Blame Black Women: Ida B. Wells and the Challenges of Early Black Feminists

At the close of slavery, a new system, equally degrading and pernicious in its effects, took its place. Of course Black people resisted a system that resembled European serfdom and restricted their full participation in America’s democracy. When white men found that resistance formidable, they did what was easy: they blamed Black women.

If you follow this blog, you know, Reader, that I posted on one of America’s first original Black woman gun advocates/journalists/newspaper women/antilynching crusaders/feminists/opinion writers, Ida Bell Wells, also known as Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I have a confession to make: I LOVE this woman. I have purchased all of her writings, her Memphis diaries transcribed by the University of Memphis’ first African American professor, Miriam Decosta-Willis, and her unfinished autobiography with an afterword by her great-granddaughter, activist and professor, Michelle Duster. I have visited the museum at Holly Springs, Mississippi (The Yellow Fever museum is right around the corner). Please find more about it at: https://idabwellsmuseum.org/

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If you have stumbled upon this blog, Dear Reader, first of all, thank you for stopping by. Second of all, the professor is in. Welcome. Come in. Sit down. Get comfortable. Be your entire nerd self. Pull out those contact lenses and put those glasses on. Click out of this story and click on the last story. Catch up. Then come back. Come back, now. It gets good.

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Here’s something that I want you to know about Ida B. Wells. Her father, Jim Wells, inspired her with a sense of justice. A carpenter and community activist around Holly Springs, he helped to found Rust College, where Ida B. Wells received her early education. Though Rust College today proudly displays Wells-Barnett on its banners, Ida B. Wells never finished her teaching training at Rust College. Though Wells would go on to become a teacher in Memphis, and Rust asked her back to teach once. Wells actually completed her education at Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee by attending summer classes (this was a common practice throughout the South, but that is another posting. I promise that I will post on this in the future).

Though the South’s dismal investment in its education for Black students is one reason for Wells’ exit from Rust, there is another, personal and painful reason why Wells left Holly Springs never to return personally or professionally. When Wells was a teenager, just finishing her course as a primary school student at Rust College (Rust had within it, an elementary and high school until the 1970s), she lost both her parents and an infant brother to a horrendous Yellow Fever epidemic that struck Memphis and North Mississippi by 1878. Yellow fever is caused by a virus that is transmitted by mosquitoes. Please learn more about its symptoms and treatments here: https://www.pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/patient-information/conditions-treated-a-to-z/yellow-fever#:~:text=Yellow%20fever%20is%20caused%20by,higher%20risk%20of%20severe%20infection.

At the time, doctors did not know about the connection between mosquitoes and the disease that ravaged the South. Many doctors and religious officials stayed in the South to serve, and some lost their families in the process. When the Yellow Fever epidemic reached Holly Springs, James Wells, a skilled and seasoned carpenter, could have easily taken his family farther into the countryside of Marshall County. However, he remained in the city serving as an aid and coffin maker to Dr. Gray, the attending physician. James Well offered assistance until he and his wife and child succumbed. Ida Bell Wells was in the countryside with her grandmother when she was summoned home with the dire news.

According to Wells’ diary and her autobiography, some of her father’s Mason brothers, in spite of her grandmother and an aunt living nearby, decided that it was best to take the remaining five children to separate homes. Wells was 16 at the time: she could become a teacher. Wells would not hear of it. Wells, even at that age, was an astute businesswoman. She knew that her father left money for the care of herself and her siblings. She also knew that her parents would not want their children to be separated. While I have waxed long about James Wells’ influence on his daughter, Wells’ mother was a pragmatic woman who instilled moral education in her children. She supported their educational endeavors as well as her husband. What happened next propelled Wells into the world as a 16-year-old woman/teacher/journalist. I want to let Wells’ words speak for themselves. Wells, who had read the Bible through by the time she finished Rust College, inherited this sense of duty to her siblings from her mother. I rarely do this, but I am going to quote at length. I am quoting from Wells’ unfinished autobiography:

Let me put that in context for you: Ida B. Wells was born in 1862. Though born into slavery, she was born in a hopeful generation that believed that educating their children was one way that African Americans could fully participate in America’s democracy. After all, even in its formation, the Constitution only guaranteed voting rights for landholding, literate males. After the Compromise of 1877, a year before the Yellow Fever epidemic began ravaging Holly Springs, Black Americans in the South faced lost rights through extra-legal night riders, legislative retrenchment, and an economic system that resembled the old European feudalistic one. Of course, Black people, having tasted a freedom that they’d prayed and fought for, rebelled.

