Ida B. Wells Boycotts the World’s Fair – Part 1

wellsOne of the most important documents of Black writing in American history is Ida B. Well’s pamphlet The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, sections of which I included in my book Black Writing from Chicago.  It begins:

“The exhibit of the progress made by a race in 25 years of freedom as against 250 years of slavery, would have been the greatest tribute to the greatness and progressiveness of American institutions which could have been shown the world. The colored people of this great Republic number eight millions—more than one-tenth the whole population of the United States. They were among the earliest settlers of this continent, landing at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 in a slave ship, before the Puritans, who landed at Plymouth in 1620. They have contributed a large share to American prosperity and civilization. The labor of one-half of this country has always been, and is still being done by them. The first credit this country had in its commerce with foreign nations was created by productions resulting from their labor. The wealth created by their industry has afforded to the white people of this country the leisure essential to their great progress in education, art, science, industry and invention.

“Those visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition who know these facts, especially foreigners will naturally ask: Why are not the colored people, who constitute so large an element of the American population, and who have contributed so large a share to American greatness, more visibly present and better represented in this World’s Exposition?”

She urged people—especially colored Americans—to boycott the famed 1893 World’s Fair.

wells-whycoloredamsBorn into slavery in 1862, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) first gained national attention in 1887 when she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for not allowing her to sit with whites.  The case, which she lost, drew her away from school teaching in Memphis and into a career in journalism and crusading for Black rights that is among the most important in American history.  She helped establish the African-American newspaper The Free Speech in Memphis in 1891, and the following year the death by lynch mob of several of her friends impelled her to begin her famous international campaign against lynching.

It wasn’t just a protest against the poor representation of African Americans in virtually every aspect of this particular World’s Fair, from jobs to hurtful stereotypes.  The Reason Why pamphlet also placed these injustices against a sweeping backdrop of America’s history of injustice against blacks.  In Chapter 2, “Class Legislation,” for example, Wells details the systematic impoverishment and disenfranchisement of blacks.  ”Russia’s liberated serf,” she writes, “was given three acres  of land and agricultural implements,” but blacks “were turned loose to starvation, destitution, and death….”  Poll taxes and unfair “education” tests stymied black attempts to vote, creating a “Solid South”—meaning, she says, a solid unit “for white supremacy.” The result in Mississippi was that in 1892 while there were 110,100 whites over 21 and eligible to vote and 147,205 blacks similarly eligible, 68,127 whites were registered but only 8,615 blacks.  In Chapter 3, “The Convict Lease System,” she links this impoverishment and disenfranchisement not only to the excessive numbers of blacks thrown in jail—a problem still rampant in the first quarter of the 21st century—but also to a de facto reinstatement of slavery, with convicts being “leased out to work for railway contractors, mining companies and those who farm large plantations.”

In Chapter 4, she turns to “Lynch Law.”  Between 1882 and 1891, 701 lynchings were officially recorded.  Of these 269 blacks were accused of rape, though, says Wells, “This crime is only so punished when white women accuse black men, which accusation is never proven. The same crime committed by Negroes against Negroes, or by white men against black women is ignored even in the law courts.”  The list of “reasons” concludes with 32 blacks lynched for no reason whatever.

 Read PART 2 of this post.

 Go to a list of Black Writers on this site, and to the Black Writing from Chicago main page, where you can learn more and buy the book.


