“Doing whatever it takes to tell our own story from our own perspective does our community a service,” said Michelle Duster, author, speaker, professor and champion of racial and gender equity.
Her words align with the mission of the St. Louis American and so many other outlets, reporters and citizen journalists.
“When black people tell our own stories, we counter the stereotypes and the false information that tends to be the dominant common theme in the mainstream media,” Duster said.
She learned this lesson from her paternal great-grandmother, pioneering investigative journalist, newspaper publisher and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
She will share her perspective and context from her great-grandmother’s life and legacy during her talk, A Conversation with Michelle Duster: Ida B. Wells and Today’s Street Journalism at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 4.
The presentation is the latest in the Missouri Historical Society’s series How Did We Get Here? Conversations about Race, Anti-Blackness, and Identity. The series is part of the organization’s African American History Initiative (AAHI).
Nearly 30 years before women had the right to vote and 30 years after African Americans lived in bondage and were declared as property, Ida B. Wells was using skills she developed as a journalist and researcher as a tool to declare the humanity of those so inhumanely terrorized through lynching.
“I don’t think she made a plan for her life to become a Civil Rights activist and anti-lynching crusader or a speaker who traveled internationally,” Duster said. “I don’t think she ever could have planned that. I think what happened is that one thing led to another and it was sparked by her friends. It was a personal thing with her friends when they were lynched that propelled her to speak out in a way that was very bold. It was because it was personal – and she knew for a fact that they were innocent.”
In the late 19th century, speaking out publicly against lynching could easily make one susceptible to becoming the next victim. But Wells put her livelihood and life on the line.
“Today in 2020, she is being lauded and awarded and people are celebrating her in all kinds of ways and appreciating all that she did,” Duster said. “But during her lifetime, she was on the receiving end of a lot of criticism and was ostracized. If you read her writings at that time, she made it clear that she felt frustrated and lonely.”
Earlier this year Wells was given a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her investigative journalism. When she was writing the stories that ultimately earned her what is considered by many to be journalism’s top prize, she had her printing press destroyed and endured constant threats on her life.
“In her day, there weren’t other people working in tandem with her or backing her up,” Duster said. “When I think about her life, I think, wow, not only was she brave to do what she did, but she was willing to do it by herself. And in being willing to take that road alone, It’s not easy – and she made it clear that it wasn’t easy for her.”
Duster has made a name for herself as an author, working at a relentless pace to ensure proper representation within the African American community and among women. In the last dozen years, she has written, edited, or contributed to eleven books. She co-wrote the popular children’s history book, Tate and His Historic Dream; co-edited Shifts and Michelle Obama’s Impact on African American Women and Girls. She also edited two books that include the writings of great-grandmother.
“People say ‘Oh, your great grandmother was courageous or brave,’” Duster said. “The word that they often use is ‘fearless’,” Duster said. “Based on what I read and what I understand, I don’t think she was fearless. I think that she had fear but she was willing to push it aside and do what she felt like she had to do.”
She sees her great-grandmother’s influences, particularly in the viral footage of George Floyd’s fatal arrest in Minneapolis.
“Imagine if Darnella had not captured video of George Floyd’s death,” Duster said. “Then the story would have been that he was resisting arrest – much different than what we actually saw. We have those examples of the reality being captured by street journalists or passers-by that is different that the mainstream tends to tell about us.”
But beyond capturing the moment – Which Wells took to the next level by researching and investigating other cases to establish a pattern of lynching – the biggest lesson Duster hopes people who learn about Wells’ life take away is the power of ownership.
Wells was the editor and the co-owner of the “Memphis Free Speech,” so she didn’t have to go through editorial boards and editors and managers in order to get things greenlighted or approved.
“She was the one who made the decisions and that is super important,” Duster said. “And when it comes to being a woman, that was extremely unusual. I think for people to understand the level of power she gave herself – especially at that time – makes her story even more impressive.”
Duster was personally empowered by Wells being bold enough and confident enough in herself to believe that she could do what she did at the time that she did it.
“Even by today’s standards some people might not feel ready or they might not feel qualified. She was like, ‘I can do this’,” Duster said. “I want to help people understand that there is power in ownership. There’s nothing like having control over your own story.”
A Conversation with Michelle Duster: Ida B. Wells and Today’s Street Journalism will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 4. For more information visit www.mohistory.org.