Saturday, May 30, 2009

Book Review: Ida: A Sword Among Lions

Title: Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching
Author: Paula J. Giddings
Rating: ****
Tags: lynching, women, suffrage, civil rights, ida b. wells, frederick douglass, non-fiction

Ida B. Wells, at least until the publication of this book, was something of a footnote in history, her role in anti-lynching campaigns played down by those who came after her.

Gidding's book restores Wells reputation, in great detail. Actually the book was hard for me to get through. It is long and heavy, not good with my minor carpal tunnel. But I decided to finish the book and am glad that I did.
Wells was born a slave in 1862. Her parents were skilled though, and made an easier transition to freedom than many others. Unfortunately they died young, and Wells and her siblings were forced to survive on their own. Wells lived in Memphis and was a teacher. Black civil rights, gained afer the Civil War, began to be eroded pretty quickly. Wells first came to public attention with an anti-lynching article in 1892, against the lynching of three men, one of whom was a friend of hers. Her anti-lynching campaign helped propel her into journalism, but she was forced into exile from Memphis in fear of her life. She traveled a lot, eventually winding up in Chicago, where she married a lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett and had four children with him. She never stopped working for civil rights for African-Americans and women, and for improving conditions for blacks.

In her anti-lynching campaigns, she investigated incidents in detail, and published the results in pamphlets, while also writing articles refuting that the cause of most lynchings was black male rape of white women.

Wells could be a contentious personality, and it cost her over her life. But what also cost her was just the unwillingness of many to hear the cold hard facts she wanted revealed. She was farther to the left politically than most, insisting on civil rights when it was far more popular to follow Booker T. Washington in saying that black vocational education was more important than rights, that it would improve the economic conditions and raise the status of the race. Wells knew that, for one thing, it wasn't a lot of use to educate blacks for jobs that they wouldn't be hired for because of their skin color.

Giddings gets into some sickening detail in eiscussing lynchings, but these are the facts. The events were brutal... not just death, but torture before death. Reading these horrors don't make one proud of being white. Even progressive whites were often unable to understand the degree of their racial prejudice. Ida made them uncomfortable because she would tell that they were wrong and why.

So all in all, this is a story that shows the worst of humanity, prejudice so strong it destroyed lives in so many ways, but also of those who had the courage to speak up, and to never give up, despite every possible discouragement. It reinforces what I've thought for a long while, that society advances by evolutionary change rather than revolutionary. Revolutions tend to provoke reaction that sends things back to where they were or worse. Yet society needs the revolutionary voices to raise consciousness and introduce new progressive ideas. Ida B. Wells was one of those voices.

Ida: A Sword Among Lions is a book that in the end rewards the effort of reading it.

Publication Amistad (2008), Hardcover, 816 pages
Publication date 2008
ISBN 0060519215 / 9780060519216

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