Sunday, February 19, 2017

Civil Rights Icon: Ida Wells-Barnett

*photograph sourced from this site
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) Born in Holly Springs, 
Mississippi 'just six months before Emancipation,' Ida B. Wells would become one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates of human rights. Her father was politically minded and considered himself a 'race man; her mother, Elizabeth, who worked as a cook, strongly encouraged her children's educations. Ida would attend one of the Freedman Schools in Holly Springs until she was sixteen. After losing her parents to the Yellow Fever epidemic of the 1870s, young Ida Barnett was determined to keep what remained of her family together and supported her siblings on her meager teacher's salary. Her interest in racial politics in the South began with her outrage at the disparity between the salaries earned by white teachers (eighty dollars a month) compared to those of African American teachers (about thirty dollars a month); this concern, together with a determination to improve the educational opportunities for African Americans galvanized her early activism. Wells moved to Memphis, where she found better pay in the Shelby County School System, and during the summer sessions, she would attend Fisk University (an HBC in Nashville); and LeMoyne Institute (1)

Wells' journalism career began shortly after an incident occurred in which Wells refused to surrender her seat on a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad train. After two lawsuits to sue the railroad (neither of which was successful), she began to write about her experiences in the newspapers, The Evening Star and The Living Way--a weekly Baptist newspaper located at the Beale Street Baptist Church. Wells wrote these columns under the pen name "Iola": a stylistic (and logistic) choice that inspired the fictitious character Iola Leroy, created by fellow activist Frances E.W. Harper in the novel by the same name. Her focus soon shifted to the subject of lynchings when, in 1892 "three black businessmen opened a grocery store that competed with a white merchant. They were lynched" (Gates 676). The young journalist railed against the incident, exposing the "Old Threadbare Lie": the presumption among white supremacists that black males were inherently drawn to, and determine to violate, white women. "Nobody in this section believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men assault white women. If southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women" (Gates 676). Her words sparked a firestorm, and the office of her newspaper, Free Speech, was destroyed by angered whites. Fortunately, Wells was out of town at the time. During her time away from the South, Wells developed her career as writer and editor, and assumed partial ownership of the New York Age. Her Red Record exposed the atrocities of lynchings in the South for a national audience, and advocated "positive action" from its readers. Wells went on to become an important figure in the club women movement--African American women who organized for social change--and was among the founding constituency for the NAACP.

Video on Wells-Barnett by Katherine Bankole-Medina

Charles W. Chesnutt: Cross-Section of Traditions

*image from

Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932) was born in Cleveland, Ohio to freed persons of color, Anna Maria Samson and Andrew Chesnutt, a grocer and businessman. By the time he was nine, Chesnutt's family moved him to Fayateville, North Carolina, where the young boy was confronted with the racial divisions and worsening economy of the South. As he grew older into his teens, he became the vice-superintendent of the normal (teachers') school at Fayateville. He married his wife, Susan Perry in 1878 and moved North to escape the poverty and racism he encountered in Fayateville. With a law degree in hand, Chesnutt supported his family by working as a court stenographer while harboring ambitions of becoming a writer.

His first short story to be published, "The Goophered Grapevine" was published in the national magazine The Atlantic Monthly in 1887, and in 1899, this and several other short stories appeared in a collection, The Conjure Woman. Concurrent with the time in which Chesnutt was most productive, the nation was witnessing the turmoil of the post-Reconstruction era. The turn of the 20th century saw numerous social and political movements that helped to shape the character of the literature of its time. The first World War gave rise to a growing sense of global nationalism, while locally, racial tension intensified with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan--a violent terrorist organization stirred to action with the arrival of D.W. Griffith's notorious propaganda film, Birth of a Nation.

This film, which was based on Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman, propagated racial stereotyping as part of its violent and nationalistic agenda. The familiar hoods, which were worn as much to obscure the wearer's identity as to frighten and intimidate its victims were borne out of the assumptions among whites of African American 'superstition.'

Meanwhile, many of Chesnutt's white contemporaries, such as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris wrote elegiac narratives that romanticized the plantation society of the Old South. This genre of popular literature, sardonically referred to as "Moonlight and Magnolias," often cast the social hierarchy of paternalist slavery as the "ideal society," while configuring the white male as a heroic figure, the Ole Miss as a long-suffering pillar of female virtue, and the house servants as beloved family retainers, devoted to the care and comfort of their white masters. Writers like Page, et al., popularized images of the benevolent servants whom he referred to as "Old Time Negros," and promulgated the idea that their otherwise 'savage' natures had been softened by the civilizing force of plantation slavery.