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Tara Betts: Amalgamation Improvisation Within Black

betts1In my book Black Writing from Chicago, I included two Tara Betts poems, “Two Brothers” and “A Mixed Message,” the first featured in the marvelous Steppenwolf Theatre production Words on Fire (2000), a celebration of Chicago poetry.  No wonder: it paints a vital, endearing scene also embodying an important problem.  Two brothers: one who should be in school but isn’t, and his baby brother who “hovers like a satellite”—only five, but “His knit cap blares out / With the curvy, capital W in yellow on his forehead  / He could step to the mic /  Posture each word like lunging Kung fu kicks.”  Then:

A woman tells him to tell his Big Brother to stay in school
Like the sisters
Leaving him a heap of sepia butterflies
Dripping deliberate dew sweat
Dropping like ice cubes out of trays
Steel heated into malleable liquid
Big Brother & Baby Brother
Become black silk and amber velvet
Under weight of woman smile

The second poem, “A Mixed Message” begins:

What makes me so damned tragic?
not a fragmented exotic mystery
jezebel born from the blood of rape
nor child of the so called integration experiment

The tragedy has been embodied in thousands of ways, including laws to keep “races” pure. But she defies categories, is what Aryan Nations feared, fills in “all the gaps / where miscegenation laws / blotted my birth.”  She recalls how her father held her “through 11-year-old / tears calling me by name / calling me beautiful,” as she endured nicknames like “zebra, mutt or half-n-half.”

betts3But through the tragedy, the poem shows that while Betts is grounded in an African-American identity, uncertain though it is, her vision is truly pan-ethnic, born of a feeling for the “amalgamation improvisation / within Black,” the criss-crossing of blackness with whiteness, with Mexican, Filipino, Puerto Rican, with North and South and the international that reaches to Egypt and beyond.  Blackness, then, is as much a process—collaboration, amalgamation, improvisation—as anything else.  Such a “collaborationist” ethic shows not only in her writing, but in the way she became one of the most involved artist in Chicago: teaching, conducting workshops, and performing for the Guild Complex, Gallery 37, Young Chicago Authors, Columbia College, Northwestern School of Law, and primary and secondary schools throughout the area.  A fixture in Chicago performance poetry, Betts was involved in the “Women Out Loud” series at Chicago’s Mad Bar and has been part of the Mad Bar’s teams in the National Poetry Slam competitions.

Betts’ poems have appeared in many publications, including Obsidian III, Mosaic, Rhapsody in Black, Dialogue, Crab Orchard Review, Callaloo, The Columbia Poetry Review and the Tia Chucha press 20th anniversary anthology Power Lines.  In 2010, Essence magazine named her one of its “40 Favorite Poets,”  She received her MFA in Poetry from New England College, residencies and fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, Centrum and Caldera, and the Illinois Arts Council, and her PhD in English from SUNY Betts.  Her poetry books and chapbooks are Can I Hang?, Switch, Break the Habit, and Arc & Hue, and she has been anthologized not only in my Black Writing from Chicago, but also in such books as The Break Beat Poets, and Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.  In 2011 the Peggy Choy Dance Company commissioned her to write a series of poems and monologues for “THE GREATEST!”: An Homage to Muhammad Ali.

She has been a lecturer in creative writing at Rutgers University, though her major passion remains performance.  She continues to embody the mixing she celebrates in “A Mixed Message” through performances in Cuba and London, and from coast to coast in the U.S. at venues such as the Arie Crown Theater, The New School, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Studio Museum of Harlem, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The Metro, Cornelia Street Café, Bowery Poetry Club, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Schomburg Center, Yerba Buena Cultural Center, the Field Museum of Natural History, and Harvard and Yale universities.  She has also appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam,  and in the Black Family Channel series “SPOKEN” with Jessica Care Moore.

 Go to a list of Black Writers and to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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Era Bell Thompson: Affirming American Meritocracy

Nearly without fail, the excerpt from Era Bell Thompson’s American Daughter, which I included in my book Black Writing from Chicago, is my students’ favorite.

