The 12th Annual Ida B. Wells Conference took place from April 5 to 6, focusing on promoting discussion of philosophical issues arising from the African-American experience and to provide an environment in which to mentor undergraduates and graduate students.
The conference was hosted on the University of Memphis campus in the University Center Beale Room. This year’s theme was celebrating the intellectual legacy of Ida B. Wells. During the conference, students gave presentations and shared opinions, suggestions and thoughts in panel discussions.
The keynote speaker on April 5 was Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a women’s studies professor at Spelman College. On April 6, the keynote speaker was Kathryn Sophia Belle, a philosophy professor at Penn State University and the founding director of the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers. Lindsey Stewart, the director of the conference, gave insight on why she and planning committee choose this year’s speakers.
“In keeping with this year’s theme of black feminist legacies, the Ida B. Wells Association chose to invite Kathryn Sophia Belle and Beverly Guy-Sheftall,” Stewart said. “Belle was a founding member of the Ida B. Wells Association and an alum of the philosophy department here at the University of Memphis. She was mentored by Guy-Sheftall at Spelman College. By bringing them both here this year, we honored the incredible legacy of black students, many of whom graduated from Spelman, who pursued and acquired PhDs in philosophy at the University of Memphis.”
During the first day, conference participants had the opportunity to discuss the topic of issues in black feminism with a panel of undergraduate students. The panel consisted of Jamila Miller and Nyla Bush from the University of Memphis, Mya T. Donald from Christian Brothers University and Adeline Gutierrez Nunez from College of the Holy Cross. After the discussion, there were breakout sessions.
Following the breakout session, Guy-Sheftall gave her lecture. In her leadership role as the director of Spelman’s women’s center, she has been involved with the development of student activism around misogynist images of black women in hip-hop as well as a broad range of social justice issues including reproductive rights and violence against women. Guy-Sheftall’s lecture also covered the legacy of Ida B. Wells as a feminist activist. She connected Ida B. Wells to other female civil rights activists who have been etched out of history, such as Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King.
“Women get written out of history as Ida Wells got written out,” Guy-Sheftall said. “For example, when I grew up in Memphis, I never heard of her.”
During the second day, conference participants heard presentations on the topics of black feminism investigations. The presentations were presented by graduate students Jasper St. Bernard from the University of Memphis, Ruben Luciano from Tulane University and Tempest Henning from Vanderbilt University. There were also breakout sessions after this panel as well.
Next, Belle spoke. A graduate of the UofM, Belle specializes in topics of continental philosophy, Africana philosophy, philosophy of race and black feminist philosophy. She gave a philosophical analysis of the ins and outs of her first marriage. Her analysis discussed the emotional and physical turmoil she experienced throughout her 20-year marriage, in which she had four children. She ended her marriage in 2019 due to her husband’s long history of infidelity.
“My actions, choses, and inability or refusal to see all of this for 20 years has been disorienting and mind-boggling,” Sophia Belle said. “I felt anger, pain disappointment, disillusionment. Last Wednesday, on March 27, 2019, we got into a very public shouting match in a restaurant. I wanted to meet because we had not been on speaking terms… I did not want the negative energy between (us) to adversely impact our son... I got up to leave.”
Belle compared her situation to the Audre Lorde quote, “Your silence will not protect you.” She said she realized her silence in her marriage would not protect her from her first sexual experience with her husband, which she classifies as rape.
Mary Beth Mader, the chair of the UofM Department of Philosophy, complimented this year’s conference, highlighting its success in integrating all the different four levels of undergraduate, graduate, younger academics and senior scholars.
“The organizers Corey Reed and Jasper St. Bernard managed to have special breakout sessions,” Mader said. “That were devoted to helping students understand, what the possibilities are for them as philosophy students and as philosophy students interested in doing philosophy out of the African-American experience. So, you have a passing down of mentorship… I think that’s a unique thing and needs to continue.”