painter says,

How could eminent citizens of this great empire squeeze out admiration for the dirty, bellicose, and funny-looking barbarians to the north? The answer lies in notions of masculinity circulating among a nobility based on military conquest. According to this ideology, peace brings weakness; peace saps virility. The wildness of the Germani recalls a young manhood lost to the Roman empire. Caesar headed a train of civilized male observers—with Tacitus among the most famous—contrasting the hard with the soft, the strong and the weak, the peaceful and the warlike, all to the detriment of the civilized, dismissed as effeminate. As we see, the seeds of this stereotype—a contrast between civilized French and barbarian Germans—lie in the work of ancient writers, themselves uneasy about the manhood costs of peacetime.

The Greeks imagined the Caucasians and the Romans imagined the Germans and these ancient mythologies would link “whiteness” to “masculinity” or, to put it another way, there would be a link between purity and resistance compared to hybridity and femininity. The Gauls submitted to the Romans and permitted interpenetration of tribal cultures while the Germans remained “uncivilized” and aloof, withdrawing behind the Rhine river where they remained unmolested. The importance of “Teutonic purity” would be revived later and after the fall of the Roman Empire, Painter relates, “white people” are linked to the barbaric tribes of the British Isles, another resistant group divided by Hadrian’s Wall. The Anglo-Saxons, like the many tribes of the Roman Empire were an amalgamation of conquers and the conquerers—a hybrid mixture of Viking/Scandinavian tribes that invaded the island and settled.

It is interesting that the ethnic groups that gave the Romans the most resistance, the tribes in Great Britain and Germany, were the ones who became linked to “white people,” however, another element had to be added before the concept of “white” could come into existence. As stated, the modern concept of race is a very modern one and was linked to the final ingredient: “black” and slave. Until the sixteenth century, slaves were of all colors. In fact, as Painter points out, the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav,” or the Slavs from eastern Europe who, as the result of the labor shortage after the Black Death, were caught up in a lively slave trade. The “Slave” and the “black” “race” were not paired until the need for workers on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean encouraged the European colonizers to depend upon the Africans.

The Confluence of “Black” and “Slave”

The Spanish eradicated the indigenous population of the Caribbean in a couple of generations and, the English settlers of the North American continent also found out that it was difficult to enslave people—the Native Americans—in their own territory. Africans, seized and stolen from their homes, arrived in America dazed and disenfranchised, far removed from their own cultures with no hope of returning, made good slaves: strong and healthy, confused and divided by dialects and languages. Unlike the Native Americans, the Africans had nowhere to run and no place to hide. However, the idea of “slavery” and lifelong servitude took decades to affix itself to Africans only. Other books have outlined the process in which white indentured laborers and black indentured laborers were socially and legally separated from each other, leaving the white person “free” and the black person “enslaved,” but foundational focus of Painter is the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because it is in this period of “enlightenment” that the slavery of black people had to be justified.

Although she later outlines how the “peculiar institution” of slavery in America was developed, Painter unexpectedly begins by linking “white” and “beauty” through

the eighteenth-century science of race developed in Europe, influential scholars referred to two kinds of slavery in their anthropological works. Nearly always those associated with brute labor—Africans and Tartars primarily—emerged as ugly, while the luxury slaves, those valued for sex and gendered as female—the Circassians, Georgians, and Caucasians of the Black Sea region—came to figure as epitomes of human beauty.

The profitability of slavery, regardless of color, throughout the eighteenth century, would stifle any moral qualms about holding humans in bondage for two centuries. However, Painter emphasizes a clear and present subtext in the racialized discourse: the practice of dividing people in terms of physical appearance—beautiful and ugly—based on the Greek ideal (as filtered through Roman art), laced with sexual fantasies, stimulated by both homosexual and homosexual desire. Beauty, for men and women, was Greek and was attributed to certain kinds of features deemed unique to Europeans (white people) as opposed to Africans, Asians or Slavs. Tall, slim, pale-skinned, straight hair and straight noses were the favored elements—not just Greek features based on marble statues, but also diametrically and conveniently opposed to dark skinned, flat nosed, coarse haired Africans and Asians.

Painter does a nice job of presenting a number of intellectual and philosophical and scientific ideas put forward in the eighteenth century (and in the two subsequent centuries) concerning the measurement of skulls and the angle of facial profiles. To the reader conversant with these endeavors, the author presents a brisk summation across a series of chapters. The underlying reason for this growing discourse on “difference” is, of course, linked to the rise of Empires. The imperial adventures of European nations coupled with the enormously profitable enterprise of slavery were inconvenient coincidences with the Enlightenment and its rational doctrines of equality. We can assume that the serious manner in which the Europeans blinded themselves with (pseudo) science to account for their unwillingness to allow the logic of Enlightenment thought to play itself out was a defensive measure.

In America the need to distinguish “white” from “black” was acute. Europeans were intent on explaining their supposed superiority in terms of beauty, equated with innate intelligence, as the reason for colonizing and exploiting the rest of the known world. Unlike the Americans, the Europeans did not keep slaves nor did they depend upon a slave economy. In the American South, an agricultural feudal economy while the Europeans built an international mercantile economy. But in a small and new nation, the South was not only anachronistic but also powerful. Its leaders were slaveholders reluctant to give up their incomes to square their words of freedom with their deeds of slavery. When the Americans gained their independence, they did so by denying the majority of its inhabitants, women and slaves, basic rights. As English politician Samuel Johnson caustically asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Painter places Thomas Jefferson, slave owner, lover of a slave, father of slaves, at the center of the American thinking on the significance of “Anglo-Saxon” heritage. She writes,

To Jefferson, whatever genius for liberty Dark Age Saxons had bequeathed the English somehow thrived on English soil but died in Germany…In 1798 he wrote Essay on the Anglo-Saxon Language, which equates language with biological descent, a confusion then common among philologists. In this essay Jefferson runs together Old English and Middle English, creating a long era of Anglo-Saxon greatness stretching from the sixth century to the thirteenth. With its emphasis on blood purity, this smacks of race talk. Not only had Jefferson’s Saxons remained racially pure during the Roman occupation (there was “little familiar mixture with the native Britons”), but, amazingly, their language had stayed pristine two centuries after the Norman conquest: Anglo Saxon “was the language of all England, properly so called, from the Saxon possession of that country in the sixth century to the time of Henry III in the thirteenth, and was spoken pure and unmixed with any other.” Therefore Anglo-Saxon/Old English deserved study as the basis of American thought. One of Jefferson’s last great achievements, his founding of the University of Virginia in 1818, institutionalized his interest in Anglo-Saxon as the language of American culture, law, and politics. On opening in 1825, it was the only college in the United States to offer instruction in Anglo-Saxon, and Anglo-Saxon was the only course it offered on the English language. Beowulf, naturally, became a staple of instruction.

