Proud Boots: A One Act Play about Ida B. Wells, Black Journalist and Freedom Fighter, by Edgar Nkosi White

Trouble maker you called me. Trouble maker! Why, because I refused to just sit there and pretend I don’t see anything. History is an illness which I’m trying to recover from, but how can you recover when you’re being attacked daily by a sick society. A plague ridden sick society which refuses to see itself.

Proud Boots: A One Act Play about Ida B. Wells, Black Journalist and Freedom Fighter, by Edgar Nkosi White

Ida B. Wells Black journalist and freedom fighter

PROUD BOOTS
(Ida B. Wells)
By Edgar Nkosi White



(For Dana Manno)

Characters:

IDA B. WELLS:          Black journalist and freedom fighter
FRANCES WILLARD:      White Suffragist and Temperance leader


(As scene opens a Black woman enters stage excited. She is dressed in the white high collared blouse and black skirt of the period (1900s), She drops the black satchel she is carrying on floor and sits. She is in her 30’s. Seated opposite is an older white woman who tries to hide herself behind a Bible she is reading as the other appears. The setting is a railway car)

IDA
Miss Willard!

WILLARD
Why…yes. I don’t believe I know…

IDA
Oh yes you do. Ida. Ida B. Wells. Trouble maker you called me. Trouble maker! Why, because I refused to just sit there and pretend I don’t see anything. History is an illness which I’m trying to recover from, but how can you recover when you’re being attacked daily by a sick society. A plague ridden sick society which refuses to see itself.

WILLARD
I have no intention of quarrelling with you Miss Wells, you obviously have some grievance which I know nothing about.

IDA
When a man is lynched from a tree, his eyes bulge and his legs twitch in spasm. Now, do you just sit there and watch? Pretend nothing’s happened? What killed him, mortality or lynching? And if you watch doesn’t that make you an accomplice too?

WILLARD
I can assure you I’ve never witnessed a lynching much less participated in one (Rises to go)

IDA
You may not have but you certainly did as much as possible to sweep it under the rug and I want to know why. (Blocking her escape)

WILLARD
Why what? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Why do you insist on making a scene?

IDA
No matter what you do life comes after you. It came for me when I was sixteen. All I wanted to do was go to school. Live quietly and study. Maybe have a boyfriend, but yellow fever came through the door, or maybe the window. Took my mother and then my father and that was the end of quiet.

WILLARD
I’m sorry to hear that but really I…

IDA
No, sit on down, you write about me but you don’t know a thing. Find out something about this “trouble maker” Ida B. Wells who you advice your followers to pay no attention to.

WILLARD
Do be reasonable.

IDA
I am being reasonable. Relax, what am I going to do, attack you? You’re supposed to care so much about women and women’s rights. Don’t you?

WILLARD
I do care about women’s rights. I’ve defended women’s rights all my life.

IDA
Some women.

WILLARD
(Sits) Not true, I fought heavily for Emancipation. Obviously you’ve benefited. You did get an education, didn’t you?

IDA
I had to pretend I was eighteen and became a school teacher. I had to be my own father and mother otherwise they would have put us in an orphanage. I didn’t want them to take my little brother and sisters.

WILLARD
And so, obviously you’ve done well as a schoolteacher. Be grateful, I myself taught school.

 IDA
Thirty dollars a month they paid me, in Memphis, and then I found that the white teachers were getting eighty. But I shut my mouth because at least I was working. Then one day I bought a first class ticket so that I’d have peace and quiet to work on the lesson assignment. I’m sitting in the railway car and the conductor he comes and tells me I have to move. I show him I have a first class ticket. He says: “Ain’t your ticket that’s a problem, it’s your colour and you can’t change that no time soon”.

WILLARD
Oh dear!

IDA
I said, I’m not moving

WILLARD
I’m not familiar with…

IDA
Oh yes you are, he called two other conductors and they carried me out the car. He said if it was up to him they would have thrown my black ass on the railroad tracks.

WILLARD
My God!

IDA
I suppose he had something to do with it because I’m still alive.

WILLARD
You do have an unfortunate habit of confrontation. You knew that you were dealing with the South. It was a very rash decision on your part.

IDA
I took them to court.

WILLARD
You did?

IDA
Yes I did. And what’s more I won the decision. $500 dollars!

WILLARD
Really, that’s quite something!

IDA
Of course the Supreme Court overturned the decision in the end and made certain I never received a dime in compensation. The railroad said I had acted as an agent provocateur. That I never intended to ride as a passenger.

WILLARD
Was it a publicity stunt, a protest?

IDA
No, I was just tired and on my way to work. But as a result of everything I was banned from teaching in Memphis. That’s what started me in journalism.

WILLARD
I see.

IDA
What do you see?

WILLARD
I don’t know, I might have done the same if I were you.

IDA
But you’re mot me, you’re you; a white woman who can sit any damn where she pleases and not have to think about it.

WILLARD
What would you like me to say, that the world is unfair. That America especially is unfair? We already know this.

IDA
The only time in my life that I’ve felt really free is when I started writing. Even when they came after me.

WILLARD
Well, be glad that you found your life’s work.

IDA
It’s not like gardening.

WILLARD
Please, don’t insult me. I’m very aware of sacrifice. I’ve been on the battle field for over twenty years.

IDA
With the Temperance movement?

WILLARD
And the Suffragist.

IDA
Have you ever seen anyone killed for protesting?

WILLARD
No, I can’t honestly say I have.

