Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn the course of my journey following the life of Frederick Douglass in 2016, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and this fiery young newspaperwoman had published her very controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells (born in Mississippi on July 16th, 1862) would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer promoting black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape or other violent crimes; it served as vengeance for or a public warning against alleged insubordination or impertinence, petty crimes, idleness, drunkenness, and so on. It was also put to such uses as eliminating business competition (as was the case for Wells’ friends), getting rid of inconvenient owners of coveted land, or scapegoating black people for the crimes of others. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they constituted a form of social control that replaced the terrorism (the system of coercion which included whippings, deprivations, and threats of being sold ‘down the river’) of slavery.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and his letter in praise of Southern Horrors served as the pamphlet’s introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I also visited a second site that happened to be associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

If I ever manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success!

Here are some excellent resources for learning more about the brilliant and irrepressible Ida B. Wells:

Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931) ~ by Tyina Steptoe for BlackPast.org

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. ~ by Ida B. Wells, Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast episode 51

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice ~ by Jennifer McBride for Webster University’s website.

New York Age ~ by Heather Martin for the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases ~ by Ida B. Wells (1892) via Project Gutenberg

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

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O.P. Recommends, and Reflects On: Fugitive Slaves and the Politics of Slavery with Richard Blackett

As I go on one of my regular hill walks, I listen to Daniel N. Gullotta interview historian Richard Blackett for the Age of Jackson podcast. They discuss Blackett’s work on the history of slaves’ fleeing oppression from their native states in the antebellum United States of America. My recent dissertation work had led me to Blackett and I’m so glad it has, what an accomplished scholar! I’m so excited to delve further into his work in the coming weeks.

As I listen to this podcast discussion, I can’t help but be reminded of today’s migrants fleeing to American shores to escape danger and the lack of opportunity in their native countries. Though it was illegal to run away from slavery and for free people to assist them in doing so, I think most of us would now say these self-liberated people did no wrong even as they broke the law. What will we say looking back (perhaps decades from now, perhaps less) on harsh treatment of families and individuals fleeing death, destruction, and systemic robbery of cartels and gangs today? And how do we square a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ and the claim that all of these migrants entering without papers and outside official ports of entry are ‘illegal immigrants,’ when we have laws and practices that protect people seeking asylum? After all, asylum seekers are those fleeing dangers that are too immediate to wait in legal limbo, or can’t afford the cost of going through the process, or who have experienced nothing from government officials besides oppression or neglect. And how will we weigh the fact that these cartels and gangs exist in significant measure because of the black markets that inevitably spring up from U.S. drug prohibitions? After all, as history has revealed this happens with prohibitions of desirable commodities without any exceptions (that I know of). And to this, we add the fact that the U.S. citizenry provides such a vast and eager customer base? 

Does the moral duty of parents to protect and provide for their children, and of individuals to preserve their own lives, take precedence over the laws of their own and others’ countries? Are we justified in prosecuting, fining, and otherwise harshly treating people who make this moral choice to come here for the reasons described above? After all, our country is founded on the idea that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is sacrosanct. If we let that go, we are no longer the United States of America as derived from the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and embodied in the Constitution of 1787. We’ll have become something else.

It’s certainly true that from the outset, our government and the American people have often betrayed the higher principles contained in those founding documents (slavery, Jim Crow, turning away Jewish asylum seekers fleeing the Nazis, the internment of Japanese Americans, protection of business interests at the expense of working people), but I believe we remain that country, and a great one, only so long as we wrangle within and amidst ourselves to do better. And it can be argued that it’s up to these migrants to stay in their own countries and reform them, starting a revolution if necessary. But how many of us would require it of ourselves when we know this may very well mean sacrificing the lives of our children, let alone ourselves, in the meantime?

