Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Lately, I find myself thinking about Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Wells comes to my mind every time someone mentions having “outrage fatigue” or declaring the latest political crisis, “outrageous.” In her diary, Wells doesn’t appear to get fatigue. A journalist and public speaker, she spent five decades voicing one of the greatest outrages in American history: the epidemic of lynching in the South that began during the 1890s. I think about her because she never stopped believing in the ability of our country to turn itself around, even though she did not see that happen in her own lifetime.

Technically born a slave, Wells’ earliest memories included freedom, the reunion of families, and the creation of a black community in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during Reconstruction. Perhaps she saw her father vote. Her father did purchase a framed house and worked to support the family, while her mother kept house, even winning a prize for their children’s Sunday-school attendance. Wells was nurtured into the idea that life would be better for African Americans and the key to success was education.

Alas, a yellow fever epidemic struck this promising start to life. More than 400 Holly Springs residents died, and Wells lost both of her parents. At 16, she went to work as a teacher in a country school to support her siblings. Two years later, her Aunt Fanny invited the family to live in Memphis, Tennessee, where she landed a teaching job with better pay.

In comparison to rural Mississippi, Memphis seemed a cosmopolitan place. About 39 percent of the population was African American, and they operated a commercial district that included boarding places, barbershops, saloons, undertaking parlors, eateries, Zion Hall (an auditorium), a men’s fraternal group, and a newspaper. They supported their own churches as well as grocery stores. The future, again, appeared brighter. In this decade African Americans like Wells took the train to visit each other and attend education conferences.

At the same time, though, Tennessee Democrats were re-gaining control of the political system and passed the first segregation law. In September 1883, Ida B. Wells boarded a “colored car” in the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) and saw a drunken white man and smokers. Because she bought a first-class ticket, Wells moved to the first class car and tried to bury her nose in the newspaper. When the conductor came to get tickets, he asked her to move. She refused. When the train paused at a station, she refused again. The conductor tried to physically pull her from the seat but she hooked her feet and bit his hand. With the help of two other passengers, she was dragged to the colored car, but she chose instead to get off the train.

Seventy-one years before Rosa Parks’ famous moment, Ida Wells hired a lawyer to demand justice. At the trial, the conductor acknowledged that neither smoking nor drinking was allowed in the colored car. Numerous testimonies corroborated the presence of smokers and an inebriated man. Others acknowledged that black nurses and nannies often rode in the first class car with their employers. On the stand, Wells appeared calm and petite and dressed like a lady of the time. She won her case and damages of $500.

Although she lost on appeal and the laws of segregation eventually tightened, Wells focused her sense of outrage into the legal system. It is for this reason that I always teach my students about her. Young people tend to see history as an inevitable march of fate, and they need to know that neither segregation nor disenfranchisement came without resistance. They also need to know that white southerners did more than pass laws separating the races: they terrorized African Americans.

In 1889, Memphis papers carried the news that Eliza Woods, a black cook from Jackson, Tennessee, was lynched for poisoning her white employer. The mob that murdered Eliza Woods stripped her naked and riddled her body with bullets based on the fact that the employer was killed by arsenic and Woods had a box of rat poison in her home. Wells was filled with what could be described as true outrage: she was overcome with emotion to the point that she had to pray to God for wisdom and composure as she wrote about the event in her diary. Two years later, the husband of the white woman confessed to killing his wife. Fury returned to Wells, but this time she wrote about the disgrace of lynching in the newspaper, and she exhorted black men everywhere to “rise to their manhood.”

Finding her voice increased Wells’ fame, and she became staff writer and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech. In 1891, another black man was lynched for killing a white man who had intimate relations with the black man’s wife. In retaliation, black men set fire to several homes and barns in the white community. In response, white community members patrolled the streets and tensions in the city grew. A fight between two boys—one white, one black—over a marble game accelerated the situation. The owner of the People’s Grocery came out to defend the black boy, and a fight broke out among adults. The next day, arrests resulted in a shootout at the grocery store. There were more arrests, and then 75 white men surrounded the jail at 2:30 a.m. and dragged three men out of the jail and shot them in a horrific manner. By the next day, gangs of white men roamed the streets shooting at any group of black men, and the Memphis unrest made the front page of the New York Times.

