Ida: A Sword Among Lions

by Paula Giddings (2008)


An exhaustive (and often exhausting) look at the turn-of-the-century struggle for basic Black rights. The title is a bit of a misnomer since while Giddings focuses the struggle around Ms. Wells-Barnett, she is really covering all the ground, no matter how peripheral to Ida’s life it may seem. Wells-Barnett is arguably a secondary character to the struggle itself.

In this effort, Giddings discusses what feels like an endless stream of names, organizations and acronyms. Indeed one of my major takeaways from this book is the self-defeating futility of the squabbling, internecine mass of various rights organizations (Black groups, Prohibition groups, Religious groups, Womens’ groups). A huge obstacle to actually accomplishing anything in ANY of their arenas was that they all obsessively guarded their own territory (and one suspects, egos).

Ida herself seems emblematic of this problem, pathologically creating groups, alienating herself from them, and then hopping to new ones. My inexpert impression is that if she couldn’t be running things she wanted no part of it (usually finding some personal slight or offense to justify her departure). I wish Giddings had analyzed this apparent pathology a little more, though her scope was clearly aimed at description rather than explanation.

And I don’t mean to sound overly harsh about Ms. Wells-Barnett. She clearly carried massive influence in her day, and essentially created the anti-lynching campaign. She was fearless and impatient for change, always seeking action instead of talk and diplomacy. Her brashness served to undercut her legacy, unfortunately, but it doesn’t erase the concrete evidence of her accomplishments.

I also wish Giddings had used more space to reflect on why Wells was so shunned in the latter half of her life, especially by people like W.E.B. Du Bois. There’s no other way to describe the omission of her name in relation to the anti-lynching campaign than as an outrage, and it would have been helpful to better understand how her opponents could have ever committed such an injustice. There’s no real explanation (besides her abrasive attitude) for how so many influential Blacks could have ignored her contributions with such ingratitude.

Another major takeaway from the book was Ida’s relationship with Booker T. Washington. I’ve never much studied the man, only learning about him as one of the great Black leaders of his day. So I was surprised to see him portrayed somewhat negatively in this book — not overtly perhaps, but Giddings, given her subject, clearly prefers bolder activism to what I consider Washington’s accommodation ideology.

And this is a valuable distinction that the book makes, and a timely one as well. Actually I’d call it “timeless” because it’s a lesson we’ve seen before but apparently haven’t really learned. It’s that in any rights movement there will be a battle between Truth/Justice and Accommodation/Obsequiousness. The latter will want the former, yes, but they will say, as Booker said — as many today say — that the best way to get rights is to show your opponents that you are good, decent and intelligent. That you’re a moral being.

The lesson we should have learned over the last several hundred years, however, is that no matter how good you are, your hateful adversary will still hate you. Even if he’s nice to you he’ll still despise you for your servility. Ingratiating yourself to them only debases yourself, and it does nothing to address the root cause of irrational racism. If you’re starting out just asking to be considered human, you’re setting the bar too low. You’re relinquishing your dignity, which actually proves to your opponent that you’re not fully human.

Wells-Barnett and likeminded activists know that equality is not a negotiation. It’s a human right and a moral imperative; there is no compromise. It partly explains her abrasiveness I’m sure, that no incremental change was ever enough for her without full capitulation. So we end up with Wells-Barnett as a pariah for speaking the unabashed truth, and Booker T. as one of our favorite negroes because he was afraid to piss off white people.

We can see this lesson repeated throughout history. MLK is a good example of someone who spoke truth and was a pariah in his time. Maybe it’s a sign of our progress that we now lionize him instead of forgetting him (though I suspect Malcolm X’s simultaneous existence has more to do with it). We see it today with Black Lives Matter, which many feel doesn’t “protest the right way.” But what those people don’t consider — because they’ve never had to — is that there are very few wrong ways to demand basic rights and equality.

One final takeaway is with regards to this truth that Ida spoke incessantly. This book is a good lesson that just speaking truth is not enough, because if people aren’t psychologically prepared to listen, it will only lead to backlash. It’s difficult to devise a solution to this fundamental issue, though I suspect the right path tends toward intimate, compassionate conversations in small groups or even individually. Haranguing may be fun but it’s only productive insofar as you’re rousing supporters. Respectful discourse, I believe, is where the solution lies.*

In the end, this was a long, tedious book to get through, but I’m glad to know more about Ms. Wells-Barnett, lynching, and the Black rights struggle in the early 20th century. I would recommend it to U.S. history buffs and avid readers on Race. To more casual readers I would suggest Giddings’s more comprehensive (and leaner) When and Where I Enter, which also features Ida in abbreviated form.


*To be sure, I do not consider excusing/justifying hate speech as respectful discourse. It is absolutely necessary — indeed a moral imperative — to attack such speech and snuff it out of existence wherever encountered. Speech that denies a human’s full humanity will always be unacceptable.

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