Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It Gets Better: Ida B. Wells Edition

As might be apparent from the lack of posting at my own blog recently, I've become pretty tapped out by the political news of late.

One thing that usually encourages me is whatever book of American history I'm reading on the metro train at any given time. The current book in my bag is Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Well and The Campaign Against Lynching. I'm a little over 200 pages, or about a third of the way, through it. If you have any interest in the post-Reconstruction era, I heartily recommend it.

History of this sort tends to encourage me, while infuriating me at the same time. It encourages me because it reminds me of how totally effed up our country was, which makes the current situation at any time look incredibly mild by comparison.

But it's infuriating as well, that this kind of crap (mob violence, especially lynching directed at African Americans) went on and was largely ignored, excused or celebrated by varying communities of "proper society". And needless to say, it's not the kind of idealized American history most of us grew up hearing about and that is typically bandied about by the American Exceptionalists in our midst.

The book itself, however, encompasses much more than the tumult of post-Reconstruction America. In fact it doesn't confront the matter of lynching for almost 200 pages. But Ida's story is pretty interesting before all of that. She was born in 1862 and her parents died from an epidemic when she was still a teenager. Ida moved from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, where she was first a teacher, then a journalist, struggling to make ends meet while carving out a place for herself in the active African American community.

It is there when in 1892 three African Americans, all friends of Ida's, are lynched, that she takes to the pages of the Free Speech to denounce the lynchings in general, and the most often false justification for lynchings (the rape of white women by black men) in particular. The editorial gets Ida run out of town and her newspaper's facility destroyed by members of "polite society" in Memphis.

Surprisingly, given what I've previously read about post-Reconstruction Deep South, is that African Americans prior to the late 1880's were mostly able to vote and hold office in Memphis. Some had businesses and many owned property. Even when voting for African Americans is restricted elsewhere in the South, the response of some leading African Americans was to emphasize the need for "self improvement" before the priority of political rights.

But despite their success, or perhaps because of it, the racial climate takes a turn for the worse (although there had been signficant violence before this) when a vote on prohibition occurs. The pro-prohibition vote is defeated, and many "proper citizens" blamed the African American community, although Giddings documents that this was in fact not the case.

In any event, it provides the justification for a retrenchment in political rights for African Americans as Jim Crow begins asserting itself in the New South.

After the lynchings, and her forced exile from Memphis, Ida publishes The Truth About Lynching in a NY newspaper, which highlights Ida's evolution from proponent of "self-improvement" to the need for political and racial justice for African Americans.

I'll try to follow up the review later, depending how far I get in the book till when Steve returns.

Thanks again to Steve for the invitation to blog here again.

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