“Tell my people to go West,” were Tommy Moss’s dying words. “There is no justice for you here.” Wells was a close friend of Tommy and his wife, Betty. Although Wells had long protested the mobs that took the law into their one hands, she knew that she needed to do everything in her power to raise awareness about lynching. Eventually, Memphis whites burned the offices of the Memphis Free Speech and Wells was forced into exile because of threats on her life. She moved to Brooklyn. “Having destroyed my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth,” Wells wrote, “I felt I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do it freely.”

For the next 10 years, Wells researched the reasons for lynching. She quickly found (using interviews and white newspaper accounts) that the “charges” claimed to justify lynching were untrue. Mobs typically claimed that a black man had raped a white woman, and the horror of this idea to northern audiences prevented the state and federal governments from intervening. Wells was able to compile enough research to prove that the accusations were rarely true. While exiled in New York, she raised money by speaking her truth to public audiences and using the money to publish the Red Record Crying “rape,” she argued, was used to hide hostility toward African American economic and political successes.

More than 100 years later, Wells’ research has been verified.   However, at the time it was difficult for the United States to accept a woman as a valid researcher and a credible activist. Booker T. Washington begged her to soft-pedal the complicity of white women in lynching. Carter Woodson left her out of the first history of lynching. W.E.B Dubois invited her to participate in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), then left her name off official records.

From 1890 through the 1930s, Wells continued to speak and write about the truth of lynching. Eventually, she moved to Chicago, married, and had children. She may be the first nursing mother to have ever given a public address. Although she did not receive credit for her achievements in her lifetime, she effectively channeled her outrage and published the truth before anyone else dared.

David J. Ley, PhD, a clinical psychologist and writer for Psychology Today explains that the oft-used phrase “outrage fatigue” is not a diagnosis, but it is a real problem here in the present. Because we are today assaulted with a 24/7 news cycle and cell phones, we experience hurricanes, police shootings, political infighting, and apocalyptic predictions at a rate unprecedented in history. Ley offers good suggestions for “outrage fatigue,” but from the biography of Ida B. Wells I offer a few more. The first is this: what is a true outrage?

Southern lynchings were true outrages. African American men like Sam Hose, in 1899 in Georgia, were killed in broad daylight by a mob who staged it in front of more than a thousand men, women, and children. His body was mutilated and pieces of it were sold as souvenirs. The mob then dumped oil over him and set him on fire while he was still alive. It doesn’t matter whether or not he did commit a crime: No human being in a country governed by law should be treated this way. What anyone tweets about anyone else, however ugly or inappropriate or disrespectful, cannot be compared with this heinous lack of respect for the law and the lives of human beings. When I find myself manipulated into anger by someone’s words, I think it’s worthwhile to put it in perspective in this way.

And there’s more. Ida B. Wells did not take on all of the outrages of her time (child labor, 12-hour work days, tenements, lack of fire codes, to name a few). She focused on one. She did her own research and did not rely solely upon the media of her time. She negotiated support from her husband at a time when women were expected to put all of their energy into their husband’s career. She was a woman of faith, who called on spiritual guidance to give her courage. She believed, despite northern white apathy and lack of action, that law and justice matter, and that they are, in the end, the American way.


Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library


Duster, Alfreda. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B Wells. University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Giddings, Paula. Ida: A Sword Among Lions, Ida B Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Royser, Jacqueline Jones. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 Second Edition. Bedford/St. Martins, 2016.


