In Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (2017), Brittney C. Cooper highlights a major shaper of early African American civil rights theory, political activism, and strategies of resistance – Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), "the race woman most associated with the work of racial agitation," who "embraced armed self-defense as a response to lynching and white racist violence" (Cooper 64). This embrace was no mere abstract principle. Paula Giddings's biography, Ida: A Sword Among Lions (2008), reports that, after Wells's marriage in 1895 to Ferdinand Barnett and their subsequent move to a Chicago neighborhood that was largely white, Wells-Barnett faced what Cooper calls "racist violence" as an everyday domestic reality. On one occasion, a "white gang pursued" the Wells-Barnetts' two young sons "right up to their doorstep... [and] were only thwarted when Ida appeared at the doorway and dared them to cross the threshold. Ida, it was known in the neighborhood, possessed a gun" (Giddings 455).
The image of Ida B. Wells (a.k.a. Wells-Barnett, as she is often called interchangeably) preserving her own body or the bodies of her helpless children by means of a gun and advocating the ownership of weapons by African-American communities in general is not, however, one that has come down widely to twenty-first century audiences in the US – at least, not through popular culture and especially not through representations produced by white writers. Yet even in the latter, Wells is hardly the face of pacifism. In a chapter, for instance, of his Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics (2016) – a mass-market collection of brief, snappy, colloquially written profiles accompanied by cartoon-like drawings geared toward both young adult and older readers – the white illustrator and former Dreamworks Studio animator, Jason Porath, lauds Wells as "a tough cookie from the get-go" (Porath 345). His summary of her life foregrounds her first public, and very bodily, act of resistance: "When she was 21, the conductor on a train on which she was a passenger ordered her to vacate her seat so that a white woman could use it. Ida refused. When the conductor tried forcibly removing her, she hooked her feet into the chair and...scratched at him and bit him," an act of civil disobedience presented approvingly here (Porath 345). After that, as Porath informs the audience, she became "a woman who put her life on the line for decades to end lynching in the United States" ( 345), although he extols her use not of guns, but of the journalist's pen, as the weapon to which she most famously turned. As Porath puts it, she "kept writing, madder than the devil and twice as eloquent" (347). Porath's accompanying drawing of Wells shows her as a dark-skinned young woman, elegantly dressed and standing firm in the open door of a moving train carriage, holding tight even as a rush of air blows swirling sheets of newsprint around her – a pose that conveys a sense of daring and exhilaration, yet also of unshakable purpose.
Jason Porath is one of a number of contemporary white artists working in popular genres who have represented Ida B. Wells as the embodiment of an admirable form of resistance. This move comes in a decade when the idea of resistance as a long-term political and cultural strategy (indeed, as an ongoing way of existence) has risen to the forefront of national discourses both in the US and abroad – when, for example, Manuel Pastor has punningly identified, in the title of his 2018 book on the subject, the entire state of California as now a State of Resistance. Recently, Wells has proven a magnet, for instance, for Kate Beaton, a white, Canadian-born feminist comic book artist-writer with a large following among fans of graphic novels. For Beaton, who is known for her satirical treatment of both North American and European history, the more celebrated the figures of the past have been, the more deserving they are of critical scrutiny and ruthless puncturing. But in her 2015 collection of comics titled Step Aside, Pops, one historical character in particular escapes ridicule and instead occupies a place of honor: Ida B. Wells.
As the subject of six individual strips that occupy three pages of this volume, Wells serves here both as an icon and as a contrast to the many white luminaries of the past whom Beaton portrays as sexist and racist. In a note at the bottom of the first page of comics representing different periods of Ida B. Wells’s life and a series of her major accomplishments – from her defiance of that white railroad conductor's attempts to eject her from the ladies' car in 1884, to the publication of anti-lynching editorials in the 1890s that put her at risk of being murdered, to her unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the Illinois state senate a year before she died in 1931 at age sixty-eight – Beaton writes in her own voice and speaks directly to the readers: "If Ida isn't your hero, maybe you just don't know enough about her. She's mine. A statue of Ida in every home, or the world isn't fair" (117). As many African Americans do already know something about her, these remarks would appear to be aimed at white audiences, and specifically at the white feminists who constitute Beaton's biggest fan base.
