Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings. New York: Amistad/HarperCollins, 2008. Hardback. 800 pages with photographs.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born into slavery in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She died in Chicago in 1931. Her years were too short. This was a woman who led and internationalized the early struggle against lynching, helped build the early movement of women's clubs, wrote and organized against the rolling back of Reconstruction and worked at the difficult points of the intersecting of women's' and African-Americans' rights struggles and fought for both.
Besides Wells-Barnett's autobiography, there has been no objective and factual telling of her story until now. Paula J. Giddings brings to life not only Wells-Barnett's life, but she also correctly places this in the context of regional and national events which often escape our collective memory. The book moves from lynching to major civil rights case to struggle easily enough and gives a credible account of how Wells-Barnett instigated, agitated and responded to these events. The value of this book is in its ability to awaken memory and conscience and a feeling of regret over so many lost opportunities to set things right.
The book also serves to remind us of some of the features of the widespread and militant resistance to the rolling back of Reconstruction, how Black intellectuals moved from the passing of Victorian and Gilded Age America to the period of early mass industrialization and the complex role of the Republican party in those years. Paula J. Giddings provides us with what feels like an insider's view of the women's clubs and the various Black empowerment and religious organizations in their early and formative years. She is partisan in her opinions, but she is also capable of looking critically at her subject. Giddings does not say so, but her book begins to trace a winding, though unbroken, line of march from slavery to the modern civil rights movement. She weighs equally the theory and the practice of this work in the person of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. This is a popular history which makes civil rights theory and practice accessible to almost everyone.
The book has some critical weaknesses. The author and the subject both deserve a better-edited and less repetitive text. The left and Wells-Barnett's contact with it are hardly mentioned. We're left wondering why and how she remained in the center of Chicago Republican party politics for so long. Fascinating individuals and movements arise with uneven coverage: much is said about the temperance movement and Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, but the early NAACP and Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois do not get the detailed examination they deserve, for instance.
Wells-Barnett may well have died feeling that she had failed. She was frequently and easily isolated in the movements of her day and she played an active and factional role in a number of organizations which came quickly to forget her contributions and diminish her impressive achievements. Her political work often rested upon a number of shifting alliances and relationships. Still, Giddings demonstrates Wells-Barnett's amazing ability to summon her self-confidence and organizing skills and begin again after every defeat. This ability must be measured against the horrors of the riots and lynchings she responded to and the difficulties faced by a politicized African-American woman who set about organizing at a time when Reconstruction was being attacked and undermined and women did not yet have the vote. She carried this spirit forward to a time when women did win the right to vote and to Illinois, where a primary issue was organizing the Black vote free of self-serving white interference and the corrupt Black politicians serving those interests.
This is a book worth reading between now and November.