Perhaps we should make our borders open to ‘willing workers,’ as Ronald Reagan liked to call migrants such as these, thereby forcing their governments to have to do better by their people if they’d like them to stay. After all, the people with the drive and energy to get themselves here, who vote for freedom and opportunity with their feet since they’ve been handed nothing on a silver platter, are the very people who embody those values that working Americans, immigrants and pioneers, runaways from slavery and oppression and the descendants of all of these, pride ourselves on.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Grace Lee Boggs! Bio and Book Review by Ashley Farmer

Grace Lee Boggs, By Kyle McDonaldm creativecommons.orglicensesby2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped

In celebration of Grace Lee Bogg’s birthday on June 27th, 1915, I share here an excellent bio and book review by historian Ashley Farmer:

“The Power And Importance Of Ideas:” Grace Lee Boggs’s Revolutionary Vision”

In the opening lines of her autobiography, Living for Change, Grace Lee Boggs remarked: “Had I not been born female and Chinese American, I would not have realized from early on that fundamental changes were necessary in our society.”[1] A daughter of Chinese immigrants born in 1915, who, by her account, became a philosopher in her 20s and an activist in her 30s, Boggs remains one of the greatest radical theorists of the twentieth century.

Born in Rhode Island, Boggs spent her childhood in New York City, working in the two restaurants her father owned in Times Square. At the age of 16, she left home to attend Barnard College, and afterward, Bryn Mawr, where she earned a PhD in Philosophy in 1940. Philosophers like Hegel helped her “see [her] own struggle for meaning as part of the continuing struggle of the individual to become part of the universal struggle for Freedom.”[2] Boggs moved to Chicago in 1940. She began working with the South Side Tenants Organization set up by the Workers Party, a Trotskyist group that had split off from the Socialist Workers Party. Her time in the Windy City proved transformative. For the first time she was talking and working with the black community, getting a first-hand sense of what it meant to live within the confines of segregation and discrimination, and learning how to participate in grassroots organizing.[3]

It was also during her tenure with the Workers Party that she met Caribbean radical C.L.R. James, and began a “theoretical and practical collaboration that would last twenty years.”[4] As part of a small wing of the workers Party led by James and Raya Dunayevskaya, Boggs became a leading theoretician, co-authoring texts like State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950). Through James, she came into contact with a number of black writers and activists who expanded her perspective. She relocated to Detroit in 1953, where she would organize with, and marry, James (Jimmy) Boggs.

During the 1950s, Boggs, “mainly listened and learned” to the black activists around her in an effort to better understand the black condition. It would take several years before she decided that she had been “living in the black community long enough to play an active role in the Black Power Movement that was emerging organically in a Detroit where blacks were becoming the majority.”[5] Living and working in what was considered to be an epicenter of black radicalism, Boggs engaged in a combination of theorizing and protesting, authoring texts with James Boggs, meeting and organizing with Malcolm X, and mentoring young radicals like Muhammad Ahmad (Max Stanford), leader of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM).

Her liberation theory was grounded in her study of philosophy and honed through her experiences organizing with and for black communities. It was also constantly evolving. Boggs emphasized dialectical thinking, arguing that reality is ever changing and that we must “constantly be aware of the new and more challenging contradictions that drive change.”[6] This reciprocal process drove her expansive vision of revolution. In her final book, The Next American Revolution, she explained her latest concept of revolution:

The next American Revolution, at this stage in our history, is not principally about jobs or health insurance or making it possible for more people to realize the American Dream of upward mobility. It is about acknowledging that we as Americans have enjoyed middle-class comforts at the expense of other peoples all over the world. It is about living the kind of lives that will not only slow down global warming but also end the galloping inequality both inside this country and between the Global North and Global South. It is about creating a new American Dream whose goal is a higher Humanity instead of the higher standard of living dependent on Empire.[7]

Boggs consistently offered a holistic vision of revolution and concrete steps through which to build it. She argued that achieving this goal meant more than organizing or mobilizing to petition the state or “changing the color of political power,” but rather growing food, reinventing education, developing Peace Zones in local neighborhoods, and creating restorative justice programs. She saw the seeds of revolution everywhere and showed us how, by practicing dialectical thinking, breaking down divides and categories, and building on rather than replicating older political models, we might “grow our souls.” She mirrored this in her own life, constantly “combining activity and reflection.”[8] Her willingness to do the work, her ability to listen and learn from black activists, her commitment to living in the communities in which she organized, and her openness to revising her politics, and values, made her an effective life-long ally of the black community and theoretician of liberation and revolution.

As she noted, often, “in the excitement of an emerging movement, we tend to want to be part of the action, and we underestimate the power and importance of the ideas in our heads and hearts.”[9] Upon her death, it’s important to revisit the ideas in her head. She left us a roadmap for revolution through ideas and action, one that anyone could be a part of if they were clear about the stakes of the transformation and that fundamental change is necessary.

Originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog, this was originally republished at O.P. when it was under a Creative Commons license in 2016

~ Ashley Farmer is a historian of African-American women’s history. Her research interests include women’s history, gender history, radical politics, intellectual history, and black feminism. She earned a BA in French from Spelman College, an MA in History from Harvard University, and a PhD in African American Studies from Harvard University. She is currently a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Duke University. In August 2016, she will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the African American Studies Program at Boston University. (This bio and more about Ms. Farmer are to be found at her personal website)

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), xi.

[2] Ibid., 30-31.

[3] Ibid., 36.

[4] Ibid., 43. James and Boggs “went their separate ways in 1962.”

[5] Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 66.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] Ibid., 72.

[8] Ibid., 164.

[9] Ibid., 80.

Say What? James McCune Smith on Revolutionary Conservatism

Left: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts Archives & Rare Books Division., ‘Dr. James McCune Smith.’ NYPL Digital Collection, 1891. Right: US Capitol Building under repair, Washington, D.C., 2016 Amy Cools

‘We will save the form of government and convert it into a substance’

James McCune Smith, ‘The Destiny of the People of Color’ (1843),
published in The Works of James McCune Smith, 2006

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Say What? James McCune Smith on the Exportation of Prejudice

L, James McCune Smith, via Wikimedia Commons; R, The Caledonia, via Upper Canada History blog, both public domain

…'[A]n American ship is an epitome of the great and rising country, whose Star Spangled Banner proudly floats o’er her deck. “E Pluribus Unum” “From many nations” were the men gathered who felled the trees and chipped the timbers and moulded them into “one” harmonious and beautiful craft that

“Walks the waters like a thing of life”-

“From many nations” are the men gathered under the command of him who “moves the monarch of her peopled deck.” Would that the parallel might here end! And that gathering something of the spirit of liberty from the ocean which she cleaves, and the chainless wind which wafts her along, she might appear in foreign ports a fit representative of a land of the free, instead of a beautiful but baneful object, like the fated box of Pandora, scattering abroad among the nations the malignant prejudice which is a canker and curse to the soil, whence she sprung.’

~ James McCune Smith, travel journal entry August 1832*,
published in The Works of James McCune Smith, 2006

*Smith was nineteen years old when he wrote this, a former slave who, early in life, took his destiny into his own hands through his intellectual accomplishments. He wrote this as he sailed to Scotland to study at the University of Glasgow where he would receive his Bachelors, Masters, and Doctor of Medicine degrees. He would go on to become a renowned physician, scientist, writer, and abolitionist.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Julia Ward Howe!

Julia Ward Howe, ca. 1855

Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.

She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.

Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’

Julia Ward Howe postcard dated August 28th, 1903, from the Hutchinson Family Scrapbook in the collection of the Lynn Historical Society in Massachusetts. I was here in spring 2016 following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. The Hutchinson family dedicated their musical skills to the abolition movement and other reform causes and were friends with many prominent activists of their day. The scrapbook doesn’t note which member of the Hutchinson family Howe wrote this card to.

Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:

Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: BiographyPoetry Foundation

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) – by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum

‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter – by Jill Lepore for The New York Times

Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 – by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Photobook: Thomas Paine Artifacts at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, England

Thomas Paine display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, England, 2018 Amy Cools

Thomas Paine display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, England.

Paine’s death mask at the People’s History Museum. As you can see, this great thinker and writer was also a rather homely man.

Thomas Paine’s writing table. As the People’s History Museum website explains, ‘The table actually belonged to Thomas Clio Rickman who lived at number 7 Upper Marylebone Street, London and whom Paine stayed with in 1792 before fleeing to France following the publication of The Rights of Man. Rickman would proudly show his visitors the table, now sanctified by his plaque…’

Plaque on the Paine writing table at the People’s History Museum

Lock of Thomas Paine’s hair in a snuffbox

Placard for the Thomas Paine display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, England

Thomas Paine display placard at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, England, 2018 Amy Cools

Another Paine display placard at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, England

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!