In which we see that giving advice to a melancholy activist is no simple matter
The Felix Chronicles, #13
“I need your advice, gang,” I tell the class. “It’s about my friend Ida. Truth is, she drives me a little crazy. But I’m worried about her, and very conflicted about what to say. I figure maybe by talking with you I might get a better idea about how to start a difficult conversation.”
“Are you serious?” Ellen asks.
“Sure,” I say.
“ You’re asking us for advice?”
“Sure he is,” Joey says, tartly.
“All right. So here’s the deal. My friend Ida Wells is born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862.”
“ Oh,” Ellen interrupts with a pained look on her face. I can’t tell whether she’s more irritated with me or her own credulity.
I push ahead, which means looking at some notes. “Ida’s parents consider themselves married before the Civil War, and marry legally as freedpeople after it’s over, having a total of eight children, of whom Ida is the oldest (two die in childbirth). The parents and yet another brother die in a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1878, leaving Ida an orphan. Though only as old as you are right now, she insists on raising them as primary parent with the aid of friends and family, taking a job as a schoolteacher.”
Kim raises her eyebrows.
I continue: “But she also has greater personal ambitions. Having attending a public school established by the Freedmen’s Aid Society after the war, Ida enrolls in nearby Rust College. For reasons that remain unclear, she is expelled sometime around 1880, though she will later write that she bears no hard feelings against the president of the college who made the decision. In that diary entry, Ida laments ‘my tempestuous, hard-headed willfulness.’ She relocates the family to Memphis.
“In September of 1883 Ida buys a first-class train ticket. She is sitting in the first-class car when the conductor tells her she must move to the second class car because she is a Negro. She ignores him. The conductor leaves to collect other tickets, but returns to remove her luggage and umbrella, telling Ida he will treat her like a lady if she will act like one. She replies that treating her like a lady means leaving her alone. He grabs her arms; she bites his hand, drawing blood.”
“That is so great!” I hear Becky tell Ellen.
“The conductor leaves to get help while a crowd forms to jeer at her. She is forced to leave the car. Because the train is stopped at a station, she departs it entirely rather than move to the second-class car. She defies the crowd, but ends up by herself.
“Ida gets a lawyer and sues the railroad over the incident and a similar one the following year. The company tries to settle out of court; Ida refuses. The judge, an ex-Union soldier from Minnesota, awards her $500 in damages for discrimination in December of 1884. But upon appeal the Tennessee Supreme Court rules her suit ‘wasn’t in good faith’ and reverses the verdict, requiring her to pay $200 in court costs. ‘I had hoped for such great things from my suit for my people generally,' she writes, describing herself as ‘utterly discouraged.’”
“Ida continues teaching but also tries to launch a journalism career. In an 1891 article for a Memphis newspaper, she reports on poor teaching conditions in the segregated city and names teachers whose work she regards as professionally deficient. When, following the objections of the owner of the paper, she insists on using her own byline (some of her pieces had a pen-name), her contract is not renewed, and the decision is given as the reason why. Yet she is less upset about this than the failure of black parents to respond to the situation she reports in the story. She has always assumed African Americans would support those who fight on their behalf. She now sees this isn’t necessarily true. Still, she retains her feistiness. When a local minister expresses suspicion that the loss of her job is attributable to her character, she tracks him down and demands he read the apology she has written for him from the pulpit. He complies.
“Nothing bothers Ida as much as the epidemic lynching in the South in the decades following the Civil War. This hateful practice of white men intimidating African Americans brazen acts of murder, some of it committed in public view, has been rising steadily to hundreds of cases a year in the 1890s, and when it’s commented upon at all, is done so in a glib or dismissive way (an 1891 New York Times editorial suggests it’s less of a problem than illegal alcohol production). Ida reacts with fiery rage. ‘Had it occurred in the wilds of Africa, there would have been an outcry . . . against the savagery which so mercilessly put men and women to death,’ she writes of a Mississippi lynching in 1892.
“The following year, lynching becomes personal to Ida. The brutal murder of three men in Memphis, one a close friend, stirs her to new heights of fury. She has recently scraped together the money to buy a small community newspaper that would allow her to work full-time as a journalist. Reporting on the lynchings, she challenges the widely accepted assumption that such measures are required to protect white women from black men’s’ predatory sexuality. She writes, and I quote:
Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.“Wait,” Susan says. “Can you repeat that?”
I do. Susan asks: “Is she saying what I think she’s saying?”
"Yes." There’s a flurry of whispering. I have an impulse to draw it out and be explicit about the oblique reference to white male anxiety about white female desire for black men, but then decide this kind of surreptitious talk is actually useful. A whispering sense of scandal seems about right.
