Monday, March 22, 2010

Morgan & Morgan on Painter and Berlin

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter and The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations by Ira Berlin are reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Edmund Morgan and Marie Morgan. The write:
The Making of African America is the result of prodigious scholarship and synthesis in tracking down the ways that a people held themselves together as they were swept into bondage and out of it and driven from place to place. Berlin has earned the credentials for telling their story, for it rests on his earlier demonstration that slavery could not eradicate the capacities for self-preservation and self-expression that make human beings human....

Berlin counts the formation of families as a principal way that slaves bound themselves together as a people. He also stresses the cultural transformations by which they defined themselves, especially the role of their music, "the evolution of shouts and hollers into spirituals, spirituals into gospel, and country blues into rhythm and blues," as well as the invention of jazz, rock and roll, and hip hop. And he grounds his work solidly in the numbers of people involved, beginning with the 400,000 men and women enslaved in Africa for transport to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries....

As a counterpoint to Berlin's book, Painter's The History of White People could have been called The Making of White America, for most of it is devoted to the white Americans who started the United States in 1776 and experienced successive "enlargements" of white immigrants. The original settlers were virtually all from England or Europe, and Painter precedes her account of them with a learned survey of the idea of whiteness in European thought, literature, and aesthetics....

Painter has given us an attractively linear account of how the numbers of white Americans grew in distinct "enlargements."...It is tempting to see Painter's successive enlargements as stages in the making of white America, comparable to the successive migrations that Ira Berlin marks in the making of black America. But Painter's enlargements, after the first one, were the silent initiation of immigrants into a new nationality without any visible rites of passage. This is not to say the enlargements did not occur, but that they took place in people's emotions and minds without leaving a record. Painter traces them in the words of various savants and pundits, but they are actually the construction of a gifted historian, giving shape to a shapeless process by which white Americans maintained their national identity while encompassing a continuous flood of strangers.

Read the rest here.

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