The Ida B. Wells Papers

3 Observations from a Remarkable Woman.

I spent a few enjoyable hours this afternoon in the special collections at the University of Chicago looking over some of the Ida B. Wells collection. I’m working on a paper about her decision, along with Fredrick Douglass, to protest the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Not necessarily related to that project, here are a few things that stood out as I went through the papers:

  1. I held a business card-sized promotion soliciting votes for her election as a Republican delegate to the 1928 convention in Kansas City. One of the most radical, outspoken activists for civil rights wanted to be a delegate to the Republican convention. Things have changed a bit since 1928.
  2. On Friday, January 1, at one o’clock in the morning, Wells reflected on the watch night service from which she’d just returned: “I go forth on the renewed pilgrimage of this New Year with renewed hope, vigor, a remembrance of the glorious beginnings and humbly pray for wisdom, humility, success in my undertakings if it be My Father’s good pleasure, and a stronger Christianity that will make itself felt.” One of my pet peeves about the way historians often reflect on Wells (and her African American contemporaries) is how her Christianity is assumed and thus ignored. There can be a bit of historical and cultural prejudice that refuses to imagine that her faith was one of the things that allowed Wells to live such an extraordinarily brave and intelligent life. A letter like this pushes against those biases.
  3. Ida B Wells and Betty MossOne folder held a bunch of photos and this one made me stop for a minute. Here we see Wells with Mrs. Betty Moss and her two children. Moss was made a widow when her husband Tom, a good friend of Wells, was lynched in Memphis. I think this image hit me hard because last week, once again, we saw Black women standing in front of cameras because their men – boyfriend, son – had been murdered by state-sanctioned violence.  It’s a sad and infuriating thing to consider- the script this nation so forcefully holds itself to.

I’ll continue to do my small part to make Wells more widely known. As I learn more about her remarkable life I’m increasingly sure that she’s the model we need to bravely face the traumas and fears of our day.

Mob Rule in Louisiana

“Your silence encourages a continuance of this sort of horror.”

In 1900 Ida B. Wells reported on the events in New Orleans which led to the eventual killing of Robert Charles and, which along the way, terrorized the African American citizens of that city. After quoting in detail the newspaper accounts of the vigilante justice inflicted by white citizens on their black neighbors, Wells ends by scrutinizing her white readers.

Men and women of America, are you proud of this record which the Anglo-Saxon race has made for itself? Your silence seems to say that you are. Your silence encourages a continuance of this sort of horror. Only by earnest, active, united endeavor to arouse public sentiment can we hope to put a stop to these demonstrations of American barbarism.

It’s a poignant indictment, over one hundred years later, as we see another black man – Alton Sterling – lynched in Louisiana by white police officers. Does our silence sound any different now than it did then? Wells follows the above passage with a table tracking “Negroes that have been lynched” by year, from 1882-1899. The lowest year was 1839, with 39 deaths; the highest was 1892 with 241 murdered. Last year, at least 102 unarmed black people were killed by the police.

Are we proud of the record our race has made for itself? Our silence seems to say we are.

Plundered Bodies

Ida B. Wells and the Incarnation as Theological Exemplar and Rationale for Racial Justice

The following is a paper I wrote for a recent theology class. The themes in the paper are resonant to much of what I post about here, so it’s possible a few readers may be interested in what I explored in these pages. I welcome your feedback and suggestions; these are themes I expect to return to regularly.

At 2:30 A.M. On March 9, 1892, three Black men were dragged from their jail cells in Memphis, Tennessee by “seventy five men wearing Black masks.”[i] Tommie Moss, Will Steward, and Calvin McDowell, targeted for their resistance to mob violence against Moss’ grocery store, struggled against the vigilantes as they were led to the railroad. Along they way they were shot and mutilated before arriving at the scene of their lynching, an event that one newspaper described as having been “done decently and in order… with due regard to the fact people were asleep.”[ii]

Ida B. Wells was the publisher of Free Speech, a Memphis newspaper that focused on Black life in the city. She was away when her friend Tommie Moss was lynched. After an initial response in her paper in which she urged her peers to “leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property,[iii] she followed up with an even more direct editorial on May 24th.  “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape White women. If Southern White men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”[iv] Wells was correct that public sentiment toward the lynching of Black bodies would eventually shift, though at this point she couldn’t have imagined how long it would take or what a pivotal role she would play. She also didn’t foresee that this editorial, with her indictment of White fear, would provoke serious enough threats in Memphis that she would need to flee for the relative safety of Chicago where she would commence her anti-lynching campaign in earnest.

