28 July 2010

Ida B. Wells

I'm in Chicago for two weeks to read Ida B. Wells's papers at the University of Chicago. Aside from arriving in town yesterday to find out that the student I'm subletting a room from decided to sublet it to someone else in addition to me, everything's been pretty great. U. Chicago has a very fancy library and Hyde Park is a nice neighborhood in the summertime--lots of tomato plants and pedestrians.

The lovely scenery aside, I'm excited to be going through Well's remaining papers. Much of what she'd accumulated over the years burned in two separate house fires. Even so, the surviving materials illuminate aspects of her career that still need wider appreciation. Wells explained the phenomenon of lynching more convincingly than anyone before or since and, in the process, developed a whole set of provocative theories about gender, race, rhetoric, law, economics and sexuality. More importantly, her theories found basis in the facts of the cases she relentlessly documented. Making those facts public helped damper the swell of lynch-mob activity that peaked in the 1890s.

Not enough people know about Wells, it's true. But information is available. If you haven't heard her name, go look it up. I first came across it while living in Memphis, TN. She moved there in 1883 to teach, but ended up writing and editing for the weekly newspaper Free Speech. In 1892 she wrote and printed the following editorial:

Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of the Free Speech, one at Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday morning where the citizens broke (?) into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., one near New Orleans; and three at Clarksville, Ga., the last three for killing a white man , and five on the same old racket--the new alarm about raping white women. The same programme of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies was carried out to the letter. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.

For suggesting that white women might have consensual sex with black men, a Memphis mob destroyed the Free Speech building and threatened to lynch her if she ever returned to town. She did not. Instead she started a public speaking tour around the Northeast that eventually took her abroad on two separate occasions and sent her to the World's Fair in Chicago to protest the absence of African Americans in that historically progressive representation of global culture. She decided to settle in Chicago and eventually met a man worth her hand in marriage. At the age of 24, she insisted: "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge." At 34, she must have found a love that didn't require spoonfuls of sugar to go down.

She and Mr. Barnett lived at 3624 Grand Boulevard in South Chicago from 1919 to 1929 or 1930, depending on who you ask. She died in 1931, leaving an impressive legacy of social activism that influenced the Civil Rights Movement and contemporary political theorists more than anyone seems to have acknowledged. Hopefully I'll be able to make that point in a convincing way after some more time in the archives.

I went by Ida B. Well's former home (now on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, if anyone's looking for the striking outcome of her influence) earlier this evening. According to internet sources, it's a private residence these days. It didn't look to me like anyone was living there, but someone has been taking care of the yard and doing some maintenance, as evidenced by the scaffolding. The second image is from Wikipedia, but it's a lot better than the one I took, eh?

Even though I can't tour it, see the desk where she wrote her memoirs, or experience the satisfaction of seeing a small museum dedicated to her life, I nonetheless enjoyed seeing her home standing along side the homes of Wells's former neighbors. There's something magical about her home standing even now as a house. Seriously, though, we need an Ida B. Wells museum.*

I'm including three versions of "Strange Fruit" here. Two of them are well known, while the third is still waiting to break. This grouping is hardly comprehensive; a lot of people have covered it, including a few people I wouldn't expect to see on the list. Tori Amos? Cocteau Twins? This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb? Somebody please compile a more thorough set of covers.

*Update: Okay, y'all, another couple days of research and what did I learn? There is in fact an Ida B. Wells museum. It's in her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, a town I've visited several times--but always to visit Graceland Too. It's moments of realization like this that I really begin to doubt myself.