In any case, Becky again chimes in: “I love this woman!”
"Well, you might, Becky, but to say that white men in Memphis do not like this editorial is putting it mildly. One writer suggests the proper response to the author of the notorious editorial is ‘perform[ing] on him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears —
—“Oh my God!” says Beth, simultaneously shocked and amused.
—“not realizing that ‘he’ is a woman.” (I keep reading to rising laughter.) “A mob descends on Ida’s newspaper—she has left Memphis, never to return—and tears the office to pieces.”
“That’ll teach him!” Joey says.
I resume: “Ida continues her anti-lynching campaign. She travels the country—and to heighten her country’s embarrassment, travels abroad, lecturing rapt audiences on American racism. Along the way, she marries a Chicago lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett, and as Ida Wells-Barnett, settles there and has children. She continues her activism, winning the admiration and support of old Frederick Douglass. But Ida’s sharp elbows get her in trouble, too, with allies in the black and women’s suffrage communities. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois disagree about a great many things, but one thing they have in common is low regard for Ida Wells-Barnett. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People takes shape in 1909, Ida is shunted aside.
“These slights hurt Ida deeply. She knows all along that that she has a temper, and recognizes that she pays a price for it. ‘Oh my God! Can such a thing be and there be no justice for it?’ she writes as a young woman in her diary in the aftermath of another lynching (the image below is from the lynching of a woman in 1911). ‘It may be unwise to express myself so strongly but I cannot help it & I know not if capital may or may not be made of it against me but I trust in God.’ By the time of her death in 1931 she is actively battling despair. ‘I hadn’t anything to show for all those years of toil and labor,’ she writes in an unfinished autobiography (one that will be published in 1970 by her daughter). She spends decades in obscurity, refusing to give up, but not making much headway, either.
Susan is getting impatient. “OK,” she says. “We get it. So what’s your dilemma?”
I nod, indicating I’m getting to the point. “So here’s the situation," I say. "I’ve told you about my friend Ida. Let me be clear about my own feelings: I admire her tremendously, even as I see her do things time and again that make me cringe on her behalf. I love her energy, her fierce moral fervor, and her angry sense of humor. But I worry, too, not only because some of the things she does seem counter-productive, but also because I know she gets discouraged and could really use some emotional support. The question I’m struggling with is: How? Do I say to her, ‘You go, girl! Keep it up! Don’t let the bastards get you down!’
“Or do I say, ‘Ida, Ida, Ida. You know I love you—and that’s why I’ve got to tell you that you’re shooting yourself in the foot.’
“Or do I say: Ida, you’re killing yourself. I understand the value of the cause. But you’ve got to take care of yourself a little better. Please: Cool it.’ What is doing the right thing here, kids?”
There’s a long pause. I’m pleased. I think of this as a pretty good question, and I’m happy that so many of them are taking it seriously. The first person to raise her hand is Mindy. I acknowledge her.
“I think I would tell her that I admire her, she says, and that what she’s doing is important. But I think I would try to tell her to tone it down.”
Chris is shaking his head; he disagrees. “No,” he says. “She should keep up the pressure. She has to keep at it.”
“I agree,” Joey says.
“What do you mean, she has to keep at it?” I ask them.
“I mean that someone in her situation has to speak out against the injustice she’s dealing with,” Chris says.
“Again, Chris: I still don’t quite understand what you mean by has to speak out. I’ll point out to you that there were plenty of people in her situation—hell, there are plenty of people in her situation—who don’t have to speak out, and don’t.”
“He means that they have to speak out as a matter of moral obligation,” Roy says.
“Well, I’m not even sure that’s true, I continue. Remember, the NAACP is forming in the years that Wells is active, and no one is going to tell me that W.E.B. DuBois is less committed to the cause of African Americans than Wells or anyone else. The NAACP will come up with a legal strategy that’s admittedly slow—it takes decades to overturn the doctrine of segregation affirmed in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896 that cements the concept of segregation we’ve come to know as ‘separate but equal.’ But that slow approach ultimately works. So why isn’t his approach better than hers?”
“Hey, wait a second,” Alec says. “I thought you said you were her friend.”
“So why are you dissing her like that?”
“I’m not really dissing her.”
“Oh no? Then why are you backing the NAACP strategy?” He’s reveling in the role reversal.
“My point, Alec, is that Ida’s approach is not necessarily the best or only way. And I say that because maybe Mindy is right and I should be trying to get her to dial it back a little bit. That’s not dissing. That’s caring. You and Chris and Roy and Joey: You don’t really care about Ida. You’re willing to allow her to get chewed up! You’re a bunch of heartless bastards!”