Jefferson’s obsession with the Anglo-Saxons and their mythical racial “purity” was shared with other Americans who were intent on establishing a cultural distinctiveness for those descended from English ancestors. The subtext was more than an attempt to elevate the “pure” white race above the African slaves; it was also a device used to coin social difference to elevate one class of white people above another. The sheer quantity of argument and writing about their racial superiority on the part of white males from all corners of intelligentsia imply a deep unease with their convoluted reasoning. Every now and then a counter argument was put forward, and a rare black voice was heard. Painter introduces the reader to David Walker, a free man in Boston and a well known activist who, in 1829 wrote David Walker’s Appeal: in four articles, together with a preamble, to the coloured citizens of the world, but in particular, and very expressly, to those of the United States of America. According to Painter,

Walker’s Appeal spread a wide net, excoriating “whites” and, indeed, “Christian America” for its inhumanity and hypocrisy. Over the long sweep of immutable racial history, Walker traces two essences. On one side lies black history, beginning with ancient Egyptians (“Africans or coloured people, such as we are”) and encompassing “our brethren the Haytians.” On the other lie white people, cradled in bloody, deceitful ancient Greece. Racial traits within these opposites never change.

Another sub-text that Painter locates in the growing American discourse on race is the dilemma of slave holders—the moral and psychic damage done to them by owning human beings and being unwilling to let the humans in bondage go free. To the modern reader, the guilt of the Founding Fathers is pure hypocrisy, for these high minded men did not have the courage to let go of their slaves, the foundation of their wealth and class position. When the Constitution was written the argument for doing nothing about slavery was put forward, for owning slaves seemed to be on the verge of being less and less profitable. However, the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1794 by Eli Whitney ended the wistful hope that slavery would collapse of its own weight. Once slavery was profitable, the discourse of justification intensified.

Slavery as the American Stain

The need to explain why slavery should continue to be a feature of American life would become more pressing as the nineteenth century progressed. European nations gradually outlawed slave trade, but sharp eyed observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville realized that the slave culture in the South constituted a moral cancer, a disease in the democratic republic. It is not just slavery, however, that is the embedded flaw, it is racism. Racism made it possible to enslave the black and to push the Native Americans off their lands. In his perceptive Democracy in America (1835) Tocqueville wrote unflatteringly of the Southerners:

“From birth, the southern American is invested with a kind of domestic dictatorship…and the first habit he learns is that of effortless domination…[which turns] the southern American into a haughty, hasty, irascible, violent man, passionate in his desires and irritated by obstacles. But he is easily discouraged if he fails to succeed at his first attempt…The southerner loves grandeur, luxury, reputation, excitement, pleasure, and, above all, idleness; nothing constrains him to work hard for his livelihood and, as he has no work which he has to do, he sleeps his time away, not even attempting anything useful.”

Europeans made fortunes in the vile trade of capturing and selling slaves but they distanced themselves, not from the profits but from the consequences by not actually owning Africans. According to Painter, Tocqueville seemed to find it hard to write of the South and its customs, but his friend Gustave de Beaumont examined slavery in America in Marie, or Slavery in the United States, a Picture of American Manners, written in the same year as Tocqueville’s first volume on America. However, Beaumont’s book was not translated into English until 1958 and, tragically, when it was finally published in America, its theme, how “one drop” of “black blood” designated an individual as “black.” Indeed, Painter does not point this out but during World War II, the American blood supply for the soldiers was divided between black and white blood.

For Painter, the Civil War and the extended blood letting over the question of slavery verses the rights of a state to own human beings is only but one part of the question of “race” that, by the nineteenth century had begun to define American thinking. As she writes,

In a society largely based on African slavery and founded in the era that invented the very idea of race, race as color has always played a prominent role. It has shaped the determination not only of race but also of citizenship, beauty, virtue, and the like. The idea of blackness, if not the actual color of skin, continues to play a leading role in American race thinking. Today’s Americans, bred in the ideology of skin color as racial difference, find it difficult to recognize the historical coexistence of potent American hatreds against people accepted as white, Irish Catholics. But anti-Catholicism has a long and often bloody national history, one that expressed itself in racial language and a violence that we nowadays attach most readily to race-as-color bigotry, when, in fact, religious hatred arrived in Western culture much earlier, lasted much longer, and killed more people. If we fail to connect the dots between class and religion, we lose whole layers of historical meaning. Hatred of black people did not preclude hatred of other white people—those considered different and inferior—and flare-ups of deadly violence against stigmatized whites.

What makes this book remarkable is that long before the Republican’s so-called “Southern Strategy” of the 1970s, American had already absorbed racial and racist thinking even before the Civil War. The other value of the book is the sad evidence of how deeply supposedly intelligent and fair minded people, American and European intellectuals and scientists were implicated in fashioning a discourse of dehumanization and prejudice. Painter devotes a segment of the book on how various immigrants who were not English struggled to be accepted as “Americans.” Broadly put, in Hegelian terms, the Master/Slave, the One/the Other dialectic became deeply embedded in the American psyche. Although America was a nation of immigrants, from the very start, only certain kinds of immigrants were welcome: no Irish, no Italians, no Jews, no Eastern Europeans, no Asians, and so on. In fact the nineteenth century, punctuated by the Civil War was one long struggle against the Other, whether it was the Native Americans in the West or the Catholics in the East.

Enlarging “White” through Diminishing Others

Many of the literary architects of the discourse of racism that constructed the concept of “white people” created a construct of “whiteness” that was designed to maintain the privilege of a favored few. Thomas Carlyle, generally well remembered for his efforts to improve the conditions of the working class, stained his record of humanism with viscous writing about the Irish. When Carlyle was writing the Irish were being deliberately starved out of Ireland but he was a man without pity. As Painter wrote,

Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), the most influential essayist in Victorian England, held the racial-deficiency view, having fled Ireland’s scenes of destitution in disgust after brief visits in 1846 and 1849. In one cranky article he called Ireland “a human dog kennel.” From his perch in London, Carlyle saw the Irish as a people bred to be dominated and lacking historical agency. He took it for granted that Saxons and Teutons had always monopolized the energy necessary for creative action. Celts and Negroes, in contrast, lacked the vision as well as the spunk needed to add value to the world.

Thomas Carlyle teamed up with the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson in a rather awkward partnership. Carlyle thought that slavery was a perfectly permissible state for the inferior race, while Emerson was an abolitionist. But both were involved in a mystical enterprise of elevating an imaginary Anglo-Saxon “race” above other “races,” such as the benighted Irish. As other writers have pointed out, the language and terminology developed by the English to defame the Irish and justify the British rule over Ireland. This language of inferiority and beastality was formed centuries before the African slave trade and was already ready to be deployed and applied towards any group considered unworthy. Although, as Painter points out, African Americans, such as Frederick Douglas, understood the parallels of prejudice against the Irish and the blacks, the Irish rejected this comparison and fought to be called “white.”

Other respected philosophers, from France’s Ernest Renan and America’s Matthew Arnold wrote extensively of the wonders of the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons. These writings can be read benignly as an attempt to delineate a national identity for a modern world, now obsessed with “difference.” But this strain of thinking was also at heart divisive and, for America, racist. By the middle of the nineteenth century, America was experiencing a tidal wave of immigration, starting with the Irish, followed by the Italians, all of whom were Catholic and all of whom were, therefore, alien to the supposed Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. The poetics of a Matthew Arnold and the violent bigotry of the Know Nothing Party are but two sides of the same coin. By mid century, as Painter writes, “The Anglo-Saxon myth of racial superiority now permeated concepts of race in the United States and virtually throughout the English-speaking world. To be American was to be Saxon.”

