One of the most damaging lies against the black man is the suggestion that he is a monster, capable of immoral acts against women, particularly white women. From emancipation in 1865 until today, there has been a targeted attack against the reputation of black men. This attack has infiltrated the media and the consciousness of America to such an extent that white women throughout the nation may still feel fear when coming into contact with a black man, especially when she is alone. White women have been told by their mothers and their grandmothers that a black man is not to be trusted because he is capable of unspeakable horrors against her virtue and womanhood. This lie is one that Ida B. Wells-Barnett addresses in her book A Red Record.
In A Red Record, Wells-Barnett asserts that since Emancipation there has been a direct attack on the reputation of black men which has led to widespread lynching throughout the South. She begins by explaining that white slave owners would not have killed their slaves or looked aside if their slaves were killed by someone else because this would cause “a loss of several hundred dollars” (670). She continues by arguing that after emancipation the white man “had no right to scourge the emancipated Negro” (670) and so the white man has devised the lie that black men are not to be trusted in the eyes of all civilized society. She explains that there “have been three distinct eras of Southern barbarism” with three unique excuses for the mistreatment of blacks after Emancipation. First, it was believed that former slaves were planning race riots throughout the South, and so in order to keep order, white men were justified in slaughtering black people (671). The second excuse was due to the fear that black men may actually gain a political voice after they were given the right to vote when the 15th Amendment was enacted in 1870. White Southerners, primarily “the Ku Klux Klan, the Regulators, and the lawless mobs” (671) terrified blacks from voting through countless massacres. Finally, Wells-Barnett addresses the third excuse for the mistreatment of blacks after Emancipation which is the lie that black men are assaulting white women.
As a way to address this lie, Wells-Barnett presents the true story of the way in which black men have interacted with white women throughout their history up to the time of her publication of A Red Record. She explains first that it has been assumed that “a voluntary alliance” (673) between a white woman and a black man is impossible; therefore, “an alliance is proof of force” (673). She further explains that in some cases where a black man was lynched for raping a white woman that it was “known at the time of lynching…and proven after the victim’s death that the relationship…was voluntary and clandestine” (673). Unfortunately, Wells-Barnett points out, these indisputable facts did not matter in the eyes of the law, and there was no justice for white men killing black men unjustly. Next, Wells-Barnett revises the view of black men by reminding her readers that former slaves often protected their master’s wives and daughters at times when their masters were not present to do so themselves. She asserts, “While the master was fighting to forge the fetters upon the slave, he left his wife and children with no protection save the Negroes themselves” (673). She provides this information to show that at one point in history, white men trusted that their wives and daughters would be safe in the care of their black slaves.
Wells-Barnett is fair in her presentation of the facts that show that the black man has been misrepresented at the time of Reconstruction. She presents information that shows that there have been more black men killed unjustly than white men who have been “tried, convicted, and executed” for unjustly killing black men (671). She also concedes to the fact that not all of the people who have been “hanged, shot and burned alive…were innocent of the charges made against them” (676). She does not suggest that black people should not be held accountable for the crimes they commit, but rather that the punishment should be the same for all classes of citizens (676). Despite Wells-Barnett’s fair assessment of the facts, it is clear that she is biased in her point of view due to the fact that she is a member of the aggrieved class and had been personally threatened because of her published views of the injustices against black people. However, despite this bias, she presents a message that is both relevant and accurate. She addresses her audience with respect but also highlights their responsibility in the matter – that they need to disseminate the information she has published, that they need to condemn any organization that supports or ignores lynching, and that they need protect the voting rights of all citizens. Her remedy is appropriate and manageable for her audience to accomplish and does not put undue weight on any one class of people but suggests a respect for the law as well as a responsibility for those who are condoning lynchings by staying silent about any injustice against “all victims” who are being put “to death without form of law” (675). In this regard, Wells-Barnett presents a logical and well-supported argument and provides a remedy for the problem in American society post-Emancipation.
It is clear that society’s current prejudices are rooted in history. Feelings of fear and anxiety toward black men is not something that historically has been isolated to the South. These feelings of mistrust spread across the nation and have infiltrated the consciousness of many since Emancipation. Wells-Barnett’s expose´ of lynchings presents the history of why some white women today do not trust black men and why this prejudice needs to be stopped today. Little girls do not conjure up feelings of anxiety or fear toward anyone unless they have been told that they are not to trust people of certain backgrounds. Prejudice is taught and is usually passed down from one generation to the next, and based on A Red Record by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, prejudice toward black men is rooted in history that goes back as far as the late 19th century.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. “A Red Record.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature Volume 1, Third Edition, Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith. Norton, 2014, pp. 670-679.
If you are interested in reading A Red Record, you can find a free copy at the link below from Project Gutenberg.