I recently saw an advertisement for a PBS special celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage. In the commercial, was a photo of Ida B. Wells, a journalist who during her lifetime chronicled the extreme racial violence and lynching that was perpetrated by whites against African American communities. After seeing the commercial, I was prompted to re-read Paula Giddings’ portrait of Ida B. Wells as well as the article “Miscegenation Law, Court Cases, and Ideologies of ‘Race’ in Twentieth-Century America” by Peggy Pascoe.
Pascoe’s article tells the story of Joe Kirby, who in 1921, took his wife, Mayellen, to court. Pascoe writes, “the Kirbys had been married for seven years, and Joe wanted out. Ignoring the usual option of divorce, he asked for an annulment, charging that his marriage had been invalid from its very beginning because Arizona law prohibited marriages between ‘persons of Caucasian blood, or their descendants’ and ‘Negroes, Mongolians or Indians, and their descendants.’” (Pascoe, 1996).
Even as re-reads, both pieces were equally unnerving and powerful. In the poignant elegance of her prose, Giddings outlines the many ebbs and flows that gave credence to the work Ida B. Wells is known for. Whether describing how a young Wells was forced to make an immediate transition from youth to adulthood after her family was stricken with yellow fever, or her grit and determination to challenge the segregated railway system during the fall of Reconstruction. Ida B. Wells was hell-bent on making her voice heard.
When Wells found the press, she realized this instrument to be her tour de force. Her direct approach to journalism was the antithesis of what black women were expected to be at the time, silent. Such was life for Mayellen Kirby. I can only imagine having to sit in a courtroom while judges, lawyers, and her estranged husband—all white men—discussed, debated, and lamented about her. Imagine what it must have felt like having her fate decided by people who didn’t know her or her background (ethnic or otherwise). Men who were allowed to serve judgment that ultimately relieved her husband of his moral responsibility (spousal support/child support).
Both women, victims of gender and racial bias; the very nature of which was constructed to keep them silenced. Banished to the background where they seemingly did not matter. While Wells took to the newspapers to state her case for justice, doing so gave other women a vehicle to be heard. I do not know, but perhaps Mayellen Kirby remembered reading in a newspaper that a “Darky Damsel Obtains a Verdict for Damages Against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroads” (Memphis Appeal Avalanche, 1884). Perhaps that is why she chose to appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court the original decision of her marriage annulment. Perhaps Kirby had enough of being silent. Maybe she was tired of having others speak for her.
I find that these two stories, while seemingly unrelated have significance in the sociopolitical landscape today. Race as a social construct is still evolving and has yet to cease playing a role in creating equitable existences for people of color. As recent as 2013, affirmative action was before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) network. This network is reminiscent of the work begun by Ida B. Wells in that they are actively participating in the movement and creating avenues of response to racial injustice. Like Wells, BLM is utilizing the technology of their time (in this instance, social media) to bring attention to situations that occur.
As the country pauses to celebrate American independence and women’s suffrage, I am reminded that the social construct of race was present in both movements; African Americans remained in bondage after the Revolutionary War and most African American women would not be able to cast a ballot until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As a Black woman, I was touched and equally intrigued by the complexities presented in both articles. As a student of history, I was also enamored by the contextualization presented in each and the analysis that followed. It was a sobering reminder of why we march, write, boycott, picket, and protest. It is reason we chant Black Lives Matter.