Review of Everything I Never Told You. Celeste Ng. New York: Penguin, 2015 (297 pages)

The first sentence of this novel is reminiscent of a murder mystery: “Lydia is dead.” However, the second sentence hints that the plot will revolve around something other than whodunit: “But they didn’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.” They, in this case, refer to Lydia’s family. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is at its heart a family story, exploring how grief drills a hole inside a family, revealing its frayed edges.

Each member of Lydia’s family deals with her loss in a way that reveals his or her character. Her mother, Marilyn, paces Lydia’s room and pours over everything looking for clues. Her father, James, deals with the police and every day goes to a summer class that has been cancelled. Older brother Nath looks for someone to blame, especially the neighbor that 16-year-old Lydia might have been dating. Only little sister Hannah watches and sees what happens, but no one pays any attention to her.

Ng creates tension in the family by contrasting what people say with what they’re thinking: “I’m taking your mother and sister home. When you’ve cooled off, you can walk,” James tells Nath when he lashes out at the police during the funeral. “Deep inside, he wants more than anything to calm Nath, to put a comfortable and weighty hand on his shoulder, to fold him into his arms, on this day of all days.” James fails to do the right thing, in the same way that any of us fail to find the right words or fail to reach out when under the power of grief.

Another strength of this novel is the way that it re-creates what it was like to be Asian-American in the Midwest during the 1970s. James is a Chinese-American and his wife, Marilyn, is of some un-defined white heritage, and their three children are the only children of color in the small town. Each of them experience this loneliness in a different way, and not coincidentally hangs his or her future on Lydia, the family member that looks the most like a mainstream white person. When Marilyn accuses James of “kow-towing” to the police, the real ethnic slur behind this expression is thrown into relief, and the unknowing racism behind her words nearly destroys their relationship.

As the title suggests, Everything I Never Told You brings forward family secrets as the author explores the private world of all five family members as well as the neighbor boy who shared their world. Their longing for love and recognition goes unmet not only between family members but also in a society the repels anyone who is different. Marilyn’s unmet need for recognition in a career causes her to push Lydia to succeed academically. When her daughter disappears, she cannot imagine suicide as a possibility, because this would dismantle her firm view that Lydia wanted to be a doctor.

While tragedy sometimes can bring a family together, this story shows how grief also can divide people who love each other. Is grief always something you do alone? This “wisdom” is often contained in quotes about the grief process, as if it can only be a lonely road to recovery. Perhaps what Ng has showed us is that Grief has this power: to divide us into our lone worlds of anguish. Just as everyone experiences emotion in their own way, everyone will succumb to the stages of grief in their own way in their own time.

The emotion of grief may not be shared, but a family still shares an experience, and this Ng brings forward in the subtle emotional landscape she has created. “On the stairs, Hannah holds her breath. She is afraid to move anything, even a fingertip. Maybe if she stays perfectly still, everything will be all right.”

While this family’s journey through an unthinkable landscape at times seems agonizing, I suspect that the growth some of the characters experience toward the end of the book happens more quickly than would be possible in real life. Still, we need to believe that grief can have this transformative effect: we will emerge, scarred, but with some new vision of the world.

In an early morning hour, I am recording a dream before it slips back into the night-time world. I sit at the dining room table, engrossed in a faint memory of a Caribbean couple who asked if they could design me a magical dress. I can no longer see their faces or remember what magical powers this garment might possess. The dining room table where I write starts to come into focus, as a final glimpse of a purple and turquoise batik fabric fades into the pile of unsorted papers. Bills, a birthday card, and a grocery list with the word “mangoes” come into view.

Bam! Chloe, our beagle mix, spots a chipmunk and pushes the French doors open to run outside. The lovely cool morning air slips inside my world, so I leave the door open. Gathering into my consciousness, though, is Chloe’s bobbing tail, as she disappears through the fig bushes in an effort to catch the little critter.

I look up, still trying to remember if my husband is in this dream, when Bonk, a small bird hits the open door, struggles over the top, and flies into the room and onto my table of papers. Outside, a hawk – the one, I quickly realize, must have been chasing the small bird – banks quickly to avoid my dining room and flies away. The small bird, now flying crazily, lands on top of the sideboard filled with my in-laws’ china and falls backward against the wall.

Did that just happen? Is there a dead bird in my house? I have enough experience with dying animals to I know they can fight with their last breaths. I run to the screen porch and grab my husband’s leather gloves. Sliding the gloved hand between the wall and the sideboard and using my body as a wedge, I hold my hand out behind the sideboard to catch the bird. It lands in my palm. Slowly sliding my hand out from the back of the sideboard, I look at the bird, a small woodpecker, maybe?

And then, something amazing happened. The bird moves his head and looks at me. We are less than a foot apart, his dark black eye very much alive.

All my life until that moment I have been a dedicated feeder of birds but certainly not knowledgeable enough about them to be called a “birder.” I remember my father, the engineer, donning his puffy down jacket and big hat with ear flaps to feed the birds on a sub-zero Minnesota day. Feeding the birds was a duty, like mowing the lawn.

Who are you? I look at these tiny black eyes, which seem to be regarding me closely, unafraid–just curious. I walk out the French doors onto the deck, holding out my palm, but the little woodpecker doesn’t take his eyes off me. I am thinking he will disappear, but he cocks his head a bit, to get a better look at the unkempt appearance of his rescuer. I inch out the door with my outstretched palm toward the edge of the yard. My neighbor, Adam, works for the local wildlife center knows a lot about birds, and he’s often home in the afternoon watching his young children. I hear someone on the porch.

“Adam?” I call, softly, so as not to disturb my little friend. “Adam, are you there?”

The sound turns out to be a babysitter, checking her cell messages while the children are napping. She offers to take a photo of the woodpecker over the fence with her phone and send it to Adam. I will always be grateful to her, because I ended up with a photo of the bird in my hand. Adam, who views this photo from work thinks it’s a juvenile downy woodpecker. “Don’t worry, he’s probably just stunned,” he tells me through the babysitter.

“How long are they stunned?” I ask, and the Downy looks for the first time at the babysitter, as if he, too, wants the answer.

“Maybe ten minutes or so. Small hawks like a Cooper’s will stun their prey first, then kill it. You probably saved the bird’s life – just watch him and give him some room.”

Thanking the babysitter, I turn toward my own backyard. Ten minutes seem like a long time and no time at all. What do you say when you have the full attention of a Downy Woodpecker? Which words of wisdom should I share? How do you explain the insanity of human beings to a fledgling?

With my palm open and my arm outstretched, I give my little charge a tour of the yard. I tell him about the wildflowers that I transplanted, when the owner of my old rental was going to raze the old house and build condominiums. I explain why I have to move the raised beds, because they are in something called a frost pocket. Maybe I will plant a nice pollinator garden here. His eyes never left my face, but I confess mine kept turning toward the flowers and trees, what next?

All this time, Chloe is wandering the backyard in search of the chipmunk, completely uninterested in the tour.

“This is where we buried a robin that died, when Frank (my son) was small. He was so sad about the dead bird, and I wanted him to know that all lives matter. The butterfly bush is doing so well there,” I say, feeling a bit foolish, but the woodpecker appears fascinated.

Above me, on the telephone line, I see two birds making quite a bit of noise. It occurs to me that this might be the bird’s parents.

I walked back toward the French doors, thinking I will pick up my binoculars and check to see if the birds on the line are woodpeckers. As I near the doorway, the fledgling becomes airborne without so much as a push off. He simply opens his wings and joins the breeze.

I return to the dining room table, then, and look over my scribbling about some imaginary dressmakers in faraway lands. I close the journal. I wonder why that seemed so important to me, when all the drama of life and death, changing fortunes and magic I ever dreamed of are right outside my window.