Conn College students recreate 1969 black women's conference

Nifemi Olugbemiga, center, a freshman from Chicago, is applauded as she returns to her seat after her spoken word performance during the Black Women's Conference at Connecticut College in New London, Sunday, April 2, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Nifemi Olugbemiga, center, a freshman from Chicago, is applauded as she returns to her seat after her spoken word performance during the Black Women's Conference at Connecticut College in New London, Sunday, April 2, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

New London — Deep in Connecticut College’s archives earlier this semester, senior Shameesha Pryor stumbled on a historical treasure chest.

Among records of campus activism over the years, she found a program from a conference that the college's black students had organized in 1969, a celebration of black women that Pryor said she immediately saw a need for in 2017.

The 1969 event, held more than a decade before the college established its Africana Studies major, featured spoken word performances, dances, and lectures by prominent black speakers and artists of the time.

“I was like, ‘We have to do this again,’” Pryor said.

Though nearly 50 years separate the two events, Pryor said the conference she organized on Sunday with several other students and the college’s Africana Studies staff was an effort to acknowledge the isolation that black students still face on Conn’s campus, which still has a primarily white student body.

“I really felt the need to honor and celebrate the black women who are on campus today,” she said.

On Sunday, Pryor and her fellow organizers filled the college’s campus center with black women having conversations about the pressures and joys of being exactly that.

It was a rare occasion that brought most of the campus’ black students together in one place, said Maurice Tiner, a senior who helped organize Sunday’s conference.

“That typically only happens for Black History Month,” Tiner said.

The group invited Natasha Nurse, a New York-based life coach, to give the keynote address, and a Los Angeles poet and three Connecticut College professors to speak on a morning panel about intersectionality, or the convergence of social categories like race or gender that can affect the lives of a person or group.

The afternoon events included panels on spirituality and the concept of self-love, and one event advertised for “celebrating your curly, coily, and kinky crowne.”

The speakers on the morning panel — Henryatta Ballah, a historian, Terry-Ann Craigie, an economist, Yazmin Watkins, a poet an actress, and Bryana White, a clinical psychologist — veered between academic lingo, music criticism, historical analysis and personal anecdote.

They spoke to an audience of students and fellow audience members, as well as the principals of two New London public schools.

“I don’t think there’s a black woman on the planet who has never felt invisible,” Craigie said.

Later, Watkins offered a solution by way of a story about a woman who came up to her after a spoken word performance, and realized the two women had been members of the same church at a time that each had felt isolated.

“When we listen to each other, when we support each other, we find this connection ... that doesn't necessarily come from the outside world,” he said. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to speak out.”

m.shanahan@theday.com

Keynote speaker Natasha Nurse, of New York, owner of Dressing Room 8, during the Black Women's Conference at Connecticut College in New London, Sunday, April 2, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Keynote speaker Natasha Nurse, of New York, owner of Dressing Room 8, during the Black Women's Conference at Connecticut College in New London, Sunday, April 2, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Members of the intersectional panel Dr. Bryanna White, left, a multicultural counseling specialist, economics professor Terry-Ann Craigie, second from left, assistant professor of history Henryetta Ballah, second from right, and Yazmin Watkins, right, a spoken word poet and actress, during their intersectional panel discussion at the Black Women's Conference at Connecticut College in New London, Sunday, April 2, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Members of the intersectional panel Dr. Bryanna White, left, a multicultural counseling specialist, economics professor Terry-Ann Craigie, second from left, assistant professor of history Henryetta Ballah, second from right, and Yazmin Watkins, right, a spoken word poet and actress, during their intersectional panel discussion at the Black Women's Conference at Connecticut College in New London, Sunday, April 2, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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