The reasons for this painstaking and fictional construct of “Teutonic” and “Anglo-Saxon” superiority seems clears today. Carlyle feared the consequences of democracy and other writers feared the invasion of the Others. However, the extent to which these supposed “great” men were aware of the contradiction between their views of the superiority of “whiteness” and the mercy and love of Christianity and promise of equality and democracy is unclear. But for the next one hundred years (and beyond), there would be a mountain of writing piling up a pseudo scientific and pseudo philosophical explanations for why certain peoples should be excluded from the basic rights of human beings and citizens of a free nation. This discourse constructed a fantasy vision of “white people” that was the base for a superstructure of exclusionary laws directed against people who were “not white.”

Clearly the political unconscious of both America and England is an ugly one, but Painter includes an interesting section that links racism not just to beauty but also to sexual desire. Most of the constructors of “whiteness” were middle class privileged males who may or may not have been latent homosexuals. Painter reads their texts much the way in which we read Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s writings on (Roman copies) Greek Art and finds an underlying current of, shall we say, intense admiration for the (male) beauty of the Teutonic ideal. These descriptions of the beautiful white male linger on today—fair skin, blue eyes, blond hair, tall thin frame—and are seen in Ambercombie and Fitch and Ralph Lauren advertising. That said, “white people” are gendered male and “beauty” is linked to the idea of “white.”

With the dubious intellectual weight behind the notion of the inherent and innate superiority of “white people,” came the construction of the “Aryan” idea that was so powerful that art history still includes the ancient Egyptian culture as “Western,” regardless of the fact that the Egyptians were Africans and black. The romantic idea of Aryan and white continued to be supported well into the twentieth century, as after the Civil War in America, “whiteness” was linked to enfranchisement and the power to vote. Even though black men were give the “right” to vote in 1870, full voting rights for non-whites took a hundred years to come about and the hard-fought right to cast a ballot remains under threat today.

Aryan Supremacy Through Eugenics

One of the great services of Painter’s book is the parade of scholars and scientists who wrote of the wonders of being Aryan and Anglo-Saxon and who did studies of the human skull in order to “prove” racial superiority. Today, these men are obscure and well-known only to specialists, such as Painter, but, in their time, as she stresses, they were respected and celebrated. What is remarkable is not only how forgotten these architects of racism are today but also paradoxically how completely their discourses penetrated the American collective consciousness. Reading of one after another of these supposed intellectuals is simply depressing. Decades after slavery was abolished, the writings kept coming, their perpetrators festooned with honors and crowned with laurels, halted only in the face of the Nazis.

Not that the proponents of Aryan superiority would be entirely silenced by the horrors of the Holocaust but the doctrine of racial superiority would lose its luster, at long last. The nation therefore owes a great deal to the occasional and brave white dissenter, like the anthropologist, Franz Boas, who joined with Black intellectual, W. E. B. Dubois to fight racism and anti-semitism in those decades before the Second World War. As Painter points out,

During the late nineteenth century, poor, dark-skinned people often fell victim to bloodthirsty attack, with lynching only the worst of it. Against a backdrop of rampant white supremacy, shrill Anglo-Saxonism, and flagrant abuse of non-Anglo-Saxon workers, Boas appears amazingly brave. It mattered little in those times that lynching remained outside the law. More than twelve hundred men and women of all races were lynched in the 1890s while authorities looked the other way. Within the law, state and local statutes mandating racial segregation actually expelled people of color from the public realm.

The voices, such as that of Boas, who spoke out against the bogus assertion of “race,” were shouting into a headwind of rhetoric. American histories rarely stress the articulate racism of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But early in the twentieth century, instead of leading the population into a new century with new thinking, they vigorously extended the creed of “Anglo-Saxonism.” The trend towards to “Teutonic,” abated somewhat due to the Great War in which the Germans or the Teutons were the enemy. One of the outgrowths of elevation of “white people” was the attendant fear of “race suicide,” due to the threat of intermarriage among the Anglo-Saxons and “inferior” whites. In the Northern states, these rants were due to the continued flux of immigrants who were diluting the essence of the “white” race, in the South, the fear of inter-racial mixing drove many localities to forced sterilization of those who were unfit to breed.

The “science” of eugenics, that would become the driving force behind the Nazis extermination of the Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” was, like many of the racist theories in America, tended to be the brian child of New Englanders. Cradled and supported by the most eminent universities in the nation, these writers drove a discourse of exclusion and elimination of the wrong kind of blood or hereditary. It was taken as an article of faith that “inferiority” was hereditary and that there was no concept of environmental considerations that may have caused generational poverty. On one hand, scholarship was turned into public policy that prevented equal opportunity and, on the other hand, those who were impacted were then declared inferior due to generations of bigots who kept the Irish, or the Italians, the Chinese, the African Americans, and so on, from achieving.

The solution to the socially engineered under achievements of the poor and disadvantaged was forced sterilization, which was found constitutional by an 8-1 majority. Virginia led the way in 1924 and for a decade (with California coming in as the second largest sterilizing state), until shamed when the Nazis took up identical policies of sterilizing the poor and those who might inherit a tendency towards criminality, other states followed. But forced sterilization continued until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Eugenics was directly linked to the argument of inherited superiority of “white people” by taking the assumption of birth rights and privileges and turning it against towards those who had inherited poverty.

If one inherited one’s low economic status, then one also inherited a low intelligence. As with sterilization, technology and pseudo science was put in the service of white suprematists. Blithely unaware of the impact of environment upon intelligence and of the inherent biases in the so-called “intelligent” tests designed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, the anti-immigrant “nativists” used yet another measure to disenfranchise and marginalize the less white whites. The bundle of frantic efforts to maintain domination with tactics including Jim Crow Laws, forced sterilization, anti-immigration intelligence testing and restricted immigration were all based on the supposed superiority of the very white European stocks. However, as these superior beings, in all their shining whiteness, descended into the mad savagery of the Great War.

White Public Policy

The awkwardness of seeing the “white people” acting badly did not deter decades of effort during the twentieth century in legitimizing people of color, Catholics, and Jews. These bigoted beliefs mainstreamed and popularized through mass media and had become widely believed. Fortunately, these beliefs were forced underground and were muted by mid-century. As Painter explains,

After its heyday among race theorists in the 1910s and 1920s, Anglo-Saxonism declined during the Great Depression and the Second World War. A new generation of social scientists had outgrown such blather on race. Now scholars were questioning the very meanings of any and all concepts of race and studying the troubling fact of racial prejudice. Ruth Benedict, along with Franz Boas and their like, were beginning to carry the day…The change from 1920s hysteria to 1940s cultural pluralism occurred simultaneously in politics and in culture.

After the Second World War II, racism, based on the the ideal of “white” beauty, continued under other guises, despite the fact that the idea that there was a scientific entity called “race” was being debunked. During the final decades of the twentieth century, the idea of “white people” was less intellectualized and more politicized. The efforts to assert the superiority of whites was no longer respectable in academia but the efforts to deny African Americans the benefits of the New Deal, the G. I. Bill, and even basic civil rights continued in public policy through a maze of laws and customs. In addition to being pushed to the margins, people of color were trained through mass media to “look white.” As Painter writes,

Much nose bobbing, hair straightening, and bleaching ensued. Anglo-Saxon ideals fell particularly hard on women and girls, for the strength and assertion of working-class women of the immigrant generations were out of place in middle-class femininity. Not only was the tall, slim Anglo-Saxon body preeminent, the body must look middle-rather than working-class.

