She Wrote ‘The History of White People.’ She Has a Lot More to Say.

I JUST KEEP TALKING: A Life in Essays, by Nell Irvin Painter

As the historian Nell Irvin Painter has learned over the course of her eight decades on this earth, inspiration can come from some unlikely places.

In 2000, she happened across a news photograph of Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya, which had been bombed into rubble during the long stretch of devastating wars between Russia and the Caucasus. The photo prompted Painter to wonder how “Caucasian” became a term for white people; that in turn led her to an 18th-century German naturalist who picked out five skulls to embody the five “varieties” of mankind. What he deemed “the really most beautiful form of skull” belonged to a young Georgian woman and would therefore represent Caucasians, whom he called “the most beautiful and best formed of men.”

From a photograph of bombed-out Grozny to the absurd methodology of a German naturalist: Painter’s research for the best-selling “The History of White People” (2010) was born.

“It was as though I lost my head, you boiled off all the flesh and the brains and eyeballs out of it, and you called it ‘New Jersey Variety of Mankind,’” she writes about the Georgian’s skull in “I Just Keep Talking,” a collection of her essays and artwork that includes a number of such characteristically irreverent asides. Painter was a historian at Princeton before enrolling in art school at the age of 64. In 2018, she recalled the experience in a freewheeling memoir. “I Just Keep Talking” presents Painter in full, gathering personal reflections, scholarly essays and images spanning several decades to convey the range of her interests and ambition.

“So much in me,” Painter writes, “was suited for disregard.” She recalls a happy upbringing in Oakland by parents who “were never poor, though never rich.” The family would drive around California in their Kaiser automobile, with Nell and her dog, Christopher Robin, stretched out on the back seat. She can see her class privilege for what it was, but it also made her feel as if she wasn’t easily apprehensible by others: “There’s not much there in my life to match what my country likes to recognize as a Black narrative of hurt.”

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