Ida B. Wells: Princess of the Press (1862-1931)
This week we switch gears from warriors and murderers, and focus on one of the luminaries of the early Civil Rights Movement: Ida B. Wells, who refused to vacate her train seat 71 years before Rosa Parks, and who led the charge to end lynching in the United States.
Ida was a tough one from the get-go. When, at age 16, her parents died from a Yellow Fever epidemic, she rolled up her sleeves, got a job, and worked to keep her siblings out of foster care. Kind of like a Reconstruction-era version of Party of Five. At age 21, the conductor on a train on which she was a passenger ordered her to vacate her seat – so that a white woman could use it. Ida refused. When the conductor tried forcibly removing her, she hooked her feet into the chair and refused to budge. When he tore her sleeve in the attempt, she scratched at him and bit him. When a gang of men finally removed her from the car, she sued the entire train company, and won. (although it was later overturned via legal shenanigans)
But by far her most significant achievements were in her anti-lynching journalism...
Here’s another one of my favorite Rejected Princesses — Nzinga Mbande, 17th-century queen of what is now Angola.
She began her political life as her nation of Ndongo was fighting off a Portuguese invasion. Her brother, a by-all-accounts wimp, seemingly could not bend over backwards far enough for the Portuguese, and once he ascended to the throne, the Portuguese just tossed him in jail and took over. Nzinga approached the Portuguese and demanded her brother’s return and that they leave Ndongo. At their meeting, in a sign of disrespect, the Portuguese offered her no chair to sit in, instead providing merely a floor mat fit for servants.
In response, Nzinga ordered one of her servants to get on all fours, sitting on her as she would a chair. After the negotiations concluded, according to some accounts (more on that later), she slit her throat in full view of everyone, and informed them that the Queen of Ndongo does not use the same chair twice. Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese agreed to let her brother go.
With her brother now safely back home, she is said (again, more on that later) to have murdered him in his sleep, killed her brother’s son, and assumed the throne herself - because if you’re going to do something right, you better do it yourself. From there, she moved south, started a new country, conquered the infamous ruthless cannibal tribe known as the Jaga, began offering sanctuary to runaway slaves and defector soldiers, and waged war on the Portuguese for THIRTY FIVE YEARS...
If you aren’t American, there’s a fair likelihood you’ve never heard of the next Rejected Princess: Beloved, from Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name.
Beloved is the story of Sethe, a freed slave in post-Civil War era Kentucky. In order to keep her two-year-old daughter from slavers, she ends up slitting the baby’s throat, killing her. Fast forward about a decade, and Sethe is living a fairly settled and peaceful life, when she stumbles upon a beautiful young woman, who appears confused, homeless, and and halfway drowned. This is Beloved.
Beloved moves in with Sethe, and the other various characters in the story start noting how similar she is to Sethe’s dead daughter: she’s the same age that the dead daughter would have been had she lived; she has a scar across her throat; her breath smells like milk; her temper is mercurial, like a child’s; even her name, Beloved, is what was written on the two-year-old’s gravestone.
Sethe begins to see it, basically losing everyone in her life in capitulating to the increasingly erratic whims of her spectral houseguest. Eventually Sethe’s other daughter, Denver, arrives with a posse to exorcise Beloved from the house. A fracas ensues (Sethe stabs a white man that Denver brought along — it’s complicated), and Beloved disappears in the process.
The book is about a lot of things, but primarily the effects of slavery on one’s mind — Sethe is trying to make a clean start, but coming up with a new personality as an adult, while keeping her past sealed away from memory, proves too difficult for her to manage. As a result, she’s literally haunted by her past...