This is a preliminary interview done with a prolific author & great-granddaughter of Ms. Ida B. Wells. A great writer and journalist in her own right, Ms. Michelle Duster-Enjoy!
It’s no coincidence that Michelle Duster, the award -winning author, and great granddaughter of Ms. Ida B. Wells, channels the passion of this great civil rights activist and journalist of the 1800s into a determination to keep African-American women and their struggle for equality remembered and read. Recently, Ms. Duster gave the Bulletin an insight into what has become her mission as she “turns history into books.”
What led you to write about historic figures like your great -grandmother?
I came of age during the 1970s in a middle-class, two parent household. My Southside neighborhood was filled with people who worked every day and took care of their families and homes. We, as a people, have a wide variety of circumstances and lifestyles, but the images I saw on television and movies didn’t capture my experiences in any meaningful way. Attending a predominately white male college with people who had minimal interaction with people different than themselves helped me understand how the images they saw impacted their assumption about me.
I started my career as a copywriter in advertising because I wanted to make an impact on the images of African Americans. While working in advertising, I began studying film production and was drawn to documentary filmmaking. I wanted to be involved in telling our stories. I moved to New York City and worked on several historically-based documentary films. I also got involved with producing events and concerts that featured African American artists and scholars. I was interested in highlighting the achievements of African Americans.
Through it all, I worked on my own fiction writing because I didn’t see enough of my experience of being middle-class, educated, and professional reflected in books. I thought that trying to reflect my experience would be easier in fiction, but factually-based writing came more naturally to me. I experimented with personal essays and opinion pieces, yet still wasn’t sure how to best get my voice out into the world. When the Ida B. Wells housing community was demolished, it made me concerned that her name and legacy would slowly fade away. I felt a need to make sure that what she contributed to this country wouldn’t be forgotten. I wanted people to remember that she was a woman-not a name of buildings that no longer existed. When trying to figure out how to best help people learn and remember who she was, it occurred to me that since she was a writer, having her speak for herself would be the most impact. I decided to reproduce her writing.
Once I started to read her work in depth, it struck me how a lot of what she wrote about is still quite relevant today. Her story parallels that of our people as a whole. And my story represents a demographic that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. I am drawn to the idea of making sure the contributions of African American women in general are moved to the forefront of our nation’s consciousness. We have contributed so much to this country, yet we’ve received little attention. I want to do what I can to change that.
Do you feel a kinship with your great -grandmother’s legacy?
I admire the bravery that it took for my great-grandmother to face possible death in the name of telling the truth. So many people would have given into fear, but her convictions were stronger than her fear. I think this is incredible! In some ways I share some of her spirit because it’s very difficult for me to keep quiet when something strikes me as unfair or illogical. I feel that someone should say something rather than everyone just following along like lemmings off a cliff.
We know you’ve done a first in a series of writers seminars, Tell our readers more about your projects.
The writing projects that I’m working on include a series of books that will include Ida B. Wells’ writing as well as my own. The second book is scheduled to be released in spring 2010. I’m also working on a book of my own personal essays. Since I completed my first book, Ida In Her Own Words: The timeless writings of Ida B. Wells in 1893 (Benjamin Williams Publishing, 2008) I have met so many people who have expressed interest in telling the story of someone in their family. They’ve asked me advice on how to go about finding documents, or directions on where to start their story. I think everyone’s life is fascinating, and each person’s story is one that reflects society as a whole. So, if people have an interest in writing about something that have meaning to them, I’d love to be able to help give some direction and encouragement. Three other writers (Cynthea Liu, Jen Cullerton Johnson and Trina Sotira) and I have organized a writers seminar to help people who are interested in writing about their own, their family or someone else’s history and don’t know where to start. We hosted a free introductory seminar on Sat. Aug 15th at Barnes and Noble at 1441 W. Webster. The standing-room only crowd was enthusiastic and several people signed up on the spot for the intensive seminar which will be held on Sat. Oct.10 from 1-5pm at Columbia College at 618 S. Michigan, 9th floor.
For more information about the seminar, and to sign up please visit http://www.musewrite.com. The seminars have captured attention from several media outlets as well as schools. We anticipate having more opportunities to help both young students and adults learn how to express themselves and tell stories that are dear to their hearts.
I am also a part of the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee with a group of professionals who represent several different interests. We’re developing a substantial piece of artwork in Bronzeville that will honor the life and work of Ida B. Wells. In addition, I’m involved with the future Chicago-based National Public Housing Museum where the experiences of those who lived in public housing will be captured in as truthful and authentic way as possible. One of my dreams is to see the birthplace of Ida B. Wells-Holly Springs, Ms- become a popular Black Heritage tour destination. The Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum has organized an annual birthday celebration for the past several years and I have worked closely with the director to make the weekend successful. I am building alliances with the political, civic, education and religious leaders of the town to help expand the celebration (held around July 16).
As a way to help future leaders, our family -run, Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation instituted a scholarship for three students who attend Ida’s alma mater, Rust College in Holly Springs, Ms. I have been extremely involved in making the scholarships possible. We awarded the first scholarship in July.
On a scale of 1-10 where would you place the racism-radar of today and the significance of electing a Black president?
During my great-grandmother’s time in the late 1800s our homes and communities were burned down by nightriders and people were dismembered and strung up from trees with no repercussions. Everything was segregated and blatantly unequal from birth until after death, including separate cemeteries. In my opinion, comparatively speaking, what we’re dealing with today is pretty subtle, yet still insidious. It’s so covert that sometimes there are implications that we’re imagining the slights we experience, or we’re accused of being “too sensitive.” We experience things like having cops stop us for “allegedly” not having a tail light not working properly, being followed in stores by salesclerks, having co-workers not invite us to meetings or for drinks after work, or not getting the same level of support from a manager that co-workers receive. Complaints about different treatment can be dismissed with “it’s not about race- maybe you and that person just don’t get along.” But you see the same exclusion happening in most departments in most companies.
I think on a scale of 1-10, compared to the absolute terrorism that was going on in the 1800s, today’s racism-radar would be around a 3, even in my own lifetime I have experienced a decrease in the level of hostility, tension, and suspicion. I think Barack Obama’s election can in some ways impact people’s assumptions about African Americans. Diehard racists might insist on hating us, but they might not automatically think that every African American they see fits only one stereotype. I think we’re getting to the point where it’s not inconceivable to some folks that African Americans are intelligent and can actually be in charge. I feel that the resistance level to accepting an African American in an authority position is lessening…
What would Ida B. Wells think of her great- granddaughter, Michelle Duster – carrying on the struggle?
I’ve been surprised at how enthusiastic people have been considering some of the ideas I’ve proposed. Ida B. Wells garners a huge amount of respect from many circles. I think now that so much time has passed since her death in 1931, people have had time to really realize what she did. She-a single woman, who was born a slave-took on the system of an entire nation. That’s mind boggling. But I guess a spirit within her was greater than the negative forces outside of her. I can only guess that my great-grandmother would be proud that I, like her, refuse to let anyone tell me what I can’t do and have pushed the envelope in many situations…