Nell Irvin Painter, it's been said, is breaking new scholarly ground exploring the nooks and crannies of Afro-American history.
She doesn't write about the great heroes of black American history or speculate about the grand acheivements in Afro-Americana.
"My generation doesn't have to do that job," she says, referring to the newest crop of Afro-American historians.
"My generation," she says firmly, "is talking about diversity within the race . . . about class and region and educational level, and even color of skin, because that's important too.
"Historians of the past didn't do this because of racism. Their burden was rehabilitating the race in terms of American thought, which was incredibly racist. The whole point," she says, "used to be to write books and talk about how black people were really people."
Painter, a visiting professor of history at the University of North Carolina on leave from the Univeristy of Pennsylvania, made her observations apropos of Black History Month.
The 37-year-old historian has put her thoughts into action with her second book, "The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South," recently published to critical raves. The book is the oral history of a black farmworker who turns steel worker in Alabama from the turn of the century to the late 1940s.
Painter's first book, "Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas Following Reconstruction," tells the story of black tenant farmers migrating from Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana to Kansas in the 1870s.
University of Chicago historian John Hope Franklin, a scholar from a previous generation, says her work "fills a gaping hole in the history of this country. The Hudson book is oral history and 'Exoduster' is based on primary sources.We (historians) all try to go to the source, but she's gone to the people themselves."
"A dominant theme in her work," says Benjamin A. Quarles of Morgan State University is lower-class blacks taking charge of their own lives. And though she's objective, she doesn't hesitate to take the side of the people she's writing about."
Though Painter has set out to do original historical topics, she more or less stumbled onto the Hudson idea, first hearing about him at a cocktail party. After spring semester in 1976, she drove to Atlantic City, where the 81-year-old former iron molder still lives.
"I had no thought of writing a book," she recalls. "I just wanted to talk to an interesting man. I took three hours of tape, but he got so interesting that I figured I'd better go back."
It was Hudson's idea to write a book, she says. "He thought he'd just talk and I'd type it up, she says with a big giggle. "I don't believe he's ever fully decided that I deserve to be the author of the book. This happened to be a fight I won."
They had to work out a compromise so that his name would go in the title along with hers as author.
What resulted is what Yale historian David Montgomery calls a "richly detailed account of the workings of the party at the grass-roots level in the industrial South."
Hudson's experience, Painter says, was not typical but significant.
"Statistically, there were hundreds of people who lived that kind of life. Usually when people talk about the black experience in Alabama, they're talking about sharecroppers. They also would be talking about people who were not politically aware."
This is where the diverse racial experience has to be reckoned with, says the historan.
Blacks were alien figures in this country's history for a long time, she says, introduced every now and then but not critical or essential.
"It's like the South and blacks," Painter explains. "You know when people say southerner, it conjures up the vision of a white person. One of my real missions in life is to make the word southerner mean black and white southerners. I want to spot the South up a bit, make it black and tan instead of lily-white."
Painter's sense of mission about history came to her late. As a high school student in Oakland, Calif., she didn't like American history.
"I remember reading books about the United States, where the author would go into a hymn about how much better it was to be in America than Russia," she says. "What did I care about Russia? They would always leave out Alabama and lynchings and Emmett Till. They would leave out the whole side of the United States that spoke to me most clearly."
She learned black history by growng up in what she calls a "pan-African household" (her father is a chemist at Cal-Berkeley and her mother a public school administrator in Oakland).
After high school graduation, she scored in the 99th percentile in interest and aptitude in history ("that proves that test was a wrong"), but she majored in anthropology as an undergraduate. Only after she had traveled to France and Ghana did she become interested in history, earning her master's from UCLA and her doctorate from Harvard.
Some older black historians have accused her of downplaying anti-black violence among whites. And she feels she suffers as a woman.
"Sexism lives," she says with a heavy sigh. "I see it in hiring and promotion. I see male black scholars who do one good book and the universities are after them to become full professors. But I can't think of a woman in my generation, even though there're women with one book or more, who've had this experience. And it's the same with white women."
Painter is working on her third book, a general history of the U.S. between 1885 and 1915, which she hopes to finish by the end of the year. u
Books on that period are common, she sys, but hers will be different. "I call my book, 'Standing at Armageddon' or 'A Crackpot History of the United States.' It's got events in it, labor, socio-political history. The Afro-American experience will be in there. My book is organized around events. And I try to talk about themes and trends in terms of events."
If she finishes on schedule, it'll be her third book in five years.
She looks off into space and says, "I'm tired as the dickens. I'm going to pause, I'm going to take a trip to Brazil in 1981 and just relax -- and enjoy the warm country and beaches."