Massive biography of an important yet little-known figure in American civil-rights history.
Giddings (In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement, 1988, etc.) attempts to rescue from obscurity anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells (1862–1931). Born into slavery in Mississippi, Wells grew up during the brief post–Civil War period of political and social ascension in which blacks, particularly black women, challenged policies that segregated the races in public places and kept African-Americans out of the voting booth. In the1880s, a series of gruesome lynchings, described by the author in graphic, horrifying detail, ended the illusion that the South had progressed much and propelled Wells to action. In editorials, speeches and pamphlets distributed throughout the United States (and eventually England), she maintained that only equal rights would end lynching—and, even more controversially, that black Americans deserved civil rights simply because they were human. That position put her at odds with less radical members of the antiracist movement, including many women’s suffrage groups and nationally prominent figures like Booker T. Washington, who held that blacks must move beyond ignorance and poverty and embrace bourgeois values before they could earn the rights enjoyed by white Americans. Throughout her life, Wells existed on the outskirts of African-American activism, alienating potential allies and estranging erstwhile friends such as Frederick Douglass. Although she is a fascinating woman, this book suffers from her biographer’s lack of selectivity. Giddings spares no detail or scrap of salvaged paper, however obscure or immaterial. Asides about conflicts within the black women’s club movement go on for chapters, and Wells’s early love life, including lengthy quotes from her suitors’ letters, gets far more space than it merits. Despite such overreporting, the author fails to explain how this remarkable figure disappeared from history, a glaring oversight in a text that takes pains to explore its subject’s long and colorful life from every angle.
Exhaustive—indeed, sometimes exhausting—but with a key piece missing.