People of color or different “ethnic” types were forced by real estate laws and municipal zoning to live in ghettos and barrios, where they were invisible. The race presented by mass media as “American” was pure white, people of color were rare and on the fringes in movies and many mainstream magazines, from news magazines to fashion magazines, refused to print photographs of people of color. But the Civil Rights Movement countered the myth of white cultural and physical superiority by challenging white people on moral grounds. Painter quotes Malcolm X,

“When I say the white man is a devil, I speak with the authority of history…. The record of history shows that the white man, as a people, have never done good…. He stole our fathers and mothers from their culture of silk and satins and brought them to this land in the belly of a ship…. He has kept us in chains ever since we have been here…. Now this blue-eyed devil’s time has about run out.”

While the “white people” were frightened after hearing the frank assessment of a certain portion of the African American public, that same public would be alarmed at the writings of an anti-melting pot white supremacist, as quoted by Painter, as having

taught at Stanford University and the experimental college of the State University of New York at Old Westbury. In The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, perfectly suited to the times, Novak concentrates on those unmeltable “PIGS,” Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slavs, in their view so long reviled: “The liberals always have despised us. We’ve got these mostly little jobs, and we drink beer and, my God, we bowl and watch television and we don’t read. It’s goddamn vicious snobbery. We’re sick of all these phoney integrated TV commercials with these upper-class Negroes. We know they’re phoney.”

These words, complete with misspelling, from Michael Novak’s Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972) would, today, be termed “hate speech.” At the time, they were the leading edge of the Nixon “Southern Strategy” which was a fancy term of thinly disguised racism. Here and there a few lone voices among white Southerners were raised and revealed the inherent lack of “ethics” in the system of racial segregation, bases upon the fiction of “white supremacy.” Painter presents

Lillian Smith (1897–1966), a white southern essayist, novelist, and (with her lifetime partner Paula Schnelling) operator of a fancy summer camp for girls, powerfully described her South in Killers of the Dream (1949 and 1961). The book pilloried southern culture as pathological and white supremacist southerners as caught in a spiral of sex, sin, and segregation.5* Here was a book of wide influence that portrayed whiteness as morally diseased.

It would take science, real science this time to put to rest the notion that there was “race.” There are only human beings who have skin colors and facial features that have evolved due to the environment. Painter quotes

the words of J. Craig Venter, then head of Celera Genomics, “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one. We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world.” Each person shares 99.99 percent of the genetic material of every other human being. In terms of variation, people from the same race can be more different than people from different races.18 And in the genetic sense, all people—and all Americans—are African descended.

Painter’s book is divided into a series of what she terms “Enlargements of Whiteness.” The First Enlargement” is in fact the formation of the post-Enlightnement discourse on “white people” by writers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The Second Enlargement builds on these beginnings and uses the ideas of racial superiority to expand political rights for one group of white people, the males, and excluding other groups, people of color and women. The Third Enlargement expanded these privileges after the Second World War by showering benefits upon white males and by excluding equally deserving people of color and women from the great government “thank you” stimulus that created the male middle class. The Fourth Enlargement is one of the struggle of women and people of color to enter fully into the American dream.


People of color made inroads during the post-war period because the discourse that defined “white people” was doubly discredited. First the Nazis adopted lock, stock and barrel the entire panoply of racist ideologies and used this discourse on “Aryans” and “Anglo Saxons” and what have you to slaughter millions of human beings. Second, the final stand of the white supremacists during the Civil Rights period was so public and so ugly and the resulting photographs and television coverage was so shaming that it was impossible to defend the determination to disenfranchise millions of American citizens. But the final coup de grâce was the genetic studies that proved that all humans share the same genetic makeup and that there is no scientific entity that could be separated out as “white people.”

Painter ends with the hope that perhaps intermarriage and “race mixing” will end the black/white dichotomy but that is far in the future. In the meantime as she points out “Nonetheless, poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior.” The discourse on “white people” is alive and well and is an article of faith by millions of Americans who may or may not be aware of the immoral and unethical and unAmerican roots of their ideologies. It is sad to learn from this book that the term “American exceptionalism” is a code for “white people”—Anglo-Saxon “whiteness.”

When politician say that “Barack Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism,” they are saying “Barack Obama is black.” Like all the invading immigrants from the Irish to the Hispanics, he doesn’t “belong;” he is not an “American.” The discourse on “white people” is why there is such a strong belief that the President wasn’t born in America. Obama cannot be an American because he is an African American; he is black. Painter needs to write a sequel to this book that focuses on the twenty-first century salvage operation of this discourse which continues on the fringes on hate websites and in political speeches. The Discourse of “White People” continues to mar the American Dream.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Post-Colonial Theory: Frantz Fanon



Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth

Since the voyages of Columbus, Europeans sought out the territories of the Other, claimed the dark skinned people for slaves, and exploited the resources of those alien “virgin” lands. There are two steps to imperialism: economic imperialism in terms of a trading relationship in which the Europeans dominated the indigenous peoples of South Asia, and Asia and the Middle East and colonialism, in which colonizers are sent to these subjugated territories to either conquer and control them and keep them safe for capitalism. In this dyad of economic exploitation, the Americas were a special case: a huge continental mass supposedly “empty” and “undeveloped” through the inability of the “inferior” natives to properly put the lands to good use offended the European sensibility. Territories left in their virgin state, unclaimed and untamed cried out to be tended and in the colonial era, colonization was a migration to a permanent new home. Colonial Americans, seeing vast spaces in need of cultivation, an undertaking that required cheap of free labor, followed the lead of the British, French, and Dutch and brought in captured Africans to build the new continent.

Elsewhere, the Europeans settled in outposts that were embedded within large already established robust often urban cultures, from Hong Kong to Dubai to New Delhi. The outposts developed from trading stations to centers of conquest and rule, activities that were staffed by military and civilians shipped over from Europe. This ambiguous approach to colonialism in Africa and Asia brought a small but dominant population of Europeans into close contact with a large mass of the original inhabitants. As with American slavery, control could not be only physical–never could such a small number of people effectively control and subdue millions of human beings. As was pointed out in the last post on Albert Memmi, the problem of maintaining dominance was solved through establishing a psychological order of Master and Slave which was internalized by both the colonizer and the colonized alike.

Post-colonial writings have many points of beginning, both European and American, but among the most eloquent were the two books published by Frantz Fanon (1925 – 1960), Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Like Aime Cesaire, Fanon was Caribbean, born in Martinique, one of France’s “possessions,” like Albert Memmi, he studied in France but in Lyon, practiced medicine in Algeria, next door to Tunisia, and like, Memmi experienced the end of colonialism in North Africa. Fanon’s books came out of his experiences with racism as a black man and the struggle for self-determination as the colonized. Like Memmi, he attracted that positive attention and patronage of Jean-Paul Sartre. After a short life and an all-too-short career, he contracted leukemia and went to Baltimore for treatment where he died in 1961 of cancer. In his lifetime, Fanon was little noted but he would be long remembered for his anguished and emotional accounts of what it meant to be the Other. Algeria was the last major French colony to be relinquished to its “rightful owners,” after a long and bloody and repressive war.


Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)

After the war in which they absorbed a humiliating defeat and occupation, the French viewed their former imperial empire from two perspectives–either the empire should be retained as a point of pride or, so as to not mimic the Nazis, the colonies should be set free. The French public was split, left and right, over the ethics of retaining a colony and the immorality of keeping a people in imperial bondage. The French were the colonizer and their dual positions were political ones, but Frantz Fanon viewed the struggle between Algeria and France as one of racial and not religious difference. This political contest between unequals was not just a cultural clash or a quarrel over aspirations but, on a deeper level, there was also a psychotic confrontation between two wounded souls and maimed minds. Fanon sought to analyze the combatants as one would study a patient in need of help.

Educated in the French Hegelian, Marxist, Freudian tradition/s, Fanon asked “What does the Black man want?” He relied on Georg Hegel for his answer: the Black man wants to be recognized by the White man. The problem is that the White man and the Black man are caught up in the master/slave relationship that is not mere theory but is an actual psychosis. “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” Fanon wrote freely and expressively in his first book, while The Wretched of the Earth, with the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, is more measured and clinical, a theoretical critique. The early publication date of Black Skin, White Masks–1952–is remarkable, predating the rise of the Civil Rights movement in America and the wars of independence in North Africa. But this book is a shout of anger against the regime of colonialism, a form of rule that had outlived its usefulness. Fanon understood the power of the linguistic construction of opposites, the One and the Other, in which one term subordinates the other term and renders it inferior. The linguistic construction mirrored the domination of the white man over the black man in the colonies and in America. Both sides, guilty and innocent, are trapped in a sick relationship.

Fanon also paralleled the writing of his contemporary, Albert Memmi, who wrote of the “colonizer” and the “colonized”, in appropriate Structuralist language. Fanon dealt with language and pointed out that when the black man speaks the language of the white man, the black man assumes the culture and the civilization of his oppressor. The conqueror has no interest in the culture of the conquered who are considered in need of civilizing. As a result of the civilizing mission the mask of imperialism, colonized people have been stripped of their own languages and, without their own culture, they lived with inferiority complex. The colonized individual is faced with the “superior” culture that dominates her and is “elevated” above “jungle status” only to the extent that he adopts the mother country’s standards, from language to learning.

“I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization,” he wrote. The black man who approaches the white world and attempts to fit in–to learn French, to be educated in France, to live in France–becomes “white” only to his black friends but remains irredeemably “black” among white people. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Fanon writes of what DuBois called “two-ness,” or the sense of being caught between cultures, a state that Fanon called “two dimensions” or “self-division” or what DuBois called “double consciousness.” This self-division is the result of colonialism and subjugation by the colonizer. The result is a psychotic break that is a recognizable mental illness.

Descended from slaves captured in African to work the plantations of the Caribbean, Fanon writes of the mental state of “the modern Negro” as a “clinical study.” “The black man becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.” “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.” The black man wants only to break through this “seal” which is the white belief in white superiority to show the richness of black culture and African intellect. In other words, the black man/slave wants recognition form the white man/master. The black man has only one way out of his inferiority and that escape route is through the white world. The result of this contact or impact of whitening is that the black man is radically changed into what Fanon refereed as an “absolute mutation” with the result of “ego-withdrawal” or “restriction” or a renunciation of authenticity to avoid the pain.

The accommodation of the black man to the white man brings no rewards, only alienation, and this alienation or de-humanization, is the object of Fanon’s study. Writing in the early fifties and early sixties, Fanon could see no way out for either of the parties. “The Negro is enslaved by his inferiority, the white man is enslaved by his superiority”. The neurotic withdrawal of the black man is a defense mechanism and the Negro become abnormal due to the trauma of his encounter with white culture. Desiring the approval of the white man, the black man becomes impaired in his development and becomes one sided. In his deeply felt book, Fanon explains, more eloquently than any Hegelian variation on the One and the Other, what it is like to be judged negatively on the color of one’s skin. Fanon combined psychoanalysis and Marxism, understanding that colonized people were traumatized and could never create their own cultures unless they were truly liberated. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon described the process of “decolonization,”

Decolonization, which sets out to change the oder of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder..Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. The first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the xpoloiatiaonof the native by he settler–was carried on by dine of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the nataive are old acquaitances.

Fanon was a warrior and a healer. He actually fought against fascism in the Second World War and was disgusted with the racism of the Allies. The American military was shamefully segregated and racist elements at home in Washington D. C. plotted to prevent soldiers of color from voting in federalized elections. The British military, as well as the Free French, kept their colonials carefully separate. After the war, even the French Communist Party supported the continuation of colonialism, perhaps because to be a colonial power would still mean something to the nation’s prestige. It was his disgust that led Fanon to participate as a revolutionary in the Algerian uprising against their French masters. Fanon also participated, as a teacher, in what we would term terrorist activities. Indeed, modern terrorism has as one of its beginning moments, the war in Algeria. Fanon realized, however, that the revolutionaries were like any other revolutionary power: essentially bourgeois and wanting only to take over power from the French and to maintain the class and religious oppressions that the French had set up. As he stated, “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”

Today, Algeria is a fundamentalist Muslim country, a far cry from Fanon’s Marxism vision of equality, even for women. The new interest in Fanon, for the uninitiated, can be dated back to 1995 London conference organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The book published in relation to an exhibition of the same name, Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire is an interesting example of how a writer—Fanon—has been re-contextualized and depoliticized and appropriated for contemporary purposes. The difficulty for the post-colonial writer lies in the famous opposition between the Colonizer and the Colonized, set up in a book of the same name by Fanon’s contemporary, Albert Memmi. To speak and to be heard, it is necessary to speak “in the master’s voice” and thus lose the specificity of one’s own heritage, one’s own voice. Fanon is an interesting writer because his voice was not blunted by accommodation or co-option. Although he died decades before the literary écriture feminine movement in France, Fanon, like Luce Irigaray, was an early disrupter of the politeness of university French. Fanon concluded,

I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Post-Colonial Theory: Albert Memmi



Albert Memmi, The Colonized and the Colonized

Just as Race is essentially an American phenomenon, Post-Colonial Theory is essentially a European phenomenon. While it is necessary to make a distinction between the very different experiences of people of color under European and American rule, it is also possible to make a more general theoretical point. Colonialism and racism are both outcomes of the concept of “the Other.” The idea of the One and the Other stems from European philosophical thinking that both pre-dated the system of European model of imperialism, which included conquest, slavery, colonialism, and exploitation of non-Europeans, and justified a set of practices based on difference. For hundreds of years, colonialism, a manifestation of imperialism, was the means whereby Europeans controlled peoples of other continents, until two World Wars gradually eroded a rule that included over ninety percent of the globe. The “post” of Colonialism is both the after-time of a historical period and the critique of the episteme or mind set that led one small part of the world to dominate the Other.

