Revolutionary Writers Profile: Ida B. Wells

As we approach this Black History Month on the heels of Tyre Nichols’s state-sanctioned murder, Ida B. Wells’s story grows more timely by the day

Even in death, white America still treated Ida B. Wells like a second-class citizen.

As heroic a muckraker as ever there was one, it wasn’t until 2020 that Wells was honored with a Pulitzer Prize special citation, 89 years after she passed away in 1931.

But then again, Joseph Pulitzer was no less sensationalistic a “yellow journalist” than his rival, William Randolph Hearst.

If anything, Wells was above the prize given in his name.

And I write that without hyperbole. Even a prize committee as fundamentally flawed as the Pulitzers can recognize Wells for her “outstanding” and “courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”

It is especially courageous, considering that Wells was born into enslavement in Confederate Mississippi. She had to pioneer both the civil rights movement and first-wave feminism in order to forge her distinguished career in American reportage throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On this platform she built, she was able to co-found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her life story testifies to the power of the art and science of journalism to effect positive change.

And so we will begin there.


Wells was born in Holly Springs on July 16, 1862, the oldest daughter of James and Lizzie Wells. Six months after her birth, the Union’s Emancipation Proclamation would declare her family free, along with all other enslaved bodies in the Confederate South during the American Civil War.

The Wells family continued to live in Mississippi as Reconstruction broke ground for Jim Crow, and so they faced racism well after emancipation.

Ida’s parents were active members of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party (not to be confused with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party). James Wells, who was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society, helped start Shaw University for the formerly enslaved, known today as “Rust College.” James even went so far as to serve on their first board of trustees.

It was there that Ida received her early schooling.

Then, at age sixteen, tragedy struck her family.

A yellow fever outbreak killed both of Ida’s parents and one of her siblings, forcing her to drop out so she could care for her other siblings. She convinced a local school administrator that she was eighteen and supported her family as a teacher.

Then in 1882, Wells and her sisters moved in with an aunt in Memphis. Her brother had gone on to apprentice for carpenters while Wells went back to school at Fisk University in Nashville.

Once she started writing, it was about race and politics in the failed slave states.


Wells published her articles under the moniker “Iola” in Black newspapers and magazines. She would eventually co-own the Memphis Free Speech and Highlight.

In May 1884, Wells’s activism took root.

She bought a first-class train ticket, only for the crew to forcibly remove her when she refused to move to a segregated coach. She won $500 in a lawsuit with the railroad, but the Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the circuit court’s ruling.

This injustice motivated Wells to write as protest.

In addition to her journalism and publishing, Wells also taught at a segregated public school in Memphis. She was fired in 1891 for criticizing the condition of Black-only schools in the city.

Meanwhile, in 1892, her friend, Tom Moss – along with two of his business associates, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart – had shot white vandals during an attack on their grocery store. Before they could stand trial, a white mob had taken them from their jail cells and murdered them.

In response, Wells kicked off an anti-lynching campaign that same year.

She risked her own life to travel throughout the South, gathering information on other lynchings. After she ran one of these editorials, a white mob destroyed the equipment in her Memphis office. She was in New York at the time, but she was warned that if she ever returned to Memphis, it would mean her life.

It was in the North where Wells wrote an in-depth story on lynching for the New York Age under the editorship of T. Thomas Fortune, another former enslaved person.

In 1893, Wells published an examination of lynchings in America titled A Red Record. That same year, she lectured abroad to reformist whites, hoping to draw their attention to her cause.

When Black American exhibitors were banned from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Wells pamphleted against this decision with funding and support from none other than Frederick Douglass, as well as lawyer and editor Ferdinand Barnett.

Wells and Barnett would marry in 1895, and Wells would become known as “Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” The couple had four children together.

In 1896, Wells-Barnett established the National Association for Colored Women. In 1898, she would lead a protest in Washington, D.C., where she urged President William McKinley to make reforms. As mentioned earlier, she was a founding member of the NAACP, alongside the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Archibald Grimke, Mary Church Terrell, Mary White Ovington, and Henry Moskowitz, among others.

