a question mark to yt power — re-reading ida b. wells

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image found here

[CN: Lynching, anti-black racist violence, rape, white supremacy, patriarchy]

One would think that being a respectable bourgeois woman of the suffrage movement as well as other Progressive causes, as well as a devout Christian, would make someone like Ida B. Wells a shoe-in for public and secondary school history on righteous early 20th century women who fought for social change. Wells should be right up there along with Susan B. Anthony and Dorothea Dix.

Heh, except of course she isn’t. Why has she been erased from white education so thoroughly? I can only reflect on her scathing indictment in Southern Horrors, which so precisely lays out the particularly Southern construction of white men and white women, black men and black women, and their respective positions within lynching narratives in brutally honest psycho-sexual terms.

Perhaps it was also her willingness to call out white feminists on their anti-black crap; to never hesitate to own her rage and direct it at powerful white men. In any case, Wells deserves re-reading and her voice (she was a great writer as well as a powerful lecturer), needs to be heard by white Amerika once again, in this time when police brutality and white reactionary activities are at the forefront of national discourse.

Wells was a crusader. She had a fascinating intellectual relationship and correspondence with Frederick Douglass. In disguise, she moved about Memphis and the rest of the deep south to do some real journalistic work. She crashed the 1913 World’s Fair in Chicago.

All of her work as both an organizer and an agitator on behalf of the victims of southern terrorism, or the poor urban black people in the North, and against patriarchy, was rooted in her faith as well as her rhetorical call for the US to truly, truly embody the values of civilization and egalitarian humanism. It was the perfect kind of campaign for this Reconstruction-era milieu.

And because of her committed spiritualism, we should take it very seriously when she says “The white man’s dollar is his only god.” Her antilynching analysis is a bedrock for an intellectual historian’s understanding of race politics in this era. Yet as respectable as she was, Ida B. Wells remains too dangerous for white hegemony.

According to historian Patricia Schechter, lynching in the US reached its all-time peak in the 1890s.

Some 241 people, 66 percent of whom were African American, lost their lives to mobs.

Wells composed her response to this terroristic violence in such a way that drew on a creative combination of existing public discourses. Schechter again:

Rather than exhibiting ladylike tact, Southern Horrors has an unbounded quality, combining the features of a sociological study, expose journalism, and sermonizing.

Right off the bat, when you open up Southern Horrors, you get a sense of just how transgressive and provocative Wells was willing to get when you see how she editorializes her quotations. She takes a bit from “Free Speech,” an “Afro-American journal published in [Memphis].”

[in Little Rock, Arkansas] last Saturday morning where the citizens broke (?) into the penitentiary and got their man…

basically, some whites entered the jail in an attempt to lynch (actually more than one) black men who were already incarcerated (this should be familiar to any white person who’s read or seen Mockingbird). But that (?) is placed by Ida B. Wells!

Did those white men break into the jail? Or were they allowed inside? This questioning of the narrative, and of southern justice as a whole, through the insertion of the question mark is a device Wells uses throughout the pamphlet.

The most common reason for the lynching of black men is that they are accused of raping white women.

Eight lynched in one week and five of them charged with rape! The thinking public will not easily believe freedom and education more brutalizing than slavery, and the world knows that the crime of rape was unknown during four years of civil war, when the white women of the South were at the mercy of the race which is all at once charged with being a bestial one.

…but the truth remains that Afro-Americna men do not always rape (?) white women without their consent.

She wastes  no time in laying down the terms of this analysis. Lynch law is an assault on the “manhood” of blackness, under the guise of protecting the virtue of white women. Wells specifically addresses castration as part of the lynching pageantry. (Birth of a Nation also explicitly has a castration in the novel, which was sanitized out of the movie, which white schools still insist to kids is one of the most important films evar).

And again Wells puts a question mark to the master narrative. Is it rape? Something else? Part of Wells’s investigation as a journalist revealed that actually a small portion of lynchings had to do with rape upon the whole. Moreover, there was evidence that these encounters between black men and white women were often consensual.

A factor here is anti-miscengenation, which was a law. White women claimed they were raped as a strategy to avoid being criminalized (but some white women claimed they were not white, as was the case in one of Wells’s case studies in the pamphlet, although this happened in Ohio).

White women, for all the purity and virtue ascribed to them by a chivalry-obsessed Dixie culture, were becoming more attracted to black men as they “advanced in intelligence and class.” And it was true, this period between the reconstruction and jim crow did see economic advancement of black people, until whites violently dragged them back down, with the collusion and complicity of white governments and police.

To palliate this record (which grows worse as the Afro-American becomes intelligent) and excuse some of the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of a country, the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women. This, too, in the face of the fact that only one-third of the 728 victims to mobs have been charged with rape, to say nothing of those of that one-third who were innocent of the charge.

White men are heroes with the task of doing violence in response to evil. White women are virtuous and morally pure, and their pureness must be protected. Black men are brutal savages who lust after white women. And black women are hypersexualized and dialectically not-women.

Wells hints that the flipside of lynch law, which is a public spectacle of violence ostensibly for a private crime (rape), is the sexual assault and violence done on black women by white men. By the time you get to the end of Southern Horrors, her analysis has flipped the pillars of Southern race theory on their heads.

We are the savages. We use sex as a weapon. We are the terrorists, always have been.

The strong arm of the law must be brought to bear upon lynchers in severe punishment, but this cannot and will not be done unless a healthy public sentiment demands and sustains such action.

The men and women in the South who disapprove of lynching and remain silent on the perpetration of such outrages, are particeps criminis, accomplices, accessories before and after the fact, equally guilty with the actual lawbreakers who would not persist if they did not know that neither the law nor militia would be employed against them.

You can still see traces of this kind of racialized rape discourse, especially in college. Fratboys almost never get punished for rape, but when they do, they are black men.

This precisely happened at my college. The perpetrator of an attempted rape of an ultra-white (super pale, blonde hair, blue eyes) sorority woman was a black male who was expelled. This despite the fact that the rest of the fraternity (mostly white with some brown people) was aware of what happened, took steps to protect this individual, and harassed the survivor into silence. This was all organized. But the fraternity still stands. I guess white brotherhood is stronger than frat brotherhood.

(Another example is how the chancellor at UC Davis back in the Occupy years used the specter of rape by moc to justify police violence on campus, as you can read about HERE).

Wells was already taking this down, and showing race and sex to be fluid constructs, and showing how a patriarchal state turns the personal into the political. And this was all in 1892.

Think about how anti-black Susan B. Anthony was. Think about all the apologetics school teachers have to go through as they teach children to worship racist white “heroes” as part of history and civics. Ida B. Wells needs no such qualifications as far as race is concerned.

Wells has a lot to teach us about the Amerikkkan character, and about a period in US history that the powers that be would prefer us to forget (why do you think Ken Burns’s epic documentary on the Civil War halts before the Reconstruction?).

So, I dunno, call your local school board. Ask them if they teach Ida B. Wells. She should be in a timeline of great Black women, with Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman on one side, and Rosa Parks and Ella Baker on the other. Make a little trouble.


The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.

Patricia A. Schechter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett & American Reform: 1880-1930. A really insightful intellectual biography.

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells

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