Distinguished Historian's Visit

Nell Irvin Painter, the Humanities Institute’s inaugural Distinguished Scholar in Residence, will give her final public talk Feb. 26.


Historian Nell Irvin Painter interacts with USF students during a recent class.              Photo: Barbara Melendez | USF News


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 22, 2013) – The title of Nell Irvin Painter’s latest book, “The History of White People,” tends to evoke all kinds of reactions. During her time as the Humanities institute’s first Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Painter has learned from USF students about some of them.


“They made me wish I was a filmmaker to record what they had to say about what happened when they carried my book around,” she said.


Students reported strangers were “sometimes curious, sometimes hostile, sometimes embarrassed. It was always provocative.”


The University of South Florida community and the public will be able to hear more about the book at the second of her two public talks, “Can a Black Scholar Write About White People?” It will be held Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. in the Patel Center Auditorium, with a book signing and reception to follow.


At USF since Feb. 18 and staying through March 1, Painter is impressed with the quality of her interactions so far and observed, “The students have asked really thoughtful questions and didn’t have to be squeezed to speak up. They were very quick.”


This is a first in a while for Painter, to be in classes that were assigned her books as part of their coursework. As the Edwards Professor Emerita of American History at Princeton University, teaching undergraduate courses is rare, and her previous stint at Yale University as artist and scholar-in-residence was a little different. She met with graduate students and professors for the most part over a month’s time and gave several talks. 


“It’s the first time in ages that I’ve been in the classroom and it’s been quite gratifying,” she said. 


In all, she made visits to six classes in the Departments of History, Philosophy, Africana Studies and English. In most cases the students were asked to read her work and in all to be prepared for lively discussion. In the English Department, Assistant Professor Shirley Toland-Dix’s class on African-American Literature was prepared.


Told to read chapters from Painter’s book “Creating Black Americans: African American History and its Meanings, 1619 to the Present,” students showed up with questions about people and issues that ranged from Marcus Garvey to aspects of the Great Migration, the life of artist Augusta Savage and the treatment of Black soldiers – all relevant to her work. A student who brought up the town of Peekskill, NY, inspired an aside from Painter on Paul Robeson, famed Civil Rights icon.


Toland-Dix said, “As the daughter of an historian, I always start with history. You have to have context.” She added, “Dr. Painter was wonderful at speaking to the students where they are and providing important background information they needed to understand what she was talking about. This is the first time learning about African American literature and history for most of them.”


Painter has talked with a variety of students at the undergraduate and graduate level who were encouraged to make the most of this unique opportunity to interact with a scholar and author of her stature.


“They’ve wanted to know how I got started and if there is really as much research as they see in my books, and of course, the answer is, ‘Yes!’” she said laughing. 


Painter also taught a one-credit “master class” for a select group of graduate students, “Writing History across the Color Line,” based around her work on the history of race.


Being at USF doesn’t take Painter away from her busy schedule. When not meeting with students or attending classes and receptions, she’s writing articles and preparing for a presentation with controversial artist Kara Walker back home in Newark, NJ. Walker’s silhouettes depict race, gender, violence and sexuality, and have attracted acclaim and criticism. Painter found a way to tie her work into one of the classes she attended. 


To illustrate the tensions created by and for African American artists past and present, in Assistant Professor Eric Duke’s African American history class, Painter brought up the conflicts around Walker’s work and gave students an insider view.   


“The opportunity for students to be able to engage a preeminent historian such as Dr. Painter certainly doesn’t happen every day,” Duke said. “Given that we were just moving into our discussions of the role of Black art and the Harlem Renaissance within the Black freedom struggle, it was especially a treat to have a noted historian who is also a practicing artist herself there to share her views on the subject.”


Humanities Institute Director Elizabeth Bird pointed out, “Dr. Painter’s work on the historical construction of race is both academically important and socially relevant, speaking to the complex history of our nation and to some of the most pressing social issues today.


“As we celebrate our 10th anniversary, the Humanities Institute is delighted to inaugurate the Scholar-in-Residence Program. The purpose is to bring truly distinguished guests to campus for an extended visit in which they interact with students, faculty and the public, offering an enriched experience for so many. Dr. Painter is our perfect inaugural scholar.”


With special thanks to Provost Ralph Wilcox for providing the funding for the program, Bird said, “Even in tight budgetary times, Dr. Wilcox recognizes and supports the value of humanities scholarship in shaping a rich educational environment for our students and for the broader community.”


Students, faculty and the public can look forward to a stellar list of scholars to follow.


“We hope to bring two or three scholars a year to USF, for residencies of a week or two, depending on their schedules,” said Bird, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and serving as interim chair. “Our next visiting scholar is Jorie Graham, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet who is also professor of poetry at Harvard. She will be at USF for the first week of April, kicking off National Poetry Month. Next fall, we will welcome playwright, novelist and essayist Caryl Phillips, currently professor of English at Yale, and look out for a yet-unnamed visitor in spring 2014!”


For more information about the Humanities Institute and its many special events, click here or visit http://humanities-institute.usf.edu/.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.