Wells-Barnett would later cut ties with the NAACP after 1908, believing they lacked action-based initiatives.

Working on behalf of the National Equal Rights League, Wells-Barnett demanded that President Woodrow Wilson end discriminatory hiring practices against women, especially women of color. She also created the first kindergarten for Black children in her community, and in 1930, she made an unsuccessful bid for Illinois state senate.

She died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, in Chicago.


What reformist writers can learn from Ida B. Wells is that her brand of progressive nonfiction is as needed now as it was in her lifetime. The police have replaced the lynch mobs (not that the boundary between the two has ever been anything but “porous,” at best). Expositional journalism works because, through the carnal viscerally of its language, it renders the truth into something as classical as fiction. Within that classicality, a revolutionary’s work will arouse readers to replicate that same aesthetic into our shared world.

That in mind, what wrong can you make right with your words?

A Personal Update, Part II

Three years ago, I paused this blog site so I could concentrate on grad school, and since then, I’ve rebranded more times than I would care to admit. Now, I hope I know what I’m meant to write.

Content Warning: Criminal violence, substance misuse, mental illness

Friday night, February 4, 2022, I went out drinking in downtown Denver. According to the last iMessage I sent, I blacked out sometime around midnight.

What happened afterward felt as unreal as a bad dream.

It wasn’t until sunrise that I came to, wandering a homeless encampment in subzero temperatures. My black tennis shoes had gone white because my feet were submerged in the salt the city used to melt the snow and the ice. My elbow was scraped beneath the black lines on my gray sweatshirt. My mouth felt as though someone had busted it in. My phone was gone. My debit card was cracked in half, perhaps from getting shoved into an ATM.

It was only then that I realized my nightmares had come true during the night.

I had been date-raped, drugged, and left for dead in the gutter.


As is to be expected, that night changed the course of my life. I would never be the same again because of it.

And I no longer knew what to write, because critical film theory proved too fleeting a diversion to deliver order and catharsis unto my senseless and shattered new reality.

But now, as I approach the one-year anniversary of my attack, I’m medicated on two different antipsychotics, I’m enrolled in a dialectical behavior therapy group, and I’m learning what to write again. I’m figuring out how to reconcile my passion with my ambition, and my ambition with my mastery. I’m teaching myself to exercise patience toward the trial and error of it all.

Indeed, I’ve reinvented this blog from a movie website, to a personal printing press for my creative nonfiction, to a think tank on digital marketing, to a monograph about Lady Gaga, among other failed endeavors. I’ve come to discover that “blogging” and “creative writing” are mutually exclusive, that it’s nigh impossible to forge a career out of blogging alone, and that it’s true what they say: writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

In the meantime, I distracted myself with fiction I would never finish because I was simply unqualified to write it (before DU, I was a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Film Theory from Colorado State University Fort Collins). That’s when I started questioning whether I was even born to write anything at all, because I was as inexperienced a novelist as I was traumatized a personal essayist or memoirist, too petrified to manifest my worst memories onto the page. For months, I reconfigured this organic e-portfolio into a static author website and all but abandoned the idea of publicly promoting the books I had once dreamed of publishing.

But even though my self-esteem is still a work-in-progress, I’ve always valued people. Because I’m gay, gender-queer, and disabled, I belong to communities greater than myself. If not for my own sake, then for the sake of of others, am I committed to dismantling the institutions which oppress us the best way I know how: with my talent.

No, not only is it so much more self-destruction to waste my time on fiction no one will ever read, but it’s also irresponsible. Literary artists can’t afford to ignore or otherwise escape the truth anymore, not when weaponized misinformation is installing dictatorships across the globe. My classical training as a storyteller is part of a higher calling and tradition to aestheticize the world into something beautiful, or to form a more perfect Union with our words.

To be sure, DU instructs its students as to how only the most sublime, galvanizing, and cathartic letters can simulate transcendence. One need look no farther than the Progressive Era in United States history to see that journalists were the ones who broke up monopolies and tore down political machines.

And so, for that reason, I find it ethically and ideologically incumbent upon me to contribute whatever I can to that illustrious canon of narrative journalism, however ugly it may get, even if it’s as ugly as this post. To the end of building a platform for my reformism, I will dedicate my brand to the monthly study of various “revolutionary” authors throughout global history.

I have no way of knowing if I will end up drafting yet another variation of this same announcement in my future.

Either way, it would be selfish not to try, at least, to muckrake my way through today’s dying planet, beginning with the systemic failures that preyed upon me one year ago this February.


Since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, white hipsters poured into Denver from across the country. With their trust funds and their predilections for craft beer, they opened microbreweries and gentrified historically Black, brown, and working-class neighborhoods. These communities were then forced to pitch tents on street corners because they couldn’t pay the rent to their own homes anymore – tents I never saw before, growing up in South Metro Denver.

And the COVID-19 pandemic only served to exacerbate this humanitarian crisis.

Many of our unhoused neighbors turn to amphetamines, stimulants, and opioids to cope with the mental illnesses which no doubt arise from these inhumane conditions. Truly, my assailants smoked their foils and crack pipes out in the open as I searched for my phone and my car.

And having grown up with a substance use-disordered psychopath of a mother, I can attest firsthand to how hard drugs beget violence.

That’s most likely why not one person helped me in that part of town – surely, they witness just as bad, if not worse, all the time.

Make no mistake, though, none of this is to excuse their behavior toward me. It was the worst night of my life. I still have nightmares where I’ve lost control of my own body. I still have flashbacks that ruin whatever good moods I’m able to savage in the wake of this tragedy. What they did to me was monstrous.

But monsters are made, not born. And what are monsters if not wounded human beings, backed into corners? Don’t I know what that’s like? Wouldn’t I rather knock down those walls than put up more?

I won’t pretend it’s for any noble purpose that I drove home the next morning like it never happened, rather than report it to the police. I was so drugged out at the time, I had deluded myself into believing I could keep it a secret, even from myself. Whatever my drink was spiked with had broken my short-term memory in much the same way as poverty has broken our world, and, so, I elected to live in denial about it.

But I couldn’t hide the tears forever.

First, I had to explain to my friends, my family, and my coworkers what happened to my phone. Next, I had to tell my boss why I couldn’t make it into work, because the exposure left me so that it hurt my ears to swallow. Then, I had to fill in m therapist with where the intrusive thoughts came from of strangers screaming in my face.

She didn’t charge me for the hour that day.

Naturally, my loved ones wondered why I didn’t report it. At first, I told them I had declined to contact the authorities because I didn’t trust law enforcement (which is true, in part because of all the run-ins my parents had with the law). In actual fact, though, I was shying away from the thought of reliving the experience. Yes, I’m aware I’m reliving it as I write this, but, here, I’m not expected to describe faces I would rather forget, or come up with a number for how many of them there were when, in truth, I had lost count. Date-rape cases are notoriously difficult to prove, and I didn’t want to subject myself to the court system just for it to fail me again.

Which is worse: the evil individual whose life is punishment enough, or the evil establishment that created him in the first place? Do we blame the Monster, or do we blame Doctor Frankenstein?

Part of me has to live with the guilt of knowing the same might happen again to someone else because I kept silent. Maybe that’s why it would be such an honor to spend the rest of my life advocating for a future where nobody is driven to lash out at those around them. It’s not just a way to assuage my shame, as if to remind myself I’m no more responsible for their decision to hurt others than I was responsible for their decision to hurt me, but it’s also a way to salt the earth where corruption grows before it can come back to haunt us again.

My name is Hunter Ryan Goddard, and I am not a victim, nor am I a survivor. I’m a fighter. My pen is mightier than any sword.

And I promise you, nothing will ever silence my voice again.