Some books you read. Others, you study.
I’ve spent the past month or so wrapped up in a biography that clocks in at 800 pages, and I’m reading it very slowly to make sure I don’t miss anything important. As I close in on page 300, I’m kind of amazed at just how much American history I wasn’t taught. The text in question is called Ida: A Sword Among Lions, and is written by the noted scholar Paula J. Giddings. Its primary focus is the life and adventures of Ida Barnett-Wells, but it’s also a meticulous portrait of the culture into which she was born. This allows the reader to see how Wells was both a product of her time and a rebel against it.It’s a good thing nobody’s going to test me on the material, because while I’m absorbing it quite well, I’m having a hard time talking about it. Mostly I’ve been shoving the book at people and gesticulating wildly while random agitated noises come out of my mouth. This is, of course, because of the book’s focus on the horrors of lynching and Wells’s passionate crusade to both expose and end the practice.
It’s easy to think of the past as a gentle, sepia-toned land whose problems are mere curiosities. Giddings rips the band-aid off this kind of deception with vivid descriptions of murder and torture, descriptions we have mainly because Wells was there to document the crimes and write them up for the various papers for which she worked. She also made two trips to England to spread the word overseas and make the world take notice of what was being done to her people. She was very well-received, and the trip was beneficial to her spirit also. In a piece for The Chicago Inter-Ocean, dated April 9th, 1894, Wells wrote about what it was like to visit Liverpool, a city considerably more enlightened than some of its American counterparts:
[It] is like being born into another world, to be welcomed among persons of the highest intellectual and social culture as if one were one of themselves…Here, a ‘colored person’ can ride in any sort of conveyance in any part of the country without being insulted, stop at any hotel, or be accommodated at any restaurant one wishes without being refused with contempt; wander into any picture gallery, lecture room, concert hall, theater or church and receive the most courteous treatment from officials and fellow sightseers (290).
One imagines this civilized treatment must have sustained her after she returned home, and spurred her on to other projects, including women’s suffrage and fearless participation in Chicago politics. She was passionate about, and dedicated to, so many social justice efforts that even her allies found her occasionally overwhelming; Booker T. Washington’s secretary, Emmett J. Scott, is on record as having said, “Miss Wells is fast making herself so ridiculous that everybody is getting tired of her” (410). If by “ridiculous” he meant “impossible to ignore,” then he was right.
Lest we put her up on a pedestal, Giddings also gives her readers a peek at Wells’s more human characteristics. She loved having nice clothes, and frequently went into debt over them in the interest of looking fashionable. She very much wished to love and be loved, exchanging courtship letters with a fairly large number of young men, thus opening her up to the 19th-century equivalent of slut-shaming (Wells was accused of immoral conduct multiple times in her young womanhood, and met those accusations with great distress and fury). She frequently beat herself up in her diary for her temper, constantly vowing to be more lady-like, but never quite pulling it off. And she loved the theater, so much so that even though the one she frequented in Memphis maintained segregated seating, she couldn’t bring herself to stop going. Witty, vivacious, flirtatious, and socially active? No wonder she was the object of so much scorn and ridicule.
I could write all day and not adequately explain just how much you’ll learn from this book. Giddings renders the events of Ida and her time in so much detail that it’s almost like being there. If 800 pages sounds daunting to you, it’s really only 659, unless you’re going to pore over the notes and bibliography like I will. And no, there is no digital version in the catalog, so you will have to make room in your bag for a brick of a book. But if you like American history, and want to treat yourself to a reading experience that’s the equivalent of an AP class, consider Ida. You may miss out on a bit of television, and/or a host of lighter reads, but what you will gain in exchange is worth its weight in intellectual gold.