*An illustration from Mars Chan and Other Stories by Thomas Nelson Page. From the website

The rise of the so-called "New Negro"--an assertive black intellectual, was frequently recast as a rapacious predator of white woman's virtue in the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page, particularly, and most notably in The Clansman.

Doubtless, Chesnutt's short stories, such as "The Goophered Grapevine" suggests a sardonic critique of the racist stereotypes propagated by writers like Page. Joel Chandler Harris, who popularized such stories as "The Wonderful Tar Baby Story," that featured a kindly elder slave called "Uncle Remus," advocated such stereotyping in his own right.

By focusing more analytically on questions of race construction and hierarchy in the U.S., Chesnutt's fiction critiqued white assumptions concerning blacks in the Reconstruction South. Uncle Julius McAdoo, for instance, presents a rival to Harris' Uncle Remus as the devoted servant bound to the plantation and the master's legacy.

Though similar in style and to some extent in content to Page's fiction, Chesnutt's short stories view life and race in the South through the lens of both white and black characters in the postbellum era. "The Goophered Grapevine" ('goopher,' another word for 'conjure'), engages the questions concerning heritage, tradition, and legacy. This short story in particular, responds to assumptions that blacks in the South had no heritage--and what heritage they had if any--was based primarily on folk superstition. 

As we read and discuss Chesnutt's short story, how does Uncle Julius McAdoo represent a figure that combats the popular racist stereotypes of the time? Does he?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sojourner Truth: Orator and Prophet

"I cannot read a book but I can read the people."

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), was born a slave in Hurley, Ulster County, New York to James and Elizabeth, slaves owned by the wealthy Dutch landowner and patron Johannes Hardenbergh, Jr. Her narrative, penned by amanuensis Olive Wilson, relates her early trials as she was separated from her parents, and subject to numerous beatings and mistreatment by subsequent owners. She was sold from the Hardenbergh family into a second Dutch family who were vexed by her inability to speak English. Known as "Isabella," Sojourner changed hands several times and came of age in the household of John I. Dumont, where she was often burdened with the chores of two people. She was strong, tall, and stout, and able to outwork most men. One slaveholder commented that she was "better than a man--for she will do a good family's washing in the night, and be ready in the morning to go into the field, where she will do as much at raking and binding as my best hands" (Washington xv).

By the time she had borne her fifth child in slavery, Isabella took action: she left the Dumont New Paltz farm and walked to freedom, with her infant child in her arms. She christened herself "Isabella Van Wagenen" for the family who took her in and protected her, and to protect herself from identification by her former owners. She would change her name again following her Christian conversion, and her newly-assumed role of itinerant minister of the Gospel. She became Sojourner Truth, as she announced her mission was to "sojourn" the land and deliver the "truth" of God's word.

As a renowned--and often reviled--stump speaker for the cause of anti-slavery, Sojourner Truth emerged during a period in which social reformation defined the day. The causes of Abolition and Women's Suffrage intertwined with other dominant reform movements that sought to rejuvenate the body and the soul, such as Grahamism and Spiritualism. However, her first obligation was to the cause of freedom, and she became an instrumental spokesperson for the causes of Women's Suffrage and Abolition. Audiences were captivated by Truth's eloquence, and her formidable physical presence that was enhanced by her remarkable height: she stood at over six feet tall. Though her message threatened many pro-slavery whites across the country who frequently harassed her and attempted to intercede on her speaking engagements, Truth was undaunted. When she was informed that someone had threatened to burn down the building where she was scheduled to speak for the evening, Truth responded simply, "Then I will speak to the ashes." Truth braved racism, cruelty, and mistreatment--plus several physical attacks--in her mission to spread the word of God and of abolition; and held fast to her faith that God "would protect her and that her message warranted the danger involved in its deliverance" (Gates). Thirteen years before Emancipation, Truth was firm in the knowledge that freedom could not be attained without struggle, but there would be freedom.

Below is a powerfully performed reading of "Arn't I a Woman" by actress Alfre Woodard: