Ida B. Wells Book Project (6/7/2019)
Update 1 (8/14/2019).
A few things have happened since mid-August. The most important milestone was my October 1st deadline for getting a draft table of contents and sample chapter to my series editors. One of the new-to-me aspects of this type of manuscript development is that I am drafting a preliminary story arc for the work while simultaneously still doing research. Eek! Since I am one of those nonfiction writers who doesn’t really understand where I’m going and how I want to get there until I start writing, it was hard to pull together a table of contents even though I knew it was only preliminary.
The structure of the project, and the series it falls into, dictate some aspects of the outline. For example, the main body of the work must be roughly chronological and provide a strong, coherent narrative of the subject’s life and work. How to organize a coherent narrative that accurately captures complexity of a human life is, of course, the challenge left to me to resolve. I have a lot of question marks still, at this stage, but know that I want to provide the target audience of this work with enough contextual information to understand Wells’ story embedded within the collective experience of black women in America between the Civil War and the Great Depression. I cannot assume that a reader who picks up this book has a working understanding of chattel slavery, of what Reconstruction did and did not entail, what we mean when we talk about a “lynch mob.” Or what it meant for black women to assert their woman-ness within a white supremacist context that — until Ida’s toddlerhood — had refused to accept Black women as women. If experiences in the undergraduate classroom are any guide, we cannot even assume an adolescent reader will accept that structural racism exists. So there will be a lot of scaffolding to construct around the core narrative of Ida’s life experience in order for readers to grapple with the particular part Ida had to play.
The other element of this book that I put some thought into was a list of “sidebar” topics. Again dictated by the structure of the series, the segments will appear alongside the main narrative and I could have gone in a number of directions with them. I went through several iterations of lists before settling on a set of concepts, people, and individuals that I hope will extend the reach of Wells’ story back into the 18th century and forward into the 20th/21st century. While I originally thought to include people and concepts from her own lifetime as well, those individuals and ideas are better treated, narratively, in a way that folds them into the main narrative. By using the sidebars to highlight the work of women like Elizabeth Freeman and Harriet Jacobs who came before and the Combahee River Collective, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, and the co-founders of Black Lives Matter who came after we can see Black women intellectuals and activists moving forward in struggle across generations. That’s where I am at the moment on the sidebar question!
My major reading in September was Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988). The political and social particulars of Reconstruction was a gap in my historical knowledge from both undergraduate and graduate school — in part because I focused on the 20th century, but also because this is a period that many curricula fail to do justice. Though thirty years old, Foner’s text remains a standard-setting one and I appreciated how willing he was to use the words “white supremacy” to describe the post-Civil War politics that led to extreme violence against freed and free Blacks and those Whites who resisted a white supremacist hegemony. This text gave me some of my own much-needed scaffolding for my understanding of what labor looked like in the South, what land ownership and occupation meant, what various levels of government (local, regional, state, federal) meant in terms of day-to-day realities — particularly for those who had been emancipated and were building futures for themselves, their children, their communities.
Diana Ramey Barry’s The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (2017) has also been an important and wrenching read as I reach back into the stories of Ida’s parents. Ida’s mother, historians have pieced together, was born in 1844 to enslaved parents in Virginia and sold at the age of 7 or 8 years of age on the auction block. Using Barry’s data as a guide, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Wells would have commanded a price of around $236 (or $6,940 in 2014 dollars). She would never reunite with her parents or any but the two sisters with which she had been sold. Ida’s father James (Jim) Wells, meanwhile — while never separated from his mother Peggy and his half siblings through auction — experienced another form of trauma produced by the chattel slavery system: He was the son of his owner, Morgan Wells. While never beaten by his father, and apprenticed as a carpenter to Lizzie’s owner — a valuable trade he was later able to use to support the Wells family after emancipation — Jim was never allowed to forget his enslaved status. In her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1970), Ida recalls her father refusing to consider introducing his children to his late father’s widow because “Miss Polly” had stripped and whipped his mother, Peggy, the day after Morgan Wells died — an overt show of the power a White widow had over the Black woman with whom her husband had had his only child.
I’ll be taking a bit of a breather in October — yay vacation! But next up on my reading list is a book by Mary Niall Mitchell that will dig deeper into this theme of parenting in the post-Civil War era: Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery (2008). It’s also time to round out my reading of other major biographical treatments of Wells with To Keep the Waters Troubled by Linda O. McMurry (1999), Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 by Patricia Schechter (2001), They Say: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race by James West Davidson (2007), and To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay (2009), as well as The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995).