restricted access 2. FROM MARGIN TO CENTER: African American Women and Black Feminist Theory
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Chapter 2 FROM MARGIN TO CENTER African American Women and Black Feminist Theory True chivalry respects all womanhood. . . .Virtue knows no color line, and the chivalry which depends upon complexion of skin and texture of hair can command no honest respect. —Ida B. Wells, On Lynchings On May 4, 1884, Ida B. Wells took a seat in the ladies’ coach on a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad train en route to her teaching job in Woodstock, Tennessee (Mulane 1993; Hine and Thompson 1998). Since the 1875 Civil Rights Bill guaranteeing equal treatment in public accommodations had been repealed, the railroad was operating under the “separate but equal” doctrine. Wells was therefore ordered to leave the first-class accommodations in the ladies’ coach for which she had paid and move to the separate smoking car. When she refused , two conductors forcibly removed Wells from the train. In response , she sued the railroad and won her case. She was subsequently awarded $500 in damages. Although the ruling was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court three years later, she was the first black person to initiate a legal challenge to the Supreme Court’s nullification of the 1875 Civil Rights Bill (Mulane 1993; Hine and Thompson 1998). This event and the struggles that followed it inspired Wells to become a crusader for social justice and thereby marked a turning point in her life—one that sparked a distinguished career in journalism and active participation in public life. Thus, to fully appreciate the historic significance of Ida B. Wells, it is necessary to 19 understand the degree to which her consciousness emerged out of and transformed everyday life experiences with interlocking systems of oppression into formidable acts of resistance. An outspoken champion of women’s suffrage and an ardent defender of black civil rights, Ida B. Wells decisively led a fullfledged movement for social justice credited with ending lynching in three states (Dawson 2001). During the last decade of the nineteenth century, she became internationally known for her protests against lynching via muckraking editorials, dynamic public speaking , and grassroots efforts that exposed the fraudulent claims used to justify these vigilante acts of violence against black people. More specifically, she developed a reputation for deconstructing the myth of the black rapist through painstaking investigative reporting, and tirelessly lobbying for antilynching legislation in the United States (James 1997; Hine and Thompson 1998; Dawson 2001). Both the radical nature of her message and her explosive style of delivery came under intense scrutiny and harsh criticism by conservative, black male leaders of the time—most notably, Booker T. Washington (James 1997; Schechter 1997; Hine and Thompson 1998; Dawson 2001). Wells’s subject matter exposed the politics of “true manhood” and interpreted lynching as terrorism against black people in general and black men in particular. She broached a topic that was understood to be male terrain and, at the same time, directed critical attention to the assault of black women by white men for which no one was punished (Schechter 1997). While the aggressive style in which this message was delivered bore a striking resemblance to that of Frederick Douglass, the genius of Wells has since had to compete for intellectual dominance amid historical interpretations and theories of exceptional male genius as exemplified in the autobiographies of Douglass, which equate black liberation struggle with the assertion of black masculinity or manhood (S. Williams 1990; Carby 1997). Douglass, who also opposed lynching and supported women’s rights in his journalism, has been of continuing academic and popular interest in books and articles, as well as in the media (J. White 1985). Wells, on the other hand, has not garnered nearly as much attention when her theoretical analyses of race, gender, and patriarchal power linked black women’s oppression through rape with black men’s oppression through lynching without privileging one 20 Black Feminist Voices in Politics experience over the other (Carby 1997; Schechter 1997). In fact, she remains conspicuously absent from the canon on black civil rights from 1850 to 1920 that typically enshrines such legendary icons as Martin Delaney, Alexander Crummell, Frederick Douglass, T. Thomas Fortune, W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey who preceded the modern civil rights movement (see, for example, J. White 1985; Brotz 1992) and the canon on women’s suffrage from 1848 to 1920 that typically enshrines such notable figures as Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Lucretia Mott who preceded the contemporary women’s liberation...


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