Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Study in Extreme Courage

A book review from The New York Times: IDA: A SWORD AMONG LIONS Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. By Paula J. Giddings. Illustrated. 800 pp. Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers. $35. By RICHARD LINGEMAN Published: May 18, 2008 If slavery is America’s original sin, lynching is its capital crime. The historical memory dies hard: only last year, three nooses were hung from a schoolyard tree contested by white and black students in Jena, La. The wave of mob killings of blacks in the South — by hanging, burning, shooting and torture — started after the end of Reconstruction. These public murders were carried out with the real purpose of keeping blacks in their place, economically and socially. The practice was supported by leading citizens and became a popular public spectacle, a carnival of cruelty that drew excited crowds. According to “Rope and Faggot,” the 1928 study by the N.A.A.C.P. general secretary Walter White, between 1882 and 1927 there were 4,951 lynchings in the United States. About a third of them were aimed at whites, mainly in the West; 92 of the victims were women. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was one of the first African-Americans to raise an informed protest against this outrage. Paula Giddings’s devoted and scrupulous biography is not the first study of this pioneering woman, but it is a comprehensive work that attempts to portray her as part of the progressive movement that emerged among the black bourgeoisie in post-bellum America. Wells-Barnett dedicated her life to bringing lynchings to the attention of America and the world. Determined, outspoken and fearless, an incendiary pamphleteer, she was politically astute, anticipating the tactics of the civil rights movement. Giddings, a professor of African-American studies at Smith College and author of “Where and When I Enter,” a history of black women activists, brushes in the historical context of Wells-Barnett’s campaign ably, if in occasionally numbing detail. Excavating scattered letters, fragmented diaries and second-hand references to her writings for short-lived African-American weeklies, Giddings aims, she writes, to uncover the achievements of a bold woman whose militancy and “dominating style” sometimes cost her allies in her own day and proper credit in the eyes of history. Ida Bell Wells was born to slave parents in 1862 in Holly Springs, Miss. Her father, a skilled carpenter, and mother, a housekeeper, were struck down by yellow fever when Ida was 16. Giddings writes of this turning point: “Throughout the remainder of her life, she struggled to turn the negative emotions of abandonment into a righteous determination to reform herself and the society that had forsaken her race.” A precociously mature, bright and pretty teenager, standing barely five feet, Wells took charge of the upbringing of her younger siblings with help from relatives. She got some higher education, became a voracious reader with a love of Shakespeare and showed a talent for writing. She turned to teaching school to support her family, eventually moving in 1880 to Memphis. There she siphoned off some of her energy into journalism, turning out a column for a local African-American paper that regularly challenged the racist libels of the white press. Yet she remained very much the Victorian young lady who admired “noble true womanhood and perfect ladyship” and vowed to curb her “unfeminine” anger. Her craving for “perfect ladyship” toughened into a demand for respect. Black women at the time were often demeaned as dusky temptresses, which presumably explained their illicit sexual attraction to so many white men. Wells lashed out against the “wholesale contemptuous defamation of black women” and the “refusal to believe there are among us mothers, wives and maidens who have attained a true, noble and refining womanhood.” Her determination to be treated as a lady provoked her first clash with white supremacy, in 1883, when she violently resisted being ejected from the whites-only “ladies car.” She sued the railroad, but the Tennessee Supreme Court, in a preview of Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled she was no lady, merely a “mulatto passenger,” separable and unequal, whose intention wasn’t to ride comfortably but to “harrass” and litigate. Rest of review.

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