Any reckoning of Wells’ life and impact must consider many things: her gender and race; her move from Memphis to Chicago at a time when many African Americans were doing the same; her varied and influential roles as a publisher, editor, writer, and activist; and her relationships – sometimes friendly, often not – with influential leaders in the civil rights and suffragist movements. But Wells was also a self-consciously Christian person and it is this aspect of her life in which this paper is most interested. Despite regular, sometimes life-threatening, opposition exacerbated by her race and gender, Wells was singularly focused on raising the public’s awareness about the tragic injustice of lynching. What role did her Christian faith play in her courageous activism? Continue reading “Plundered Bodies”

5 Favorite books of 2013

Once again, in a completely haphazard manner, I’ve collected my five favorite books of the past year. These books were not necessarily published in 2013 – though three of them were – but they were among the books I most enjoyed during the year.  I read about thirty books in 2013 and I don’t hesitate to recommend these five to you. Please leave a comment if you can recommend to us any books from your past year’s reading list.

A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching, Paula J. Giddings (2009).

Ida A Sword Among LionsAfter I finished Gidding’s biography about Ida B. Wells, I felt compelled to make the short pilgrimage to her Chicago home. I parked off of King Drive, looked up at the old home, and tried to imagine the frenetic activity that house experienced at the hands of its famous occupant. Despite almost single-handedly championing the anti-lynching campaign at the turn of the twentieth century, most of us are woefully ignorant of this critical figure in the early Civil Rights Movement. Giddings points out some of the reasons for our ignorance. Most obviously, Wells was a woman in a man’s world. While the older Fredrick Douglas was generally an ally and advocate for Wells, her contemporary, W. E. B. Du Bois, was mostly ambivalent to her work, going so far, according to Wells, as to leave her name off the list of the founders of the NAACP. Despite this, Wells worked tirelessly as an author, journalist, and speaker despite very real risks to her life and the lives of those close to her. Another reason we forget about Wells is that she lived before what most of us think of as the Civil Rights Movement and the gains she and her contemporaries made (whether related to race or gender equality) don’t seem as spectacular as the accomplishments of those who came a generation or two later. A Sword Among Lions is a small step toward reminding us of this American hero. Ida B. Wells should should never be forgotten; her insight and courage in the face of such hostile circumstances cannot relegated to the past.

My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman (2013).

My Bright Abyss WimanChristian Wiman wrote the most beautiful book of the year. Not the most beautiful of the books I read but of any book published in 2013. (Go ahead, find a more beautifully written and expressed book. I’ll wait.) Wiman was, until recently, the editor of Poetry Magazine and his way with words is evidence of his poet’s vocation. This is a memoir about Wiman’s return to Christianity after a long absence from the rollicking faith of his family. The ways Wiman talks about faith seem equally informed by his poetry, his location as a modern person (as he understands that), his love for his wife, and a devastating experience with cancer. It’s the last one that features most visibly throughout the book, though Wiman is far too careful a writer to ever use his illness to manipulate the reader. Instead we feel the author’s doubt, grief, and physical agony even while we’re surprised with him at faith’s quiet return. I’ve written on this blog about stages of faith and the tendency to experience these transitions as God’s absence or as the erosion of faith’s foundations. This Bright Abyss is a book I will recommend not only for it’s beauty, but also for the view it provides of a faith that exists not only in spite of doubt, grief, and uncertainty, but because of them.

And They All Sang, Studs Terkel (2005).