Descartes posited a separation between mind and matter, Emmanuel Kant placed a gap between the subject and the object, Georg Hegel distinguished between the master and the slave. Saussure noted that language is structured in pairs of opposites. Jacques Derrida insisted that polarities are interdependent upon each other. Whether through language or philosophical models, the point is that the subject, the thinking human being, can understand what s/he is only in terms of what s/he is not. Human consciousness comes into being through this recognition of difference and, as Hegel demonstrated, the need to be acknowledged by the Other. The germ of the problem is clear in Hegel who understood that the difference between the One and the Other constitutes inequality. Rather than a neutral “difference” that merely designates or distinguishes, “difference” is loaded with judgments: the Master is superior to the Slave, and, although they recognizes themselves through each other, this recognition favors the Master and works to the detriment of the Slave. It does not matter that the Master cannot exist without the existence of the Slave, without the presence of a “master” the “slave” would be free.

Later philosophers point out that, while language might be structured out of opposites, socially and politically the One and the Other are not “natural” events but are constructed out of the need, not just to determine differences, but to dominate. The mode of constructing the Other is a form of representation or of the One re-presenting the Other in terms that craft domination. Taken to extremes Othering others moves very quickly to dehumanization. According to Theodor Adorno, the “Identity thinking” or the concept of universality, of the Enlightenment is based upon exclusion. If certain selected elements are included within an existing structure, then certain “other” elements have to be excluded to make the initial inclusion meaningful. Post-Colonial theory is about that exclusion. However, Post-Colonial theory is about existentialism or the conditions under which one comes into existence or consciousness through the deliberate extinction of the humanity of the Other.

Exclusion and dominance began long before the philosophy of post-coloniality. Just as colonialism antedated and generated racism, sexism antedates all prejudices and establishes the primary division or the primal Othering between the genders. In isolated communities, in small tribes, the people saw only themselves and there was no other. Long before there was a need for tribes to confront each other over control of territory, the Other had already been created and that Other was Woman. When he attempted to theorize the universal dominance of women by men, Friedrich Engels reasoned that the creation of the idea of “property” or “ownership” allowed men to reduce women and cattle and land to objects to be owned. However, even if Engels was right (and we have no way of knowing that he was), the idea of the One and the Other must have already existed if only because the concept of “equality” needs “inequality” to be meaningful.

In his linking of property and inequality, Engels, along with Karl Marx, would lay the groundwork for a theory of the economy in which capitalism determines society and human relations. Marxism, therefore, was the foundation or stepping stone for Post-Colonial theory, which began to emerge in the 1970s out of traditional Marxism. Post-Colonialism was the intellectual creation of post-war immigrants or the children of immigrants who had come to the Mother Country of England or France to be educated at elite institutions. Marxism’s critique of capitalism provided a useful frame through which the capitalist thrust of imperialism and the class relations of colonialism could be analyzed. In these early years, Post-Colonial theory showed up on the theory radar as “Subaltern Studies” at the University of Sussex with the colonial subjects, the subordinated and the marginalized as active speakers. However, the position of Post-Colonial theory within Marxism was an uneasy one and there is an earlier approach that provided yet another avenue for critique, Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized published in 1957.


Albert Memmi (1920-) is the ultimate Other, a Jew in a Muslim country, Tunisia, colonized by the French. Born in 1925 of a Berber mother and an Italian father, who passed on his Jewish identity, Memmi was able to observe the turbulent process of de-colonizaiton when Algeria and Tunisia became independence from the French in in 1956. Memmi’s contribution to the Post-Colonial conversation was that he lived within colonialism, unsure of his place: as a native of Tunisia he was colonized, as a Jew he identified with his fellow Europeans, the French. Although he certainly recognized the economic “fascism” of imperialism, Memmi placed colonialism in it more precise structure: racism. While it is correct that imperialism and colonialism were the result of the needs of capitalism to continually expand, the point is that only in territories of color did the Europeans take over and exploit (Asia and India) and exterminate the inhabitants (the Americas) and establish colonists to control their economic interests. In his remarkable book, Remarkable Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Stephen Greenblat remarked upon the unprecedented nature of this post-Columbian imperialism.

As Memmi pointed out in the beginning of his book, the imperialist adventure was a layered one: on one hand it was a purely economic quest which was authorized as a good-hearted desire to “help” and “civilize” the poor unfortunate native through benevolent colonization. The argument for civilizing of the dark-skinned native is linked to just that—the dark skin, which is racism, which in turn is simple Othering another human being out of viable existence. Thus Post-Colonial theory became part of existentialism long before it was funneled through Marxism. It is no accident that it was Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction when The Colonizer and the Colonized was published in 1957. In his opening sentence Sartre, whose companion Simone de Beauvoir was friends with American writer Richard Wright, links colonization to racism, the kind of racism flourishing in America.

Only the Southerner is competent to discuss slavery, because he alone knows the Negro; the puritanical and abstract Northerners know man only as an entity. This fine line of reasoning still has its uses: in Houston, in the newspapers of New Orleans, and in “French” Algeria—since we too are someone’s Northerners. The newspaper there tell us that the colonizer alone is qualified to speak of the colony. The rest of us, who live in the mother country do not have his experience, so we are to view the burning land of Africa through this eyes, which will just show us the smoke.

Memmi’s writing is a doubling: he is both the colonizer by dint of being a European and he is also the colonized by dint of being Tunisian. His approach is hybrid for he lives with a version of what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness.” As a Jew and a Tunisian he suffered from a double anti-Semitism, both in in Tunisia and in France, where Jews had been deported to death camps. After being educated in post-war Paris, Memmi’s place in society that he has no place for he is part of the diaspora, pulled back and forth between Paris and Tunis, at home nowhere but finally settling in Paris. In 1982 he published Racism which begins with a sentence that could be written today: “There is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still racism persists, real and tenacious.” Memmi’s most recent book and sadly probably his last is the 2006 book, The Decolonization and the Decolonialized, which subverts the “civilizing” argument of the imperialists by asking why these former colonies have not flourished.

The answer can be found by returning to the groundbreaking The Colonizer and the Colonized where Memmi outlined the psychological effects of racism upon the One who is the colonizer and becomes morally corrupted and upon the Other who incorporated the role of the (non)Other as inferior and incapable and without consequence. The One systematically eradicated the native culture and the native language as the price for merely entering into the company of the Colonizer. The Colonized is forced to give up indigenous identification but in the process loses any meaningful identity. The process is one of psychological slavery that dehumanizes the Other and turns her into an object. The Other begins to identify with the (impossible) One but evolves into what Caribbean poet and politician, Aime Cesaire (1913-2008) called “thingification” in the 1955 book, Discours sur le colonialism. Memmi described the path of the Colonized into the exile of religion, the only remaining refuge and his discussion of the trajectory of the Colonized into religion and rebellion sheds light on the events unfolding today in the Middle East and North Africa.