Reader, if you are unfamiliar with the feudal system that defined Europe’s economy before slavery enabled the mercantile capitalist system, I will pause here and give you a brief summary. In a feudal system, the king was the chief landowner. He gave land to nobles as rewards or as an expectation of loyalty. The peasants worked the land in return for legal protection. While the peasants provided food for the whole kingdom, they had no rights themselves, owed rent to the landlord (sometimes, it depended on the situation), and could not leave the land or marry without the landowner’s permission. For more on feudalism, please click here (this is one of my favorite nerd websites, by the way): https://www.worldhistory.org/Feudalism/

Well, I am not sure, at this point, in my studies of British “stuff” and African American culture, how sharecropping differed all that much. Oh yeah, the landowners here still did not recognize the sharecroppers as human beings and would not offer them legal protection and did not give them a fair share of what they’d raise, because America was still in the grips of scientific racism.

When African Americans found themselves in this feudalistic system in the middle of a sea of capitalism, they rebelled. Since African Americans would not accept separate kings, lack of legal protection, unfair wages and labor conditions, serfdom and peonage, and perpetual educational disadvantages for their children, some of America’s most distinguished social scientists began to study the South’s “problem.” And after many, many years in the field and many, many pages of writing and many, many complicated statistics, do you want to know what they concluded, dear Reader? Black men resisted American-style feudalism because Black women simply lacked the moral strength to keep them in bondage. Yep. I kid you not. Black women’s immorality made American feudalism suffer is what historical Philip Alexander Bruce, who produced one of the earliest histories of slavery, The Plantation Negro as a Freeman: Observations on His Character, Condition, and Prospects in Virginia (1889). This book and the others that follow it, is one of the roots of Jim Crow. It is still available at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Plantation-Negro-Freeman-Observations-Character/dp/1276933029

This book concluded that it is all Black women’s fault. Even the “rape” of white men is Black women’s fault, because Black women cannot keep a man at home.

These types of sociological/historical/scientific racist writings that legitimated racism through gender, were taken up and repeated from America’s legislative bodies to its lynch mobs. Even Black men hurled these insults at Black women from time-to-time. This is why Wells’ home community inflicted a wound in her that almost never healed. Please, if you nothing else, refer to the pain she felt in her Memphis diary. I cried as I read the words (I know. I’m a hopeless softy and romantic. My mother teases me about it endlessly).

Though light-skinned versus dark-skinned is now the stuff of cliche in African American literature and letters, read far enough back in African American autobiography/writings, and you find that light skin was an indictment against Black women’s morality by white men and the Black community. It was a negative aspect of Black peasant culture that hurt Black women, because Black women knew the origin of it. A great fictional example of it is a book written by a Langston Hughes protege, Mereces Gilbert. In Aunt Sara’s Wooden God (1938), the light-skinned son of Aunt Sara is born during slavery. The rest of the Black community use this in order to ostracize the women in Aunt Sara’s family for the lack of morals, even though this entire community knew that during slavery, Black women would not have had a choice. Another popular, overlooked example is the genesis of Janie’s family in Hurston’s magnum opus, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). As readers, we are so engrossed in the love story of Janie and Teacake, that we skip Janie’s first heartbreak. Janie’s line is the product of the slave master and rape. Janie’s grandmother wants to give her little family some respectability. Well, the first husband, Logan, says he tried to give Janie’s family some respectability and that Janie should be grateful, seeing as how she was “born without a top on her carriage.” Janie’s grandmother was a slave. Logan knew that. He spat those words at Janie to wound and inflict. And they did. Logan, not Jody, killed his own marriage with his sense of superiority, because he felt Janie was “beneath” him to start, due to Janie’s grandmother’s supposed lack of morals. Janie, Logan felt, owed him praise and worship for his gift of land and respectability to her little family.

During Reconstruction and well into the 1900s, a popular scientific and sociological “fact” (notice I use quotation marks here. Science and social science are not always as objective as they claim to be) was that Black women, who birthed the master’s bastards, were responsible for the immorality that infected Black Americans and rotted the work ethic. This is the fight that those first (or should I say, second wave of Black feminists? I cannot forget the abolitionists…but that’s another posting)faced. This is what Ida Bell Wells faced as a young woman. They stared down the publication mechanisms of white male academics and those Black males and women in their own communities who wanted to control them, and the decks were stacked against them. Black women had limited access to publication outlets.

Reader, this post has waxed on rather long. Class has to end at some point. Come back next time. We can continue our conversation. Leave me some comments and I will try to answer during office hours. But it’s summer and these are summer office hours…

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.