And They All SangI’m predisposed to like this book. When he was attending the University of Chicago’s law school, Studs Terkel would take the train through Bronzeville and make stops at some of the clubs and record stores. I spend a lot of time in Bronzeville and I sometimes try to imagine the neighborhood as it was when Studs made those stops- the people he met and the music he heard. Studs was one of the first to play the great Mahalia Jackson on his Chicago radio show and this book is filled with conversations he had over the years with equally notable sings and musicians. Studs did more over the course of his life than most of us will, but he’s remembered for telling the stories of ordinary people in his collections of interviews organized around different themes: work, war, race, etc. Any collection of Studs’ interviews is an entry into other times and places; the man had the ability to ask the right, generally succinct question, and then get out of the way. He allowed his subjects to speak from their own very specific locations, trusting that the reader would make their own connections. The result in They All Sang is collection loosely organized by genre that covers music people I’d never heard of, along with some I had, talking about subjects and times I was sometimes familiar with and other times not. It’s all made accessible and interesting by Stud’s insatiable curiosity and the belief that everyone has a story worth hearing.

Unapologetic, Francis Spufford (2013).

UnapologeticIn his Books and Culture review, Alan Jacobs calls Unapologetic a “sweary and funny and lovely book.” Francis Spufford’s non-defense of Christian faith is certainly more than these but also not less which makes the book such a surprise. Have you ever read a book about Christianity’s validity that begins (and mostly ends) with emotion? The author’s cheeky British wit and irreverence toward certain taboos and sacred cows only add to the pleasures this book contains. I’m not an apologetics guy. Books that claim to defend Christian faith hold almost no interest for me, nor do I usually understand the need to defend faith in the ways these books attempt. Christianity, as I understand it, requires God initiated faith, something that is impossible to defend or explain with language and assumptions outside of the faith. Also, Christianity contains it’s own internal logic, what might be described as the ethics of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a logic that, at many points, will be out of step or unintelligible to those who’ve not stepped into the Faith. I understand the importance of showing Christianity’s historical place and consistencies, not to mention the constant need to locate the Bible in it’s cultural context. However, the impulse to convince people who don’t share Christianity’s assumptions about how the world works that Christianity best explains how the world works seems a generally fruitless exercise. And it’s the opposite of what Spufford does in Unapologetic. Instead, he mixes his own encounters with faith with retellings of the Christian story to show the emotional resonance of Jesus and his story. Emotions here are not the opposite of intellect; rather, Spufford shows how Christian faith resonates with his entire personhood. There are a few assumptions here that I didn’t agree with, but I these didn’t take away from Spufford’s surprising and necessary non-apology.

Reading for Preaching, Cornelius Plantinga (2013)

Reading for PreachingI try to choose books for this list that will appeal to most readers of this blog. I actually don’t think this book about preaching is an exception. Cornelius Plantinga is theologian and seminary president who doesn’t write like either. This is a book about reading and preaching that isn’t overly-serious about its subjects. Plantinga clearly cares about preaching and he makes the case well that preachers ought to be thoughtful readers, yet he approaches these things with warmth and a light hand. This sort of book could make a preacher feel guilty for what he or she is not doing in preparation for that weekly appointment in the pulpit. There is not guilt in Reading for Preaching, just a gracious invitation to the world of sentences and stories for the benefit of the preacher and hers or his congregation. As much as Plantinga cares about good preaching, he’s equally taken by reading and this is where the book will be enjoyed by readers who’d rather die than preach. All types of reading are discussed in these pages; the author doesn’t privilege codex over reading online or so-called literary fiction over a newspaper article. All of these have their place in the life of the reader and Plantinga helps us see why and how we might consider these different forms of writing more thoughtfully. After all, most of us read and mostly forget. We live in the author’s world for a few minutes or a few weeks and then, aside from an anecdote or two, we move on. Plantinga wants preachers to recall more of their reading, to find ways of interacting with facts, ideas, and imaginations such that the other Book comes alive. His thoughts about how to do this are helpful to readers who want the books they read to be more than temporary distractions.