When Michelle Duster was a little girl, she began scribbling down stories almost as soon as she learned to write. Whether it was on the yellow paper with blue lines or her diary with a little lock, writing became second nature to her.
As she grew older, the hobby turned into a serious interest—she realized there was power in writing and creating images.
“I became aware that creating images affects perceptions that can lead to policy. Information is contributing to decisions made,” Duster recalled.
Today, Duster is a prolific writer whose work is critically acclaimed. Her most recent book, Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells, was released in January and has received an enthusiastic response. The book follows the life and legacy of Ida B. Wells, who was born enslaved but eventually became a leading voice in civil rights during the turbulent period known as Post-Reconstruction. Many publications, including USA Today, Forbes, Marie Claire, and Reader’s Digest have called it a must-read, and Parade magazine said Duster has “created a vibrant portrait” of Wells.
While Duster has written about Ida B. Wells before, their connection extends beyond her writing—Duster is also Wells’ great-granddaughter. Her goal in writing Ida B. the Queen, however, was to share Ida’s incredible journey with others, especially young people.
“Her story is under-told,” Duster said, “and the reality of slavery and Reconstruction is important for people to know. Black Lives Matter didn’t come out of nowhere. I saw a pattern of backlash to Black progress that is important for people to understand.”
In her own words, Duster’s book about Wells creates a piece of work that humanizes the larger-than-life figure and makes it easier for people to relate to Wells and her struggle. She believes it is empowering to girls and women in particular, and, with illustrations that make it accessible, it’s a book that can appeal to all ages.
In addition to her own writing, Duster has served as a tutor in the Writing Center at Wilbur Wright College since 2016, where she helps others express themselves through the written word.
“No two days are the same,” said Duster, who added that she’s never had a job like it.
As a Black female tutor at the Writing Center, she believes her presence is important, especially for students of color. In fact, she has worked with a very diverse student population at Wright, including student immigrants who are looking to start new lives, older students who are changing careers, and even those whose lives were interrupted by incarceration. And while the students she works with have differing stories and viewpoints, they are all looking for an outlet to express themselves, whether through their writing assignments, resumes, or personal statements.
Duster is honored that the students at Wright feel comfortable sharing their experiences with her, with some coming back to her week after week with their writing assignments. It’s rewarding to her to see their progress and increased level of confidence. For those who aspire to write, Duster encourages them to persist. There is no overnight success, she says.
That advice comes from personal experience. Writing Ida B. the Queen was years in the making, according to Duster. Like her great-granddaughter, Wells was a writer who left behind an abundance of material. Therefore, Duster said she didn’t start from scratch but had been collecting information for years, as Wells had written an autobiography and kept a diary. To learn about the Post-Reconstruction period when Wells came of age, she conducted thorough research. Duster said it took time to process pages of text to condense it into a single sentence. She also learned about events, such as the riot in Houston in 1917, that Wells protested.
Beyond Ida B. the Queen, Duster has contributed to other groundbreaking pieces of work, including Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, which is described as a chronological account of four hundred years of Black America told in essays and poems by ninety of America’s leading Black writers. The New York Times bestseller, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, includes a contribution from Duster about the aftermath of the 1919 race riots. She sees it as “a unique way of telling our story.” Duster said that when first asked to contribute, she didn’t think about the impact the project would have and is honored to be in the company of others included in the anthology.
Further, Duster’s impact extends beyond the page. A few years ago, she was instrumental in having Congress Parkway renamed to Ida B. Wells Drive, an honorary street named Ida B. Wells Way, and a historical marker placed at 37th and King Drive. Like her great grandmother, Michelle Duster is making her mark on Chicago, as well as on the Wright students who call this city home.
To learn more, visit Duster’s website at https://mldwrites.com.