Memmi’s seminal book outlined the social costs and the psychological damage a racist system of inequality does to the colonizer who enjoys unearned privilege. His portrait of the colonizer is scathing. The colonizer is pictured as a glamorous figure who is nevertheless an individual who is mediocre and who would have little future in the Mother Country. In the “colonies,” the colonizer can succeed but not in open and honest competition but at the expense of people who have been dis-empowered. Once the colonizer becomes aware of–becomes conscious of–the Other or the colonized, then the truth of the situation becomes clear. The colonizer is in charge and can write the rules and can make the laws, all of which benefit one element of the binary: the colonizer. The colonized are dehumanized, like a Slave, and exist to be exploited for the benefit of the Master. True, on the surface this exploitation is economic, the outcome of the punitive capitalistic practices of imperialism but at another level, suppressed by the colonizer, lies a narrative of oppression based solely on skin color. As Memmi wrote,

Colonialism denies human rights to human beings whom it has subdued by violence, and keeps them by force in a state of misery and ignorance that Marx would rightly call a subhuman condition. Racism is ingrained in actions, institutions, and in the nature of the colonialist methods of production and exchange. Political and social regulations reinforce one another.

The colonizer is doubly illegitimate: not only is he an interloper in a land that is not their but she is also taking away opportunities from the colonized. Making unjust laws that reinforce an unjust system only make the system doubly unjust. Both parties are entrapped in a society that harms them both but one party, the colonizer receives too many benefits to be willing to relinquish her unjust privileges and the colonized have no power to change his conditions. Aime Casaire presciently perceived that a price would have to be paid when he observed in 1955,

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.

The fact is that the so-called European civilization – “Western” civilization – as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem; that Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of “reason” or before the bar of “conscience”; and that, increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.

Like Memmi, Cesaire laid out the charges against the colonial system during a time when the system was breaking down, bent and bowed under the weight of its own injustice. It is interesting to note that the years in which Memmi and Cesaire were writing, the mid to late fifties, were the same years that initiated the Civil Rights Movement in America. Like Memmi, Cesaire compared the rule of the French over their colonies to the rule of the Nazis over their conquered territories. In effect, in attempting to retain what is not legitimately theirs, the French have become their own worst nightmare. As he wrote,

..colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism..

Although the early critiques of colonialism predate all “posts,” Memmi and Cesaire clearly understood the interdependence of the two poles: the colonizer and the colonized, and this interdependence is the very agent that will deconstruct the binary. Memmi was aware that the colonized would demand self-determination and that war and rebellion would continue until the ties were severed.The ties between the colonizer and colonized are not just political they are psychological. The interiorization of inferiority on the part of the native would have grave consequences. Later post-colonial theorists, writing after the end of Empires would take a Post-Structuralist approach inherited from linguistic and literary theory and re-evaluate the dialectical dance between the colonizer and the colonized. Cesaire used his poetry as a political weapon, twisting Shakespeare’s Brave New World to reproach the usurper:

Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(lied about the world, lied about me)
that you have ended by imposing on me
an image of myself.
underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That is the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
and I know myself as well.

Aime Cesaire’s version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1968)

Both authors lived long enough to engage in scholarly debates about colonialism and would see the end of the “civilizing” mission of European imperialism. Both would live in the Mother Country of France and speak and write in the mother tongue and both would live to see France changing as the colonized, the oppressed Muslim population, “come home.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


African American Artists, Part Two


All artists of color are faced with the question of whether or not to assert their ethnic identity in their art or to simply make art without ethnicity. The white world expects Chicanos to make only murals, for example, and expects Blacks to deal with African-American subject matter. Many artists struggle against being forced into ethnic categories while others simply transcend their ethnicity.

Many people do not know that Martin Puryear is an African-American artist. His sculptures do not appear to have any particular ethnicity or African narratives. But appearances are deceiving. Puryear is an internationally trained artist who served in the Peace Corps and found himself in West Africa, in the nation of Sierra Leone. West Africa faces outward to Europe and America and was a convenient jumping off site for slave trade. The ancestors of many African Americans began their journey into generational slavery in Sierra Leone.

Puryear was inspired by the craft objects and craft techniques of the people of the nation. His sculptures are essentially greatly enlarged and abstracted versions of African objects, dislocated from their source and function, but still evocative of another culture. Audiences in the know who arrive at the Getty Museum of Art in Brentwood recognize the huge wire scoop-like sculpture on the plaza as being derived from the culture of Sierra Leone. Visitors who do not know Puryear’s African references think that the installation is another abstract work of art. One of Puryear’s most obvious African references is his 36 foot Ladder to Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington was an interesting and problematic character in Black history.

Unlike W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, who were militant-minded when it came to Black rights, Washington was believed in accommodating the white desire to be separate from Blacks. He believed in “gradualism,” that is, African-Americans would gradually be given rights as the whites saw fit. Called an “Uncle Tom” by many African-Americans, Washington, in the mind of whites was a “model Negro” and was even invited to dine at the White House, for an evening with the President.

Washington was part of the Black “culture of waiting:” Blacks were always being told to “wait” for equality, because it was “too soon” to gain their rights as citizens. And yet, Puryear’s ladder stretches upward, striving to reach its goal. The shape of the ladder in not straight but meandering, indicating the slow path to equal rights, and the bottom of the ladder is wider than the top which is very narrow, giving the impression of a ladder to the starts, disappearing in the distance of African-American achievement.

Perhaps the best-known African-American artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was of Hatiian-Puerto-Rican heritage. After a tragic and disturbed childhood on the streets of New York, Basquiat became a graffiti artist and a colorful part of the Eighties East Village scene, with his crown-like short dreads. He was known by his signature, “Samo,” meaning “Same old Shit,” referring to the drugs he took. Basquiat was one of a small group of ambitious artists who had their eyes on the prize: New York galleries. Despite his reputation as a street artist, Basquiat was actually from a well-educated, middle-class family of professionals, and he was determined to become a fine artist.

Basquiat was lucky enough to be a painter at a time when painting was making a comeback and the art world was looking for new talent. Along with fellow graffiti artists, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring, Basquiat made sure his art was on the walls near the gallery scene and he was eventually “discovered” by art dealers who promoted him and his career. Basquiat was as much a writer and poet as a painter and most of his paintings are covered with writing. What did he write about? Basquiat was unusual for Black artists at that time, in that he made the Black Male the protagonist of his work. Rarely do women appear in his works, most of which celebrate African-American heroes, jazz great Charlie Parker, boxers, Floyd Patterson and Mohammad Ali, and the famous blues musician, Robert Johnson.

Well-educated and knowledgable about Black history, Basquiat told tales of slave uprisings and Black resistance. However, one wonders if any of his white buyers ever bothered to read the texts of his paintings. The texts criticized and castigated whites and made fun of white liberals, but the paintings sold very well, making Basquiat a wealthy and successful man while still in his twenties. He painted in Armani suits, which he then threw away. He partied with the likes of Andy Warhol and Julian Schnable. He was young, beautiful, black, and rich. The rest of the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a cautionary tale of a man who was exploited for his talents and for his ability to earn money for his dealers who worked him “like a slave.” Sensitive, high strung and aware of his designation as a colorful “primitive” with “natural” talent, Basquiat retreated deeper into drugs and (white) women (including Madonna), until his death from a drug overdose. He was twenty-seven years old.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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African-American Art: The Harlem Renaissance


The Harlem Renaissance

To ask the question: what is African-American art? is to ask what is American art? America is a nation of immigrants. The only “American” culture is that of the Native Americans and, ironically, as was pointed out earlier, this is the most marginalized of artistic expressions in America. From the nineteenth century, scholars—completely ignoring the Native Americans—pointed out that there was no such thing as an “indigenous” American culture and that American art and literature and music were all based upon European forms and precedents. In the twenty-first century, scholars are more inclusive and speak of hybrid cultures or hyphenated art.

