Before reading Paula Giddings' extensively researched and detailed biography of Wells-Barnett, I already knew about her work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries documenting lynchings of African-American men, women, and children. In a time when political clubs were a vital (and complicated) means of political and civic organization, Wells-Barnett understood that passing resolutions wasn't enough -- direct action was needed to inspire and motivate people to apply pressure on politicians and legislators to stand up for democratic beliefs, particularly safeguarding our constitutional right for a fair trial. I was not as aware of Wells-Barnett's inspiring work to reshape Chicago politics, bringing home the power of the black vote, especially after women gained the right to vote. Her husband, Ferdinand Barnett, shared her political views and supported her public life -- with the disappointing understanding that some times his career as a lawyer and politician needed to come first. Anthony, a friend and comrade of Wells-Barnett, voiced concerns that she was distracted from her important causes by her marriage and children.) She even brought her nursing infants with her on some political trips. Giddings provides a detailed look into the complex alliances and battles of black and white politicians, editors, and activists from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era, from fights for women's suffrage to women's gaining the right to vote, from the black migration from the South to the North to the race riots and lynchings that revealed the ugly face of racism in the US.
This incredibly detailed work of scholarship (over 600 pages of text, and then another 200+ pages of notes and bibliography) covers everything known about Ida Barnett-Wells's life and work, from her difficult childhood through the trials and tribulations of her teaching career, leading up to the climax, the anti-lynching work for which she is best known today. The early 20s were not much better, though the political tide slowly began to change in such a way that Republicans, once the party of black people, slowly changed places with the Democrats. She was too busy visiting wrongfully imprisoned people, speaking out against black involvement in World War I (which earned her the reputation of being more subversive than Marcus Garvey), helping clean up both debris and corruption at Red Cross camps, and raising money for just about every social and political cause you could imagine. And while many middle-class black people were only interested in taking care of their own, Ida did her darndest to help not just her fellow wealthy Chicagoans, but also the steady influx of migrants from the south, who needed pretty much everything from food to jobs to an education.
Furthermore, this book prompted me to start reading Phillip Dray's book on lynching, "At the Hands of Persons Unknown".
The title is a bit of a misnomer since while Giddings focuses the struggle around Ms. Wells-Barnett, she is really covering all the ground, no matter how peripheral to Ida's life it may seem. I also wish Giddings had used more space to reflect on why Wells was so shunned in the latter half of her life, especially by people like W.E.B. Du Bois. So I was surprised to see him portrayed somewhat negatively in this book -- not overtly perhaps, but Giddings, given her subject, clearly prefers bolder activism to what I consider Washington's accommodation ideology. The latter will want the former, yes, but they will say, as Booker said -- as many today say -- that the best way to get rights is to show your opponents that you are good, decent and intelligent. It's a human right and a moral imperative; there is no compromise. So we end up with Wells-Barnett as a pariah for speaking the unabashed truth, and Booker T. We see it today with Black Lives Matter, which many feel doesn't "protest the right way." But what those people don't consider -- because they've never had to -- is that there are very few wrong ways to demand basic rights and equality. This book is a good lesson that just speaking truth is not enough, because if people aren't psychologically prepared to listen, it will only lead to backlash. Respectful discourse, I believe, is where the solution lies.* In the end, this was a long, tedious book to get through, but I'm glad to know more about Ms. Wells-Barnett, lynching, and the Black rights struggle in the early 20th century. ----- *To be sure, I do not consider excusing/justifying hate speech as respectful discourse.
And Giddings deserves thanks and love times ten for this work. But even with that background, I did not hear about Ida B Wells until after college when I was reading a book that referenced her. Giddings book does this famous woman a service but will also leave you wondering why it took so long. It is because of Wells work as a journalist that we have the first major studies about lynching, a part of American history that we have yet to fully acknowledge and come to terms with as a nation. Born to former slaves who died when she was in her teens, Wells worked first as a teacher and then as a journalist and activist.
Beyond what this book conveys about Ida's life, it illuminates the vigorous organizing and activism in which black woman engaged from emancipation forward. This history is even less recognized that that of Wells-Barnett's life. Although the oft-told tales of African American history most often feature men (with the exception of Rosa Parks), it is clear that women were a crucial engine for idea generation, fundraising, and community mobilization. In fact, as Giddings writes, Ida was the first African American woman to attempt to write an autobiography.
On the one hand, it's kind of depressing to think that we are going through the same drama now as 100 years ago; on the other hand, it makes me feel like maybe we are accomplishing something, just as Ida Wells was.
I think reading this book "blind" made it more interesting because I didn't know what to expect from this woman's life.
Paula Giddings (born 1947 in Yonkers, New York) is a writer and an African-American historian.