Review- Bay, “To Tell the Truth Freely”

Mia Bay, “To Tell The Truth Freely: the Life of Ida B. Wells” (2009) – Ida Wells was barely in her thirties when she began her campaign against lynch law in the south. Born to slaves in 1862, she came of age concurrently with the collapse of Reconstruction and the betrayal of southern black people by the federal government. After her parents died when she was sixteen, she took charge of raising her siblings and became a schoolteacher and then a journalist in Memphis. It was after a race riot — for most of American history, “race riot” meant white pogroms directed at black people and other people of color — and lynching of three black men there that she began the work that would define her legacy.

As the title of this biography indicates, Wells did something simple but courageous in response to the epidemic of lynching: she did basic reporting and told the truth. Her reporting laid the foundation for what is now the basic historical understanding of lynching as a social phenomenon. Southern white leaders declared that lynching was necessary to protect white women from depraved black rapists. Ida Wells looked into lynchings and found that in only a minority of cases were the victims even accused of rape. Moreover, she reported that many of those who were accused of rape were in fact involved in illicit but consensual interracial relationships, typically initiated by white women. And of course, the rape defense only went one way- no one, black or white, was ever lynched, barely anyone was ever brought to law, for sexually assaulting a black woman. Wells’s conclusions were commonsensical and strike the reader as quite “modern:” lynching, like rape, is about power, not sex, and specifically about reenforcing white supremacy by terrorizing black people. She called for both federal anti-lynching legislation and armed black self defense in response.

In the 1890s when she began her antilynching crusade, this was controversial on a number of levels. Southern whites were offended and she was publicly threatened with torture and dismemberment by “respectable” newspapers in Memphis, forcing her to leave the south for New York and then Chicago. She struck a chord with black readers, who made her for a time the most well-known black woman in the country, and made a number of allies, including Frederick Douglass in his later years. But many established reformists, both black and white, had issues with her. She was feisty and not afraid to fight. This upset established gender norms of the time, especially for black women, who were under extra pressure to “prove” their femininity. People (like Susan B. Anthony) criticized her for being unmarried in her thirties and then criticized her for carrying on the work once she married lawyer and reformer Frederick Barnett. She ran afoul of Booker T. Washington, unofficial leader of black America at the time, who insisted that political agitation for his community’s rights was pointless and who punished black figures who disagreed. Wells allied with more radical figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and helped found the NAACP, but quickly found herself — a woman without a college degree — out of step with the increasingly professionalized world of early twentieth century reform politics.

In general, Wells’s life certainly did not lack for incident, but it’s arc isn’t exactly the stuff of Hollywood. There was no big confrontation or victory, either with the forces of lynching or with her fairweather friends in the reform movement. She kept plugging along until she died in 1930, mostly removed from the national stage after World War One but staying active in Chicago reform and antiracist politics. Mostly, this is a record of Wells writing and giving speeches, getting polite (or not so polite) reactions, and then the world going on it’s merry way, unfortunately. Historian Mia Bay does a fine job putting Wells in her context, succinctly explaining things like the history and full extent of lynch law, Victorian social codes constraining women, and post-Reconstruction black politics. This is a highly readable as well as commendably complete book. Wells is an admirable figure by any fair reckoning, but it is a little concerning to think how much she echoes our own time: a figure with a very correct analysis but no way to implement it. ****

Review- Bay, “To Tell the Truth Freely”

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