Learning from Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Back in mid-August I began reading this book. I should finish it in the next couple of days. (Thank goodness for a library system that will automatically renew your books as long as no one has them on hold. At least, they’ll renew them three times which is just about long enough for me to finish this book.)

This is clearly an academic biography of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. It is an 800 page book, but the biography ends on page 660. The rest of the pages are endnotes and index. It’s intense. It’s also not what I was thinking of when I asked for recommendations on twitter back in August. I was thinking of a more popular style of biography. One that I could read quickly. This one has been read at a rate of 15-20 pages per day. That said, it’s an impressive book, I have learned a lot, and I’ll be thinking about it for a while to come, I’m sure. Now I’m looking for a good biography of Madam C.J. Walker, if anyone has any suggestions.

Before reading this book I could have told you Ida B. Wells (I didn’t even know she married and hyphenated her name) was a journalist. I knew she had worked for woman suffrage, because I read Lifting as We Climb. It was that book that made me want to learn more about her, actually. One of my first realizations was how little I knew about this woman.

I have many thoughts from this book and maybe, if my brain and emotional well-being requires it, I’ll write more on it. One thing that I’m not focused on today but is frequently on my mind due to this book is the reality of our history of lynching. I knew something about lynching but until reading this book (and from parts of White Rage), I really didn’t fully comprehend. Probably still don’t. I need to process that more so we’ll see if I end up back here on that topic.

Right now, however, I keep thinking about Wells and W.E.B. DuBois. I am sure I am wildly oversimplifying and quite possibly highly inaccurate in my assessment and thinking here and I am completely open to being corrected on this. As I’ve noted, I knew very little before this book. In my perception, DuBois believed that Black people would gain rights through education and, essentially, assimilation in the white world. Wells, on the other hand, believed that Black people would gain rights through changes in legislation advocacy, protest, and fighting back.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of how relevant it feels right now. There are many folks who believe that the way forward follows DuBois’s beliefs. The idea that Black people must behave a certain way to be given their rights. We see this again and again with protests of all sorts. There are always some people arguing that protests shouldn’t be done that way. Whatever way that might be. It shows up with the arguments that Black people should follow directions given by police and they’ll be fine. In spite of plenty of evidence suggesting that isn’t true.

My sense is that these arguments are saying that if Black people become enough like white folks they’ll finally be granted the same rights and privileges. It feels like the idea is that to be a full citizen one must behave in certain ways. Citizenship is not a right for all but something that must be earned through proper behavior and education and hard work.

Others, following with beliefs more aligned with Wells, believe society should change. This take includes the idea that citizenship is a right for all, something that is assumed and not something that needs to be earned. So society must change the structures and systems that are keeping many people from full citizenship.

To oversimplify this even more, I see advocates for two ways to move to a more equal society. One group advocating for Black people to change to make it happen and the other group advocating for white people to change to make it happen. Given that the inequalities have been created by white folks, it seems like white folks are responsible for changing and creating a more just society.

One step I’m taking is to learn more about those structures and systems and the history behind them. Changing them won’t be easy but understanding where they came from will, I hope, provide some guidance on how to dismantle them. Another step is to listen to the many brilliant Black people who are doing this work and have been for a long time. That includes those who came before, like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and those who are doing the work in this moment. They know far more than I do and I intend to listen, learn, and follow their lead.

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