The Chicano and Mexican-American artists based their art on precedents from Mexico and Central America. The Asians who came to the United States from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and India also arrived with their unique sensibilities. Likewise, African-American artists, descended from slaves kidnapped out of Africa, brought the culture of African tribes to America. These African forms of literature, art and music had no ties to Europe or America or Asia. It would be fair to say that “American” art is an amalgam of four continents. It would also be fair to to point out that when cultural elements though of as quintessential “American” art are listed, the origin is, in fact African.

Black culture produced several unique genres of literature, such as the slave narrative, the sermons from the African-American churches, and, of course, the Blues, the source of gospel music and jazz. Today, many people would agree that the music that is “American” is rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and hip hop, the food that is “American” is barbeque, fried chicken, and “soul food”—all of African origin. Ironically this specifically American culture developed the result of the forced slavery and segregation of the Africans who were taken from their homelands and brought to a strange new land. Even after the abolition of slavery, African-Americans were denied equality of any kind and any demands for the rights of citizenship met with violence on the part of whites.

In exchange for peace and in self-defense, Blacks withdrew from whites and formed their own separate institutions and social groups. Here, in isolation, African-Americans could be themselves, sing their own songs, maintain their African roots, make their own speeches, expressing their sense of shared struggle through sermons in the churches. While some sensitive whites were able to recognize the original qualities of African-American culture, others refused to believe that Blacks were capable of making art. Many European philosophers, including Kant and Hegel, insisted that Africans had no culture, no art forms, and were, therefore, not human, for only a fully realized human being was capable of producing art.

While the Southern churches were centers for music-making, that region of the country—an armed camp imposing white will upon the blacks by terror—had little to offer the African-Americans outside of their own marginalized culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, faced with a web of Jim Crow prohibitions, Blacks began to migrate north and one of the key destinations was New York City and the neighborhood of Harlem. In her brilliant 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson lays out a frightening historical account of “escapes’ from the South to a place of refuge in Northern cities. African-Americans were needed for their cheap labor and were not “allowed” to leave the South and were kept in their place by both legal and illegal means, much like the old slave culture. Those who managed to make it to a city like Chicago or Los Angeles or New York were brave, determined and willing to risk their lives for the American dream.

The African American artist, Jacob Lawrence, produced a remarkable suite of paintings on The Great Migration (1940-1), an exodus from the segregationist South that continued until the 1960s—fifty years to northern and western destinations. Using simple blocks of strong color, Lawrence combined figuration with Cubism to tell a visual story that is paralleled by the history later recounted by Wilkerson, a story of persecution and hardship, ending with fulfillment. Giving an account of an extreme level of segregation and lives lived in daily fear in the South, African Americans existed in near complete isolation. Wilkinson pointed out that many of these escapees had never voted, had never spoken to a white person and had never left the place of their birth. This historical background of racism in relation to the phenomenon called the “Harlem Renaissance”—the sudden flowering of art, music, poetry, literature, political philosophy in the legendary New York neighborhood—is significant because the “renaissance” was an extraordinary accomplishment from the children and grandchildren of slaves.

Understanding the incredible deprivations endured by African-Americans in the South makes the art made in Harlem more meaningful, not just in terms of paintings or sculpture, but more importantly in terms of a flowering of a glowing human-ness. The Harlem Renaissance was an attempt of African-Americans to refute the charge, leveled by whites, of being “less than human” by giving the production of culture as much importance as economic success and entry into a middle class life. To be an artist was to be a human. Being an artist requires a strong sense of self and a healthy ego, qualities not permitted for African-Americans in the South where they were indoctrinated with the propaganda that they were “inferior” in every way. And yet, once they had put distance between segregation and the closed racist society, African-Americans began to write, recount their own history, develop their own philosophy; they started to sing, to dance, to make music, to express themselves through the visual arts.

During this era important Black philosophers and cultural observers began to write seriously about what the philosopher, W. E. B. DuBois, called “the soul of black folks.” The black “soul,” DuBois stated, was divided into a “double consciousness:” on one hand, the Black was an African with the heritage of slavery, oppression, and struggle; and on the other hand, the Black was an American with all the hopes and dreams that characterized the society. The hyphenated term “African-American” reflects that dichotomy, that divided identity that has created the original art we call “American.” Many of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance practiced their craft under difficult conditions. The visual artists were supported by well-meaning but slightly condescending white patrons who disappeared with economic hard times. The musical artists performed for white patrons at venues such as the Cotton Club, where no African-Americans were allowed, except as entertainers.

Like Native Americans, African Americans, from the time of the Harlem Renaissance, confronted white art forms and were faced with a decision that white artists never had to consider. If an African-American artist appropriated “white art,” did she give up her own cultural identity in a quest to become accepted simply as an “artist?” Was she selling out? If, on the other hand, an African-American artist maintained and developed the survivals of African culture, did he risk being marginalized as a “Black artist?” Would his art ever be seen as “art?” These questions faced the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Painting as a form of “fine art,” was not part of an African heritage, like the music—jazz, blues, gospel—or the slave culture, like the soul food. African sculpture, however, was part of the tribal heritage and was celebrated by the European artists of the early twentieth century, who appropriated African art forms and made them their own.

For the African-American artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the appropriation would be reversed: Western style easel painting was used by Blacks to make statements that were specifically African-American. In doing so, the artists signaled by their adherence to painting both an assimilation of white art forms and a desire to use them to preserve and develop their own modes of expression. The easel painters of the Harlem Renaissance used painting to develop African motifs, such as Lois Mailou Jones, or to show life in Harlem, such as Palmer Hayden, or the culture of New Orleans, such as Archibald Motley. Similarly, sculptor, Richmond Barthe, used Greco-Roman forms to celebrate African life.

The hybrid art of African Americans is hybrid because these artists are, first and foremost “American” and are part of the larger American society. “African” is a statement of pride and distinction and expressions of “African-ness” are American-style survivals of tribal culture, a culture from which they have been separated for centuries. The result, as with all American art, all of which is hybrid, is a rich mixture of histories and traditions and inheritances. One of the most famous works of visual art of the Harlem Renaissance were the murals of the New York Public Library branch in Harlem. These murals, telling the story of Africans who came as slaves to America and suffered and endured and final triumphed, were the masterworks of Aaron Douglas.

However, the Harlem Renaissance was part of the jazz age, the Prohibition, and was dependent upon a prosperous bubble economy. After the Crash on Wall Street in 1929, the Great Depression devastated all of America and, as usual, the African-Americans were especially hard hit. America did not recover from the collapse of the economy until World War jump-started the stalled economy and offered hope, once again, to African-Americans. The photographer who recorded the Harlem Renaissance, its people and its places, James Van Der Zee, lived long enough to photograph the second coming of African-American art when he made a portrait to the Puerto-Rican-Haitian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]