I’ve decided to blog a little bit about this Ida B. Wells biography project, for some accountability and sense of progress over time as I move through the 18-month process of producing a 100,000-word manuscript.

In the two months since my first post, I’ve been slowly shifting gears from wrapping up old projects to starting this new endeavor. One of the strangest things about a project like this, I’m already finding, is the comparatively slow-motion nature of the beast. Rather than diving in and working intensively full-time (in terms of both physical time and brain time/energy) on this one project I am carrying this work alongside many other responsibilities and pleasures. That is a new pace of scholarship for me since I have not done a project of this size since graduate school. And I’m hoping that the discipline of writing occasional updates will help me understand this slow-motion labor as building toward the final manuscript over the long haul.

Since June:

1) I received confirmation of my contract and the first $100.00 of my advance. Per my commitment to anti-racist actions as a part of this work, I donated $33.00 to the African American Intellectual History Society (go check them out!) and used the rest to purchase books by Black women scholars relevant to my research:

Beyond Respectibility: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women
by Brittney Cooper (U. Illinois, 2017)

IDA: A Sword Among Lions
by Paula J. Giddings (Amistad, 2008)

Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching
by Crystal Feimster (Harvard Univ. Press, 2009)

Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells
by Ida B. Wells (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996)

2) I spent July working my way through the Giddings biography, which is 800 dense pages of distilled biographical research. A scholar of African American history, Giddings was first introducted to me in college, when I was assigned excerpts from her landmark When and Where I Enter (1984). IDA does an excellent job of embedding Wells in, and interpreting her work through, the networks of Black intellectuals and activists she learned from, worked alongside, and often fought with between the 1870s through to her death in 1931. As I had hoped it would do, Giddings’ work provided an excellent foundation upon which I can begin to sketch out the key events, ideas, and figures that must appear in the much briefer treatment of Wells’ life that I will be writing. It was also just a pleasure to read as a biography, gracefully and insistently centering the voices and experiences of Black women — and one Black woman in particular — in narrating the history of anti-racist activism between the end of the Civil War through to the Great Depression.

3) During the first half of August I read Brittney Cooper’s Beyond Respectibility which doesn’t focus directly on Wells (although it does discuss her in relation to her contemporaries) but instead does critical theoretical work centering Black women’s knowledge production from the 1890s – 1970s. It has given me some extremely useful scaffolding for thinking about how Wells’ work incorporates her embodiment as a Black woman, and about how Black women activists and scholars (and scholar-activists) have situated Wells in a long genealogy of race women.

4) I also read Eric Weber’s dissertation “National Crimes and Southern Horrors: Trans-Atlantic Conversations about Race, Empire and Civilization, 1880-1900” (Duke University, 2011) which situates Wells — among other Southern journalists and newspaper editors — in an international (particularly Anglo-American) context. (Full disclosure Eric is a friend of mine.) This analysis of Wells’ participation in discussions about imperialism, racism, and civilization is particularly helpful in thinking about how Wells used her two lecture tours in England to enlist English activists in drawing (undersirable to white Southerners) international attention to White supremacist violence in the south.

5) I’m slowly building a list of the relevant scholarship I will need to digest as I write the full manuscript over the coming year (123 journal articles and 30 books so far).

6) I have a shitty first draft list of topics that might work for the “sidebar” sections, 200-word treatments of key concepts, events, people, legislation, etc. My goal with these sections is to draw connections between Wells and (particularly) other Black women’s activism before, during, and after her life. I want the high school and undergraduate students who are the anticipated audience for this biography to understand Wells not as an Important Black Woman in isolation but as one person who fought alongside others in the struggle for liberation. And hopefully, they’ll be curious enough to go do further research on one or more of those topics when the time comes for a National History Day project or a term paper!

Until the next update…