Some laughter. But Kim is looking quizzical, even dissatisfied. What is it, Kim?
“I dunno,” she says. “I mean, if it’s really her mental health you’re thinking about, then I might say that you should tell her, you know, to get out of politics and activism altogether. I mean, is it really worth it? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s bad to be involved. But I’m trying to take you seriously here. If you’re telling me that she’s really upset, and you’re also telling me that the politics of it all is really ambiguous, then I really have to wonder if it’s worth it. But maybe that’s just me.”
“Fair enough,” I say. “Whether you’re right or wrong, I do appreciate that you’re thinking about her as a person here.”
Mindy raises her hand. “I understand what Kim is saying. But I think you could use some of the same logic to go the other way. Clearly, this is a woman has a certain kind of personality.”
“She’s hard-wired for controversy,” I say.
“Right. Hard-wired for controversy. It’s her nature, her DNA. To tell her to dial it back or get out altogether would probably be even more depressing. This is who she is.”
“And if, in the process, she really does get chewed up, if it actually finally kills her, maybe you’d say that isn’t all that bad, because she gave it her all for a truly worthy cause?”
“That’s what I was trying to say,” Roy interjects. “You called me a heartless bastard, but what I think I was saying was to honor her for the path she’s chosen.”
“Give ’em hell Ida!” Becky shouts, short-circuiting another tetchy, yet productive, exchange with Roy. Ellen, sitting next to Becky, is engaged, but just as clearly is holding back. I see an opportunity here.
“How do you feel about my friend Ida, Ellen? Are you as gung-ho about her as Becky is?”
“Yeah, I think so,” she says, firmly yet dispassionately.
“You think so?” Susan responds, both curious and amused.
“Yeah,” Ellen repeats. Becky smiles at her.
“You know, Susan, I think Ellen is a little like W.E.B. DuBois in her temperament here, while Becky is very much an Ida Wells girl,” I say. “But I also think Ellen has an appreciation for what we’ll call Becky B. Wells’ precisely because she isn’t like her. My guess is that it’s at least a part of the basis of their friendship. You think?”
“Yeah, I think,” Susan responds. Becky is beaming as if I’ve complimented her. Ellen is smiling with a wry expression, as if I just barely made a good shot in a squash game at her expense or took a clever trick in a game of Hearts. I don’t want to push my luck, or the limits of propriety, any further, but do want to use this exchange to turn a corner in the conversation.
“You know, I’ve telling you about Ida Wells, and asking you for advice in such a way that invites you to think about her life and work on her terms, as well as to compare her with her contemporaries. But I’d like to close by asking you what her life shows you about yours—about your values and priorities, where you fit into the scheme of things. I think it’s safe to say that few of us would make all the same choices she did, though we might have a range feelings about those choices of hers. In other words, what have you learned from my friend Ida?”
“Beth raises her hand. "I think what she shows me is the value of persistence. I guess I’ve come around to Roy’s view of her, that her life has meaning from commitment to a cause. But the key is that her commitment is her consistency. She took on a role, and she kept that role.”
I’m a little surprised and disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be any follow-up to that. I was kind of hoping to end the class on a cadenced note. Then Liza raises her hand. This cheers me; she hasn’t said anything in a while. “It’s really hard to say what lesson she offers me, because her life is so different and long ago from mine,” she says. “It might even be disrespectful.”
I nod silently, taking her comment in. “That’s true, I say. Her life was different than yours, and there’s always a risk in presuming really understand anyone else’s life, particularly when we’re talking about a kind of oppression that’s far removed from anything most of us have ever experienced. But the fact that there’s a risk doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take that risk. Actually, to my way of thinking, that’s exactly what history is—a series of attempts to imagine your way into the lives of other people. That’s the business I’m in, anyway. And while, as you say, Liza, it might be disrespectful, if done right it can represent the most important kind of respect you can pay to someone.
“But that’s not really why you’re here today. You’re here today because I believe that trying to make sense of Ida Wells’ life is good for you, not her or me. That the attempt to do so will make your world bigger, that it will expand your sense of the possible, not only or simply by widening your notion of what might be termed realistic activism, but more in the sense of appreciating the mysteries and varieties of life. I want you to know about Wells—someone who lived and worked for a cause, and who really suffered for that cause even as she accomplished something. Who knew pain and isolation" (to my surprise, I find myself a bit choked up), "and who died frustrated and with a sense of urgency that she did not achieve more. Because I hope that you will be able to learn from her experience—whatever that may finally mean.”
I exhale sharply. “That’s all for today. See you tomorrow.”