Thus it is especially significant that Beaton depicts Wells as her "hero" in a three-panel strip called "March on Washington"
that is an explicit attack on an earlier generation of white feminists: turn-of-the-century American women suffrage supporters. In this comic, however, a white feminist in period clothes speaks not in the formal language that Alice Paul, organizer of the 1913 demonstration, would have been likely to use, but in the slangy voice of young women today, as she tries to prevent Ida B. Wells from participating: "YOU CAN JOIN THE SUFFRAGE PARADE, BUT LIKE, IN THE BACK. THE VERY BACK. OR THE NEXT DAY? OR NOT AT ALL? IT'S JUST THAT IT'S A VOTES FOR WOMEN THING. WE DON’T WANT TO MAKE IT A RACE THING.” To this comment, Wells responds in equally modern language, "YEAH IT SOUNDS LIKE A RACE THING" (Beaton 119).
Beaton's version of the behind-the-scenes politics in "March on Washington" seems a rebuke aimed directly at perhaps the most widely viewed representation of Ida B. Wells in popular culture: the director Katja von Garnier's 2004 HBO project, Iron Jawed Angels. In this film, Wells (Adilah Barnes) is portrayed as a formidable and even intimidating character who dominates the office space of the National American Women's Suffrage Association as she enters it. The writers Jennifer Friedes and Sally Robinson create a different vision of a meeting between Wells and Alice Paul (Hilary Swank), imagining the latter as a sympathetic figure who, when confronted with Wells's resistance, would have backed down from her plan to confine African-American suffragists to a separate area at the back of the march. After Wells insists, "I’'l march with my peers or not at all," the performer playing Alice Paul says quietly, "I understand," and makes no further objection, allowing white audiences the comforting fiction of viewing Paul as a tacit ally of Wells, instead of as the leader of a racist movement, determined to exclude African-American women for the sake of expediency.
Kate Beaton restages this imaginary scene in comic form with a very different ending. By giving the white suffragist in her Step Aside, Pops comics recognizably twenty-first-century speech patterns, Beaton also agues that some white feminists today – presumably, the spiritual descendants of Alice Paul and her NAWSA cohorts in 1913 – might still privilege their own interest over those of African-American women. In representing Ida B. Wells as a "hero" of dynamic resistance, Beaton clearly means to distance herself from both historical and contemporary white racism and, in the process, to initiate a process of self-examination in her white readers – thus countering the self-congratulation that white women viewers of Iron Jawed Angels were led to feel. Her drawing renders Wells's face as more prominent and arresting in the frame than that of the white suffragist's, as though to convey symbolically both where the viewer's attention should go and where the moral authority lies.
Beaton"s "Ida B. Wells" strip was not the first instance of a white woman writer using a mass-market, popular form to elucidate the meaning of Wells's life. In 2008, Frances McNamara showed a similar purpose in her mystery novel Death at the Fair. McNamara's fictional protagonist, a white woman graduate student at the University of Chicago who becomes an amateur detective, encounters Ida B. Wells when the latter is alongside Frederick Douglass in the Haitian building at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, distributing copies of her inflammatory protest pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition (as Wells did in actuality). McNamara's fictionalized Wells is not physically intimidating; instead, she is (as she was in life) a "petite" and elegant public presence "in a fine day gown in shades of green...that set off her very dark complexion to advantage" (McNamara 43). She exudes confidence and self-discipline, as well as a keen sensitivity to racist individuals and oppressive situations. More important, she is a pragmatic activist – clear in her goals and methods, self-contained, suspicious of the motives of white acquaintances, and by no means ready either to take for granted solidarity with white women, including white feminists, or to look to them for support. She is, moreover, armed and, at one point, enters a dangerous situation "[f]earlessly," after she first "reach[es] into her bag and pull[s] out a revolver" (McNamara 103). As re-embodied by McNamara, this Ida B. Wells understands that her black female body is always on the line and that resistance is essential for survival.
