"They Say" Essay

Topics: African American, Black people, White American Pages: 7 (2221 words) Published: April 18, 2015
Hannah Meyer
HIST 319
Dr. Kenneth Jolly
18 March 2015
The Civil Disobedience of Ida B. Wells
James West Davidson does not seek to write a biography of Ida B. Wells in his book Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race, but instead chooses to write a scholarly narrative about how African Americans in the Victorian era reconstructed their identities and uses the first thirty years of Wells’ life as a vehicle for this goal. It is through Wells’ early life that Davidson can examine the key issue of self-definition and self-determination over the meaning of race during Reconstruction when former slaves were constantly put up against what “they say” or what whites as well as other African Americans said. He focuses on the spread of education among free African Americans, the rise of political activism, and the struggles for equality in the face of ingrained social customs. At the very center of the period of Reconstruction was the lynching of African Americans. Wells faced these struggles throughout her life as her pursuit for personal fulfillment was thwarted by others using race as a barrier of separation. However, Wells did not let her race, gender, or class deny her from being outspoken about such issues as lynchings and sought to define herself in the face of what they say about her. In Davidson’s book, Ida B. Wells used her agency to define herself in an era marked with what they say.

Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, two months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father, James Wells, was a carpenter and her mother, Elizabeth, was a cook with a large culinary reputation. The words of the Emancipation Proclamation did not define their freedom, but was defined differently by each individual African American. James and Elizabeth expressed their freedom by formalizing their marriage, which had been one of the many customs distorted by bondage.1 Previous to the war, African Americans had to walk in the gutter and move for any whites walking down the street, but afterwards, many were determined to set a new tone to the astonishment of whites who claimed to be shoved off the sidewalks. But as Davidson asks, “[w]ere they actually ‘shoving’?”2 The answer is not always sure in the face of what they say. Many uprooted themselves to start their lives anew, but the Wells stayed in Holly Springs where her father became an outspoken proponent of African American involvement in southern politics, often risking his life to vote. The distinction between slave versus free had been abolished, but the line of race became even brighter as Southern Democrats prevented ex-slaves from voting. By the time Wells was fourteen, a few months before the election of 1876, she “witnessed her father’s frustrations as that avenue of self-definition was blocked.”3 Elizabeth Wells advocated for Victorian ideals in her household, and gave her daughter “scant opportunity to break [the] elaborate code of conduct.”4 Elizabeth realized that African American women bore a burden that white women did not have when it came to defining themselves in the era of Reconstruction. A double standard existed, as Wells later came to understand, when it came to sexual liaisons between white men and African American women because the women were always at fault and could never be virtuous in the eyes of Southern whites. Education was important as knowledge became the path to a world of culture that had long been monopolized by whites, and Wells used her knowledge in witty and sharp ways that allowed her to be generous to friends. In 1878, a yellow fever epidemic swept through Holly Springs while fourteen-year-old Wells was visiting her grandmother Peggy, and killed both of her parents, leaving her a surrogate mother to her siblings. After the death of her parents, Wells realized just how much tongues could wag in Holly Springs. She had gone to Dr. Gray to ask for the $300 that her father had saved up and she was going to live in a house...
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