Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells

Article excerpt

To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. By Mia Bay. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. Pp. viii, 374. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-8090-9529-2.)

To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells is a superb account of one of the most remarkable figures in U.S. history. Born a slave, Ida B. Wells came of age during emancipation and Reconstruction. Orphaned as a teenager, she raised five siblings in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on a rural schoolteacher's salary. With a limited education and little money, she became within a decade the leading African American woman journalist in the country and was the first to own her own newspaper. Wells-Barnett (she married Ferdinand Lee Barnett in 1895) became a leading antilynching advocate at the moment when African Americans witnessed the violent destruction of their newly won citizenship. She understood the dynamics of white supremacy more than most people of her time. Her rural background and her passion for justice pushed her analysis of power beyond that of other contemporary bourgeois reformers, both black and white. She understood and experienced the limitations of the racial, class, and gender divisions within the reform community. Her political analysis, combined with her hot temper and uncompromising spirit, placed her in contentious relationships with her contemporaries.

Mia Bay understands this, and she does a fine job of describing Ida Wells-Barnett's struggle to become an outspoken journalist and antilynching advocate. In taking up the fight against lynching, Wells-Barnett focused on the most controversial issue of her day--the sexual relationships between black and white people, especially in the South. She understood how the southern ruling class exploited the fears of interracial liaisons to destroy African Americans' successful economic endeavors and the exercise of their newly won rights. She knew that rape was rarely the issue that led to the murder of African American men, for most lynchings occurred when a black man challenged the instruments of white supremacy--the brutal authority of a plantation owner or manager, the intrusion into his family's home, the rape of his wife or daughter, the theft of his crop or property. Wells-Barnett located the rise in lynching in the power relations of the white supremacist South, recognizing that sexual and gender relationships were a part, but not the entirety, of social relationships.

Wells-Barnett moved in the circles of white and black reformers of the Progressive era, influenced and participated in the formation of major organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and was a leading suffragist. …

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