Why are such representations important? Should anyone care that popular genres such as comics, films, or detective novels are presenting competing and sometimes divergent portraits of this historical figure of resistance? After all, those who may already be aware of, or who wish to learn more about, the central role that Ida B. Wells occupied in anti-lynching movements, in early civil rights movements and the founding of the NAACP in 1909, and in African-American women's suffrage movements can turn to Wells's own comprehensive record of her career, the posthumously published Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1970), which was edited by her daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, or to Paula Giddings's magisterial 2008 biography of Wells for further information. They can also read the many volumes of Wells's turn-of-the-century journalism that have been re-issued over the years, including Trudier Harris's very fine 1991 edition, The Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
But what of less academic, or merely less curious, audiences? Often popular culture shapes their perspectives on her character and achievements, as well as teaching them – or sometimes failing to teach them – what her example offers in the way of lessons for resistance to social injustice today. Thanks to a range of texts in a variety of genres, many of them by African-American authors, there are numerous opportunities to encounter Ida B. Wells in works that are both engaging and inspiring, and that do not require scholarly diligence or an extensive commitment of time – or, for that matter, the intervention of white advocates. From these alternative representations, readers receive not only multi-faceted views of Wells herself, but suggestions regarding the many ways in which she embodied an image of black female resistance that is still useful (and usable), especially as a model for the young.
Those who have, for instance, been fortunate enough to see a performance of Endesha Ida Mae Holland's short 1983 play, Miss Ida B. Wells: A Dramatic Biography, will have received a well-rounded picture of its subject's accomplishments across a period of more than forty years. In the space of a single act, with no intermission, viewers hear Wells-Barnett recounting everything from her ambitious and successful start in journalism as part owner in Memphis of a newspaper for black readers to her refusal, after marrying and having children, to give up her anti-lynching campaign. Speaking directly to the audience, the older Wells-Barnett figure says, "You expect a woman who gets married to settle down to raising children and being a full-time wife. But the very next week I continued my work. I bet you that I'm the only mother...that made the rounds of the lecture circuit with a new born baby" (Holland 313). In several cases, the dialogue is taken almost verbatim from Wells's own memoir, Crusade for Justice, and thus the play constitutes a kind of précis or summary of that important text. For those not lucky enough to have attended a staged performance of Holland's work, it is available in print, in the volume Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women, which was issued by Indiana University Press in 1998. Other stage plays, too, have brought Ida B. Wells to life, including Wendy Jones's 1995 one-act drama, In Pursuit of Justice, and Tazewell Thompson's 2002 musical, Constant Star – the latter employing, according to a New York Times review of a Hartford, Connecticut, production, five different female performers to embody different aspects of Wells's personality and career (Klein 2002). Neither of these two works, unfortunately, is in print, and thus neither is currently available to readers on demand.
Often, representations of Wells in popular culture are not merely entertainment; they are also interventions. In some instances, they propel spectators toward activism and a stance of political opposition to unjust power hierarchies; in others, they encourage audiences to form an idealized picture of the subject and to admire her, but not necessarily to see Wells as an example of resistance that can, and should, be followed. In every case, we need to be aware of the different kinds of ideological work that these texts are performing.
Endesha Holland's Miss Ida B. Wells, for instance, ends with the older Wells figure facing the theater audience and offering a challenge, if not a plea: "Somebody got to come forward to take up my crusade" (316). Lest anyone doubt what that "crusade" entails, the Wells character goes on to explain – using language, with its talk of “Negroes,” that would have been common in the late 1920s, but making a statement that crosses time and resonates both in the present day of the play (that is, in the year 1983, when it was written) and at the current moment: "The federal government must assure us of equal rights. Most of all, for us Negroes, we must protect our lives, spend our money where it is appreciated – and stand one with the other" (316).
That Ida B. Wells would inhabit the worlds of the stage, of film, of genre fiction, and even of comics for adults is not surprising, but that she would also be such a major presence in the realm of children’s literature is perhaps unexpected. In an informal and by no means exhaustive survey, I have identified roughly a dozen different texts for the children's market about her life and achievements. These are works intended for a variety of age ranges and reading levels, from picture books to short nonfiction accounts designed for middle-school audiences. Some of these focus on particular aspects of her long and multi-faceted career as an activist while omitting others. Bonnie Hinman's 2011 biography for young readers, Eternal Vigilance: The Story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, highlights her suffrage work. So, too, does Walter Dean Myers's 2008 picture book, Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told, identified as suitable for ages five to nine. This text explains that "Ida was convinced that women's suffrage was critical to political change for black women," but "[w]hen white suffragists asked Ida to march in the separate colored section" of the 1913 march on Washington, "Ida sternly refused" (Myers 30). Other texts, however, such as Andrea Davis Pinkney's chapter on Wells in Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters (2000) and Vashti Harrison's brief summary of Wells's importance as one of the Bold Women in Black History (2017), say nothing about Wells in connection with African-American women's voting rights – or, for that matter, about Wells's confrontations with white feminists over the supposedly temporary sidelining of black women within the movement.
