Ida B. Wells
The Scarlet Letter is a novel about religious hypocrisy, which we might also call idolatry - the substitution of a false god for the true one. In The Scarlet Letter punishment itself becomes a form of religious ritual, effacing the “Christianity” of its adherents.
Frederick Douglass was keen to point out the religious hypocrisy of the slave master. In the “Appendix” to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he writes,
[B]etween the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.
A generation later, Ida B. Wells, whom Douglass once addressed as “Brave woman!”, continued Douglass’ work of exposing hypocrisy. While Douglass’ mode was rhetorical and oratorical, Wells’ is reportorial (though no less eloquent). She is writing during the time of what she called “southern horrors,” what civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson and others have come to name “racial terrorism.” We are quickly learning that racial terrorism can not be pegged to a time period, (i.e., it happened back then). But the particular iteration of racial terrorism that Wells documents is lynching. Her writings in her newspaper the Free Speech and several other publications document case after case of the abduction, torture, and public (indeed festive) murder of a black person. These reports must therefore describe the excuses made for such actions, the hypocrisy laid bare, such double-speak itself part of the crime.
A phrase that we have now for Wells’ work is “bearing witness.” By documenting these cases, she bears witness to the world of an inhumanity that would otherwise pass as socially acceptable or go unregarded. While allies delivered speeches on social issues around the country, she doggedly accumulated stories of atrocity. And so a key feature of Southern Horrors and its companion The Red Record is their thoroughness. Wells does not want to rest until her exposure of these crimes is complete, until the extent of it all is truly known. This came and always comes at great risk. Wells’ home and business were destroyed, and she was marked for death by many in the South (in fact her flight from the South would put her in touch with key leaders who would join her in founding the NAACP, though her name would eventually not be included in the original list of founders). Her example of persistence would inspire many in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and she inspires me today.
The horrors, and the hypocrisies, continue. And we live in a time when the kind of work Wells was known for is regarded as fraudulent. Donald Trump might refer to Wells as an “enemy of the American people.” This kind of accusation would not sound foreign to Wells and her people, who have been on the receiving end of such rhetoric since the beginning of their time on this continent.
People ask themselves and they ask me - what can we do? Often that question registers as merely a rhetorical one. It’s rather easy to feel helpless and to let the helplessness guide us away from bearing witness, to focus only on our own lives. A synonym for witness that I use is vigilance. On the morning after Trump’s election, I wrote to my family about vigilance, committed myself to it in writing. Vigilance requires attention to atrocity, and it requires clarity about atrocity. Just as with the lynchers of Wells’ time, the lynchers of today not only commit violence, but they invent the narrative that justifies it. In this way the violence becomes public ritual. We are not as far from The Scarlet Letter as we think. Remain vigilant. Tell the truth about what you see. Truth? No need to look about for it in a world where reliable authority crumbles. The truth is within you. You know violence when you see it - physical, psychological, emotional violence, violence to language. Remain vigilant.
Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor