Before I heard the news of the massacre at the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, I was reading two books I received as Christmas gifts that until that moment seemed to have no connection. The first, Ida B Wells: The Light of the Truth Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader includes writings by the legendary journalist that I had not read before including some of her early editorials. The other, Voltaire’s Candide, an example of French literature and culture’s tradition of satire.
When the news of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo broke I had just finished reading the introduction to chapter two in The Light of the Truth, which offers a synopsis of Wells’s writings in the Memphis Free Speech, the weekly newspaper she published in 1892. Described by contemporary scholars as “nothing short of incendiary,” her critique of lynching as a form of racial terrorism was laconic, utilizing a style of writing that was blunt and terse. Her editorials led to the destruction of her newspaper offices and very pointed death treats that prevented her from ever returning to the south.
We often don’t think of journalists as warriors on the front lines, but the attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo is a reminder that the freedom to think and speak must be guarded and protected…even sometimes with our lives. As part of a long tradition in France, satire as a literary device pokes fun at conventional traditions and institutions in an effort to provoke thought. Voltaire’s Candide, for instance is at its core a fable that argues for an enlightened attitude toward both religious and secular institutions. First published in Paris in 1759, the satire “addresses in the most direct and uncompromising was an issue that has remained as pertinent and as unresolved as it was in 1758: the origin and place of evil in the world, and how a world view based on reason can account for, if not neutralize, irrationality.” The Charlie Hebdo team used this technique with such skill that they became a target of those extremists and religious fanatics who reside outside the world of rational thought.
As millions marched in France in a show of solidarity for free speech and against terrorism and extremism, I continued to read both books, but with a new level of understanding. As a literary scholar and newspaper publisher, I’ve always understood the power of words and the power of the press. I’ve committed my life to the exploration and dissemination of ideas, and I have accepted that responsibility with a seriousness of purpose and an honor and respect for those who came before me like Ida B Wells, and my parents who published the VOICE in the 1990’s under threats and intimidation.
Fighting against the “Reign of Terror” of lynching that engulfed the southern states during her era, Wells delivered a speech to the National Press Association and explained “a fearlessly edited press is one of the crying necessities of the hour” and “that if persecuted and driven from one place, we must set up the printing press in another and continue the great work until the evils we suffer are removed…laboring to fill our columns with matter beneficial and calculated to stimulate thought.”
Like Ida B Wells, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier understood his position as editor of Charlie Hebdo, “it’s not about religious ideology – but about freedom, liberte,” he once said. And like Wells, the editors and cartoonists of the publication saw themselves as leaders of the fight for freedom of the press – a freedom that I too have committed to defend and with which I stand in solidarity each and every week. Je Suis Charlie.