Thursday, September 29, 2016

O.o.O.C.: "The Red Record" by Ida B. Wells

Out of Orbit Critiques are reviews of books outside my usual genres. The Red Record is a nonfiction account of the many, many instances in which lynching was used instead of the justice system during the late 1800s.

This book is an important piece of history. It is also horrifying to those of us who had your "average" American school education- often, regarding African Americans, only slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King Jr. are covered. The rest is glossed over or omitted completely- the Oregon Trail and the like get more pages. The Red Record is one of those books that could easily be excerpted to prove that everything was not hunky dory after the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Plot (As Seen on Goodreads):
'A shocking and powerful account of lynching written by activist, journalist, and former slave Ida B. Wells
'In the postbellum American South, lynching was a frightfully common occurrence, perpetrated so frequently that most Southern politicians and leaders turned a blind eye to the practice. This vicious form of vigilante “justice” was in truth a thinly veiled racist justification for murderous violence. In 1892 alone, more than two hundred African Americans were lynched, with alleged offenses ranging from “attempted stock poisoning” to “insulting whites.”
'The Red Record tabulates these scenes of brutality in clear, objective statistics, allowing the horrifying facts to speak for themselves. Alongside the tally, author Ida B. Wells describes actual occurrences of lynching, and enumerates the standard rationalizations for these extrajudicial killings, her original intent for the pamphlet to shame and shock the apathetic public—and spark change.'

You can't help but be appalled when you learn some of the reasons (and non-reasons) African Americans were lynched. Among the top reasons I felt were most horrific: insulting whites, race prejudice, no offense (at all, other than being of African descent), proposing marriage to a white woman, giving information, introducing smallpox (because you can apparently keep yourself from being sick), conjuring, and writing a letter a white woman. Some of the accounts of the pre-lynching torture of African Americans absolutely turned my stomach. Worst of all, it was a sort of town-wide event- there are accounts of children being brought to witness the lynchings. Many of these lynchings were carried out prior to inquiries as to who actually committed the crime, and whether the crime had actually been committed in the first place. After several incidents of lynching prior to judgement in which the person had been found entirely innocent, town officials would say something like, "Someone had to pay for the crime."

Miss Wells also offers ideas for resolutions to prevent the lynchings from happening in the first place. She wanted this short book to reach as many eyes as possible for that reason, though I fear it didn't quite have as far-reaching an impact as she'd hoped.

Though this is mostly an account of lynchings in the U.S., it also features some of the disagreements between the leader of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Miss Wells and other African American leaders fighting for equal treatment under the law. It reads a bit like the modern day political double talk- Miss Wells rightly accuses the temperance union of distancing itself from African American-sympathetic politics to more Southern-sympathizing politics to schmooze their way to more votes, and the women in the temperance union act like they're innocent of it. It's interesting to note how politics and relations haven't changed all that much over one hundred years.

The Red Record is a grim account of the multiple historic failures of justice in the United States. The author sought to educate the public on the prevalence of these travesties, though the practice continued into the 20th century. This book resonated more with me due to the current struggles of African Americans that spawned the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is my honest hope that in another 100 years or so, people will read this book and not think of current affairs- and instead think of how odious people of color were treated- in the past.

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a difficult but gripping account of injustice.

Age Advisory: Ages 16+ for accounts of gruesome violence and inhumanity.

Page Count: 112 pages


  1. Sounds a bit like today with the shoot to kill for a POC committing misdemeanors, or in some cases no crimes at all. Hopefully the new DNA identification methods will stop the "case solved" arrests of innocent people. This shows how in some ways things haven't really changed at all. I just came from a blog that gave Twelve Years a Slave two stars because it was "dry reading in some places" although she found it "riveting" and it had an impact on her, and thgen explaining their two stars mean "it was okay". How can a book be riveting and impactful and be just "okay"? It made me angry because I have seen her say similar things about YA Fiction and give them four stars. She is a college student for goodness sake! I keep thinking about all of her followers who will see the two star rating and not even give the book a try. I left a comment saying that I felt books which have a large positive impact on society should be given some credit beyond their entertainment factor. :P

    1. This did remind me of all of that- I think that's why I felt the impact of it so keenly. If a book is riveting, to me, it earns upwards of 3 stars. I guess some people rate weird. To be honest, though, I've seen 1-2 star ratings on books from bloggers I like and I will still read the book if it interests me- I tend to read and like weird books. Any more it seems I don't even bother with a review for a "meh" or "okay" book, unless I specifically got it for review.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, La La!
      ~Litha Nelle


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