eb-thompson2bLeaving her native North Dakota in 1931, Era Bell Thompson came to settle in Chicago in 1933.  In 1945 she received a Fellowship in Midwestern Studies from the Newberry Library to write her classic autobiography American Daughter.  She titled it in reaction to Richard Wright’s Native Son, a national sensation in 1945, intending to provide an view opposing Wright’s bleak image of American life.  “Usually an autobiography is written near the end of a long and distinguished career,” she said, “but not taking any chances, I wrote mine first.”  American Daughter was published with great success the following year, and soon afterwards John H. Johnson—also a leader in extolling a more middle class, non-Richard-Wright view of America—hired her to work at his publishing firm.  By 1951 she was co-managing editor of Ebony, a job she held until 1964 when she became the magazine’s international editor, a post which nourished her ever-present need to wander and resulted in her 1954 book Africa: Land of My Fathers.  In 1963 she edited the interesting White on Black: Views of 22 White Americans on the Negro.  The University of North Dakota bestowed an honorary doctorate on her in 1969, and in 1976 she received the state’s highest award, the Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider Award.

eb-thompson1The excerpt I included in Black Writing from Chicago comes from near the end of American Daughter and begins with a near-mythic meeting between Thompson, representing another era of Black aspiration, and Robert S. Abbott, a now old and—at least as Thompson sees him—“bitter” symbol of the old guard for whom race was an ever-present obstacle.  Though obviously greatly plagued by race herself, Thompson is more willing to take to heart the words of the elderly guide she meets on her first visit to the Chicago Board of Trade.  Beaming when she tells him she is going to school and holding up to her the example of someone who has “made it,” he says: “No matter what you do, do it well, be the best there is, and remember, here in America all things are possible, everyone has the opportunity to become great.”  I end my excerpt with Thompson saying, “The chasm is growing narrower.  When it closes, my feet will rest on a united America.”

This is why the vast majority of my students love this excerpt so much.  It affirms one of America’s founding myths: meritocracy.  Notwithstanding the evident falseness of the myth—”everyone” doesn’t have the talent, and won’t have the luck or money or patronage it takes to become great—it is still not an entirely ignoble thing to believe it.  For one thing, “great” could be a relative term meaning not stardom but “just” a better life than your parents had, and the elderly Board or Trade guide doesn’t guarantee greatness, just the opportunity.  The equality of that opportunity, though, has come under greater and greater scrutiny and suspicion.  Is America still the land of opportunity?  In an age where we have the greatest disparity in wealth distribution in American history—I report on this in my “Graphic Inequality”—and progress on alleviating racism seems excruciatingly slow to non-existent, a consensus against the guide’s optimism seems to be forming.  It matters, of course, if you’re liberal or conservative.  If liberal, you see upward mobility in the U.S., for example, lagging behind much of Europe and other parts of the world. But Scott Winship of the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, for example, writes, “My research finds that roughly 40 percent of today’s 40-year-olds who grew up in the bottom fifth of income remain in the bottom fifth. But over 80 percent are better off in absolute terms than their parents, after adjusting for the rising cost of living and declining household size.”  It’s the old relative vs. absolute argument.

The subtitle of Black Writing from Chicago is In the World, Not of It?  In my Introduction I write about how blacks have argued for decades about the extent to which they should fully want to be part of U.S. culture—that is, in part, the extent to which they should buy in to this myth of glowing opportunity.  As I say in my introduction to the book, it often comes down to how one views, and buys into, American middleclassness.  Era Bell Thompson buys in.  So does Leonidas Berry, and Dempsey J. Travis, and even Leanita McClain, though all these less so than Thompson.  Sometimes much less so, especially McClain.   I included two of McClain’s essays, “The Middle-class Black’s Burden” and “How Chicago Taught Me To Hate Whites.”  The first reaffirms opportunity, something McClain seized, rising high in the Chicago Tribune hierarchy.  However, just the title alone of the second essay tells you that, in the end, McClain finds opportunity—especially Black middleclassness—tainted, even foreclosed, by racism.

Go to a list of Black Writers on this site, and to the Black Writing from Chicago page to learn more and buy the book.

 The issue of Black middleclassness is one of the central issues in the excerpt I included from Barack Obama.

Go to the Teaching Diversity main page.


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