Self-defense, Punishment and the Legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett

By Abayomi Azikiwe

Feb. 17, 2022

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times journalist and Howard University journalism professor, is the architect of the revised and expanded book version of “A New Origin Story: The 1619 Project, published in late 2021.

Hannah-Jones often discusses the influence of 19th and early 20th century journalist, women’s rights organizer, anti-lynching campaigner and public speaker, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), on her initial interests and pursuit of a career as a writer focused on themes related to racial justice in the United States.

Many of the issues which Wells-Barnett was engaged in during her lifetime remain as key elements of the repressive apparatus of state power. Therefore, two chapters in the latest iteration of the 1619 Project examine the questions of self-defense and punishment as they relate to the continuing plight of African Americans living under national oppression and institutional racism in the 21st century.

The notion of self-defense in most cases in the U.S. is far different when it relates to African Americans and whites. Within the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, the Second Amendment has historically, and remains, a code word for the right to bear arms against perceived threats, real or imagined.

Whites, by and large, have been given carte blanche authority to carry and utilize arms to inflict punishment upon African Americans. During the period of enslavement from the 17th to the 19th centuries in North America, laws within both the British colonies and the later U.S. territory, provided a rationale for the use of maximum force against enslaved and free Africans who were considered a threat to the racist social order.

Severe beatings, sexual assault and outright murder were all allowed when the interests of white landowners and slave masters were thought to be under attack. There are numerous historical examples of African resistance to bondage in North America being routinely met by mass executions of purported suspects absent  any semblance of due process….

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