Black and Blues

The life and times of Ida B. Wells; the life (and afterlife) of Robert Johnson.



During her lifetime and in the words of one contemporary observer, Ida B. Wells was one of the "brainiest of our female writers." Others thought otherwise.

Wells was, according to The Memphis Appeal, a "negro adventuress" guilty of "triumphant mendacity." Another nineteenth-century Memphis newspaper, The Memphis Commercial, called her a "wench" and drew from the New Testament by labeling her a "saddle-colored Sapphira." The New York Times weighed in on Wells too, charging that she was a "slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress." But in our own time, author Toni Morrison summarized Wells quite differently — and quite simply: "You know, Ida B. Wells is important."

Those are the words Morrison told biographer Paula J. Giddings, professor of Afro-American Studies at Smith College, and those are the words that guided Giddings over the course of nearly 800, thoroughgoing pages of text, notes, and bibliography.

Giddings' book is called Ida: A Sword Among Lions (Amistad/HarperCollins), and "sword" she was — as a journalist, pamphleteer, lecturer, activist, and unapologetic troublemaker, first in Memphis, then throughout the country and abroad. But Giddings has written more than a biography. Ida is a comprehensive history of black and white relations in America from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. And central to that history, Giddings makes it clear: Ida B. Wells was important.

Her beginnings could not have been less promising. A child of former slaves in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells grew up an avid reader and attended Rust College. But after losing her parents and a sibling to the yellow-fever epidemic of 1878, she moved to Memphis to work in one of the few professions open to blacks at the time: teaching. What Wells was born to do, however, was write. And she did write — cautiously, at first, for church-affiliated papers; outspokenly, by the time she joined The Memphis Free Speech & Headlight, an African-American newsweekly, with offices on Beale Street.

Wells, by this point, was already no stranger to controversy. In 1883, she'd tested the "color line" when she refused to leave the "ladies' car" on a train from Memphis bound for Covington. The court case she waged (and ultimately lost in the Tennessee Supreme Court) would later prove pivotal in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and prefigure Rosa Parks, but it was an unsigned editorial by Wells in The Free Speech that caused a firestorm in Memphis and across the country.

The subject of that editorial was lynching, and the scene of the crime was Georgetown, Kentucky, where, in 1891, blacks set fire to the town in response to the lynching of a black man — a black man who'd been charged with the killing of a white man for having "intimate relations" with the black man's wife. The Free Speech had dared to support the arsonists. "The editorial, which linked the eradication of lynching with retaliation . . . detonated a vein-popping response from the Memphis dailies as well as white-owned papers throughout the region," Giddings writes.

But it was another lynching, a year later, this time involving three black Memphians, that brought Wells to one conclusion: African-Americans would be better off depopulating "this hell [Memphis] created for colored people." And so, many of them moved west. Wells, age 30, moved east, to New York and later to Chicago. She was not to set foot in Memphis for another 30 years. But she continued to investigate and graphically report on lynchings and, most controversially, to question the widely accepted motive for them: rape.

Wells did more. She traveled to Great Britain, twice, to drum up international support for her antilynching campaign. She lobbied for women's suffrage. She fought for workers' rights and fair wages, including, at the request of A. Philip Randolph, support for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. She pushed for the courtroom rights of black prisoners. She helped to found the NAACP. She ushered in the national "woman's club" movement. She worked the political wards of Chicago. She established the first black kindergarten in Chicago. And she crossed the "color line," again, in a Chicago residential neighborhood. She, in short, agitated for change, which, in turn, often agitated others, and that included Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and even her husband, the lawyer Ferdinand Barnett (whose name she took but, way before the feminist movement, in hyphenated form: Wells-Barnett).

Despite her many efforts and her national renown, why is it only now that Wells earns a biography the size and scope of Ida? Is it, as Giddings points out, Wells' talent for rubbing people the wrong way? Is it a matter of Wells' one "besetting sin" — her eruptive anger? Her ability to tell truth to power? Her inability to mince words, whether in print or before an audience? In short, her swordsmanship when faced with an issue that others would meet halfway instead of head-on?