IDA
Well I did, and when I wrote about it they’ve burned my newspaper office to the ground. Then they made it clear: continue writing about the KU KLUX KLAN and they ‘d burn me too.

WILLARD
I’m very sorry to hear that but I would advise you to consider very carefully what you’re doing.

IDA
Have you considered very carefully what they’re doing?

WILLARD
I don’t agree with everything they do or how they go about their business.

IDA
Their business! You mean lynching and setting people on fire?

WILLARD
Of course not. I mean defending women from rape.

IDA
There not defending women from any rape. They’re using that as an excuse to terrorize anyone who they see as a threat to business or politics, even if it’s a black child who walks on a sidewalk when a white says they should be walking in the gutter. That’s what they’re defending.

WILLARD
The issue is alcohol and loss of self -control. Your men are their own worst enemy.

IDA
No, the Klan is their worst enemy.

WILLARD
Your men breed like locust and that together with the alcohol is the cause of rape.

IDA
If there’s any raping going on it’s mostly white men raping black women. In the cases of white women being involved with black men, it’s mainly consensual.

WILLARD
I find it impossible to believe that any white woman would willingly sleep with a black man?

IDA
Oh really? Well Miss Willard you better start to believe it because it happens on a regular basis. Now as to the lynching, I can assure you that law enforcement officers stand by and do absolutely nothing. I’ve got the documentation to prove it. Eyewitness accounts and signed affidavits. Case after case. I’ve got photographs.

WILLARD
Still it’s better than the days of slavery.

IDA
I beg you pardon! Slaves would cost too much to kill. All you did was put away the chains and bring out the rope. That’s all, and you feel so good about it. So proud in your boots.

WILLARD
That’s not true, I don’t feel good about it.

IDA
But you won’t do anything to stop it.

WILLARD
What would you have me do?

IDA
Stop pretending you don’t know. Stop trying to block me.

WILLARD
If I speak out, I’ll lose the South. I have a strong following there both white and black.

IDA
So you’d rather go on living with the lie that lynching isn’t happening?

WILLARD
It’s a matter of the greater good.

IDA
It’s a matter of lying. Don’t try to wrap it up in a pretty box. You know just what you’re doing.

WILLARD
I’ll tell you what, I could perhaps release a statement the next time I’m speaking in England
regarding the issue.

IDA
What issue?

WILLARD
Well… the issue of mistaken lynching.

IDA
You don’t get it do you? Lynching is wrong, period! They can always justify it with a lie. Look, I had a friend in Memphis who just because he tried to stop them from robbing and burning his store down one night, they lynched him. Wasn’t no mistake. They knew just what they were doing. They were jealous of him and they wanted to send a message.“ Niggers, don’t you dare do better than us!”

WILLARD
(Clutching her chest) I couldn’t possibly say anything like that.

IDA
Well I could, so why don’t you book me for one of your debates with you?

WILLARD
You mean in England?

IDA
Yes, why not. I’ll go there and do it. America doesn’t care what people think at home but they definitely are worried how they’re thought of abroad. Just like with Emancipation. It’s the foreign press that made the difference.

WILLARD
I just might do that. When could you be available?

IDA
Today!

WILLARD
My, you certainly don’t waste any time, do you!

IDA
We’re already two hundred years late now. Talk about wasting time. I wish I could take my whole race in my arms, but I can’t. So when I get a chance to be heard I take it.

WILLARD
Do you have children?

IDA
Yes, and a husband too.

WILLARD
You’re very lucky. I could never find one who didn’t feel the need to run once they find that you have a mind, especially one of your own. I don’t like being led.

IDA
No one can lead you where you won’t go. They can drag you but they can’t lead.

WILLARD
I like that. But you know what I find? There’s a fear. A great fear of women. Though they disguise it, or try to mask it as something else. Portray us as a weak and defenceless and yet do everything in their power to stop us from any means of control. Take the issue of the vote. In the end all they care about is keeping the lie.

IDA
The country is built on a lie. What interest me though is that you can see one half but not the other,

WILLARD
What do you mean?

IDA
You see how women are stopped to keep the power in the hands of men, yet you don’t see that white men are determined to make certain that the same thing continues with blacks. Just as long as you keep believing that you’re dealing with an animal or a child you don’t have to take them seriously

WILLARD
I see that there certain similarities.

IDA
Yet you look the other way when it’s not merely women involved.

WILLARD
Not always

IDA
How about the number of men who end up in chain gangs without ever going to trial just because the state needs some roads built for free?

WILLARD
I wasn’t aware that was happening.

IDA
Or the number of sterilizations that are taking place

WILLARD
That’s a whole other matter.

IDA
Why, because they’re too poor to matter?

WILLARD
What can they do beside bring further generations of poverty and want?

IDA
So just exterminate them from the earth?

WILLARD
You can’t help everyone, Miss Wells

IDA
So you just help yourself to their lives.

WILLARD
I don’t follow you.

IDA
You consider it sanitation.

WILLARD
I consider it mercy.

IDA

No doubt you feel the same about lynching.

WILLARD
I think …I get off here, (Standing and offers gloved hand) I’ll be in touch.

IDA
Will you know how?

WILLARD
Oh yes, through your newspaper. I do follow you, you know.

IDA
Out of curiosity?

WILLARD
Now and again I like to stay at least in acquaintance with reality. (Turns to go) You know, there was one man who I did love.

IDA
And?

WILLARD
My friends wouldn’t accept him. And I, couldn’t believe.

IDA
Pity

WILLARD
Perhaps. (She exits)

IDA
(After a pause) That is one lonely woman.
DARKNESS