Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Womanist Original Gangster
The term “womanist” was developed by African-American theologian, Delores Williams, to distinguish the feminist theology of African American women like herself and Katie G. Canon from the feminist theology of their Caucasian counterparts, where sexism in the church and the larger society was being addressed, but not racism. As African Americans in a predominantly white denomination, Williams and Canon and those who came after them, knew there could be no progress for African American women in the church, and by extension the larger society, if racism was ignored. I knew both Delores and Katie, studied alongside them, and belonged to the same denomination. I was privileged to call them colleague and friend. What Delores and Katie started doing in their writings in the 1980’s, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was doing in the 1880’s, and beyond, in hers.
Born into slavery in 1862 in Mississippi, Wells-Barnett lived as a life-long activist, confronting racial injustice wherever she encountered it. She sued a train car company when she was put off a first-class train even though she had a ticket. She marched in the integrated Illinois delegation to a 1913 suffrage demonstration, despite the handwringing racism of the march’s white organizers. She’s probably best known for her anti-lynching exposé, “The Red Record and Southern Horrors Lynch Law in All Its Phases” where she exposed lynching justifications for the lies they were. She continued her crusade here and abroad, despite having her presses of her newspaper burned and her life threatened numerous times. She married, raised a family and continued her activism until her death in 1931.
James Weldon Johnson wrote these words in his poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out from the gloomy past
Til now we stand at last
In the white gleam
Where our bright star is cast
Johnson’s brother, John Rosamund Johnson, set the poem to music, and we in the African American community sing it as the Black National anthem. The hope and pride reflected in the words of “Lift Every Voice” have always warmed me with pride when I sing them. Knowing about this Reconstruction-era woman whose life and work embodies the anthem’s ode to perseverance inspires me as well.
“Put It In A Book” by Michal Scott
The daughter of ex-slaves, Aziza Williams uses her freedom to teach slaves to read, a law-breaking activity that forces her to flee the United States for the Free and Independent Republic of Liberia, where her independent and injustice-confronting ways garners the unwanted sexual attention of a dibia, Dulee Morlu. In a cruel twist of fate, Morlu uses Aziza’s love for education against her and imprisons her in a book. He declares she will remain there until she submits to him. After a month of imprisonment, Aziza despairs that Morlu is right: no one will ever read her book. Fear that she may surrender to him begins to overwhelm her. Then one day hope flutters through her spirit as she senses the unfamiliar touch of Sekou Caine, an audacious and inquisitive thief, leafing through her pages…
“Well, you’re free now.”
She looked toward the window. “Not for long.” Sadness glittered in the tears pooling in her eyes. “Many times with great delight he stated that only by giving myself to him, or having someone take my place, will I be free. If neither happens, I’ll be forced back into the book at sunrise.”
Sekou frowned, anxiety rolling in his gut.
“It’s how my story ends,” she continued. “He read it to me so often I have it memorized.” She closed her eyes and recited…
“Only two paths lead to freedom. Two paths she will never traverse: becoming the dibia’s slave or allowing another to make love to her and then replace her in the story, so now the story becomes his. So, in this story she will remain, too proud to yield and too principled to ask another to pay so high a price.”
She looked at Sekou.
“Why do you believe him?” he whispered.
“Because it’s true. I’ll never submit to him or let anyone be stranded as I was.”
A feeling swelled inside Sekou. He touched her hand and hoped the courage moving inside him might move in her. “We can change that ending,” he said, his heart thudding in his chest.
Aziza frowned. “How?”
He cupped her cheek. “Let me make love to you.”
She pulled away, horrified. “I couldn’t. Just these few moments of freedom…” She closed her eyes. “I couldn’t live knowing I’d stranded you within the pages of that book.”
He touched her cheek and offered her a half-smile. “I’d happily live in a book if I could free you.” And he knew his words to be true. He’d sacrifice himself for her, although they’d just met.
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About Michal Scott
Michal Scott is the penname of Rev. Anna Taylor Sweringen, a retired United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church USA minister. A native New Yorker, Anna is a recent transplant to the Southwest and is enjoying the great weather along with her husband of twenty-nine years and their two cats. Her love of history and romance came together in her first novella with Wild Rose Press, One Breath Away.
Anna has been a member of Romance Writers of America since 2003 and holds membership in six of their chapters. She also writes inspirational romance as Anna Taylor and gothic romance as Anna M. Taylor. You can connect with Michal on Twitter @mscottauthor1 and learn more about her writing at www.michalscott.webs.com.