What is remarkable, however, is that so many of these works intended for children forthrightly describe the phenomenon of lynching – thus breaking with the common practice of having books for young readers either soft-pedal or elide entirely subjects that involve violence, pain, and death. On the contrary, these texts about Wells fall in line with the still controversial point of view of children’s literature specialists who have praised offerings for the juvenile market that dare to narrate instances of actual historical trauma and suffering even though the authors of these texts may “have to overcome the natural reluctance to tell children that evil is real, instead of pretending it is a nightmare that can be dispelled by turning on the light” (Goodenough and Immel 7). In Let It Shine, Andrea Davis Pinkney, for example, writes this of America at the turn of the century: “Back then, a black person could be shot, hung [sic], hunted, or burned for no reason at all. That’s what lynching was – killing an innocent person (often a black person) who was presumed guilty of breaking the law, without giving him or her a fair trial” (Pinkney 35). “Sometimes,” as Pinkney puts it, “those who’d done the lynching bragged about it. Ida put their words to paper to let readers see the violence for themselves…In her writing, Ida held back nothing” (Pinkney 36). These mass-market works for children, too, hold back little. When, in his Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told, Walter Dean Myers gives an account of how more "than any other person in America, she [Wells] spoke and wrote about the crime of lynching," the accompanying illustration by Bonnie Christensen proves as deeply unsettling as it is educational, for it shows a large group of calm, smiling, well-dressed white people gathered around a sturdy tree, to which both a man and a woman are affixing a noose, obviously in preparation for a murder (Myers 22-23). Even on children, the effect of such an image is to make plain that these racially motivated crimes against humanity were entirely normalized and often carried out deliberately by "respectable" white communities in America, rather than as spontaneous eruptions by aberrant, out-of-control mobs. The cover illustration, in turn, of Bonnie Hinman's Eternal Vigilance: The Story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, juxtaposes a three-quarters-length photograph of Wells taken in her later years – a solid, determined figure looking back steadily at the camera – with the silhouette of a noose suspended from a branch behind her, as a sign both of the tyranny she opposed and of the threat that was always looming over her own body. It connects beautifully with Brittney C. Cooper's recent argument about the inseparability of Wells's body from her resistance work, as well as with Frances McNamara's fictional portrait of Wells, in her historical detective novel, as a woman who felt compelled to arm herself and was always prepared to shoot.
In books with an extremely young readership, authors avoid explicit discussion of the history of racist violence against African Americans. At the same time, these representations hold up Ida B. Wells as an exemplar of outspoken courage and self-actualization, particularly for girls, suggesting, perhaps, that the authors expect a gender divide in the audience, with a greater number of girls being introduced to (or feeling attracted to) the story of a heroic female resister. An interesting example of this phenomenon can be found in Louie T. McClain's Power in My Pen: A Snippet of the Life of Ida B. Wells, which is identified on its copyright page as for "Ages 9 months to 5 years old." Here, there is no visual representation of Wells herself until the very last page where readers see a reproduction of a photographic portrait from the early days of her career when she was publishing newspaper articles under the pseudonym of "Iola." Her face and body are instead replaced throughout the narrative with cartoonlike drawings by M. Ridho Mentarie of the figure of a little black girl, also named "Ida," in twenty-first-century garb, wearing a knee-length dress and pink pearl earrings, along with a small pink bow in her natural-style hair. But the child's most prominent accessory is a large pink pen with an old-fashioned fountain-pen nib as well as the opening lines of text, which riff on the lyrics of a well-known gospel song, "This little pen of mine, I’m going to let it shine," then go on to let the protagonist herself exclaim, "For there is power in my pen! When ink and paper meet together the world will know that my mind is clever" (McClain 4-5). Readers – or, in the case of younger children, those to whom the text is being read aloud – receive no information about the topics of Wells's impassioned journalism; they hear only that "my exceptional writing abilities paved the way for me to travel around the country and tell my stories to thousands of people," while viewing a fantasy image of the child-protagonist piloting a (bright pink) private plane (McClain 15). The lack of specificity about the nature of the "stories" that Wells actually told seems driven less by authorial self-censorship than by a wish to inspire young readers in general – and African American girls in particular – to "write about the things that matter the most to me [i.e., to them] – whether good or bad" (McClain 20) and to resist the "bad."
The absence of Wells's bodily presence, moreover, from the illustrations allows for easier identification between the reader and the text, as contemporary African-American girl children see a figure who looks more like them in terms of clothing and hairstyle, as well as one who observes the now de rigueur code of "pink" femininity in the objects around her.
In terms of ensuring identification, McClain's 2017 book thus goes a step further than Angela Shelf Medearis's 1997 Princess of the Press: The Story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. The latter features on the front cover of its dust jacket a drawing not of the adult Wells-Barnett, but of a young black girl – one dressed, however, in the fashion of Wells's own youth, rather than in a style familiar to contemporary children. Today, girls of all races are being steered toward a disabling ideal of passive, consumer-centered princess-hood, a phenomenon decried by Peggy Orenstein in Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011). These two revisionist versions of Ida B. Wells as a different sort of "princess," who spoke commandingly, wrote fiercely, and published the truth as she saw it, offer their own resistance to the Disneyfication of American girlhood while fostering respect in the young for the limitless possibilities in the contemporary public sphere for resistance through writing.
Perhaps the most radical popular representation of Ida B. Wells, however, is one that invites children of all genders and races to re-embody her themselves and to do so in a public space. Scholastic Press's 1996 volume, 10 Women Who Helped Shape America: Short Plays for the Classroom, contains a section titled "Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Writing the Wrongs" by Mary Pat Champeau, composed of a drama in three scenes with speaking parts for ten performers and a narrator. Although some of these roles may seem inherently gendered – that of "Julia Peterson: Memphis woman," for example – others are not explicitly gendered, including that of "Ida B. Wells," who is described merely as "Writer and activist who used the pen name of Iola" without an explicit racial designation either (Champeau 81). Thus, in the setting of "the Classroom," nothing prevents teachers or students themselves from engaging in cross-racial or cross-gender casting, in order to allow young people of various identities to experience empathetically the circumstances of an African American woman who was, as the text describes her, deliberately "playing with fire" and willing to risk "get[ting] herself killed" in the service of promoting racial justice (Champeau 82). The powerful dialogue that Champeau assigns to "Ida" has the potential to resonate strongly with children who face a wide range of oppressive situations, as they take up the challenge of embodying her and her resistance while saying, "I won't back down. I won't stop writing about the wrongs that are done to us. I have to take my chances" (Champeau 85).
Equally interesting, moreover, is the list of "Activities" in the "Ida B. Wells-Barnett Teaching Guide" that follows immediately after the text of the play, each one offering instructors a different way to use the legacy of Ida B. Wells in the classroom. Among these possibilities are "See It, Say It," in which students are asked to bring the ethical impulse behind Wells's crusade forward into the present moment: "Spark a discussion among your students about activism with the following questions: Do you see anything in the world today which seems unfair? How would you make your opinion known?" (Champeau 88). In another suggested activity titled "Putting Her Stamp on History," however, students are also encouraged to re-embody Ida B. Wells themselves in visual terms, through the medium of art: "In 1990, the United States Post Office honored Ida B. Wells-Barnett by issuing a postage stamp with her likeness on it...Ask students to design a new series of postage stamps commemorating Ida B. Wells-Barnett's accomplishments" (Champeau 88).
In Re-visioning Historical Fiction for Young Readers: The Past through Modern Eyes (2011), Kim Wilson reminds audiences that "[w]hat individuals remember and how they remember the past constitutes an important site of power” (156). As recently as 2002, it was possible for the drama critic of the New York Times to begin a review of Tazewell Thompson's musical play, Constant Star, by asking, "The formidable Ida B. Wells was a pioneering force in the battle for emancipation of blacks and of women, but how many people know that?" (Klein). Though he expected the answer to be "very few," that is no longer the case. An article in the New York Times published on 28 April 2018 emphasized Wells's courage in writing about lynching and praised the newly established National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which devotes a prominent exhibition space to a commemoration of Wells's work (Feimster). Today, Ida B. Wells is not only being remembered, but re-embodied as a figure of resistance in a variety of popular culture forms where she is inspiring Americans across the spectrum of race and gender, as well as age.
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