Anyway you take it, Wells came to feel marginalized. Wells repeatedly was marginalized by those who would disarm her rhetoric, threatened by her single-mindedness. Only death (in 1931, from uremic poisoning) accomplished what others could not: It silenced Wells' voice. Her autobiography ends in midsentence, but her life, thanks to Paula Giddings, now reads in full. And her legacy lives on:

"When Wells counseled blacks that wealth and social advancement were not agents of change in themselves," Giddings writes, "she was laying the groundwork for protest movements in a post-Victorian world where conflict had its place, where progress was not inevitable without political protest and action, and where language, not natural law, defined the meaning of race."

Shelf Life

For the record: Who is Robert Johnson? If you answer "King of the Delta Blues Singers," you'd be, in the opinion of a lot of others (including blues enthusiasts John Hammond and Alan Lomax and guitarist Eric Clapton), on solid ground.

Answer that Johnson got his signature guitar licks one midnight at a Delta crossroads in a pact with the devil, and you'd be on shaky ground, in the land of myth. So says Steve LaVere, archivist for the Robert Johnson estate, who writes, "Nearly every major article or book previously published about Johnson contains major flaws — either the research was faulty and unsubstantiated or it was rife with false ideas, romantic exaggeration or myths that were treated as fact." That's LaVere in the foreword to Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson (Demers Books) by Memphis music writer and novelist Tom Graves.

Graves will have none of it when it comes to the legendary Johnson: the major flaws, the false ideas, the romantic exaggeration, and the myths. His aim in this brief but handy clearinghouse of a book is to separate fact from fiction and set the record straight, a job even Johnson's friends in the 1930s had trouble doing. Just ask musician Johnny Shines, who played with the guitar great. As Graves describes it, Shines found Johnson to be a man who was "essentially unknowable."

That also goes for the exact manner of Johnson's death and even the precise location of his grave. But no doubting Johnson's profound influence on popular culture after his death in 1938, and that includes, as covered by Graves in the second half of Crossroads, a genre of music with a life of its own: rock-and-roll. 

Staff Pick

Persuasion

By Jane Austen

The recipe for a typical Jane Austen novel is pretty simple: Take one level-headed, young female protagonist; place into some sort of love triangle that includes a prince charming and deceptive fiend. Throw in some other key characters, making sure that a few of them are rather ridiculous for comic relief. Finally, add a good dose of humor, a heaping helping of intelligence, and a pinch of satire for seasoning, throw into the oven for about 200-300 pages, and watch a great story unfold.

Persuasion, Austen's last completed novel, does adhere to a number of these ingredients, but it truly distinguishes itself from other works by Austen in many ways. Our story begins later than usual, for our heroine, Anne Elliot, an "old maid" of (gasp!) 27 years. She was engaged eight years before to Frederick Wentworth, a man she truly loved, but broke it off at the advice of a friend. Now in the "autumn" of her life, she lives quiet days of solitude — that is, until a turn of events thrusts her into high society, forcing her to navigate the unfamiliar waters of fashion, the opera, and, of course, interactions with gentlemen — among them, Wentworth, who unexpectedly (and rather coldly) reenters her life amid this change of pace. Anne then struggles to overcome her social isolation, and she can only hope that includes reconnecting with the man she once knew so well.

Anne approaches life and social interactions very differently from the spunky Elizabeth Bennets of the world — instead, she is softer, meeker, gentler. She is not a weak character by any means — it's just that any strength in her personality was developed later in her life. An introvert, Anne also internalizes her thoughts and feelings much more, causing narration to comprise a large part of the development in the novel. Austen discards the sharper environment of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility in favor of the softer world tinted by Anne's perspective. The result is a lovely novel, more romantic and dreamlike, beautifully written — a real pleasure to read. Writers will love Persuasion for its delicately constructed writing; introverts, because they relate; and everyone else, because it has the makings of a great love story with just the right balance of excitement, humor, and sentiment to avoid being sappy, contrived, or boring. — Laura Fritzsche

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