Now is the Time

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by Jeannine Hunter

With more Black women philosophers now than there were in the 1980s, another attempt at establishing a professional organization becomes a reality.

NASHVILLE, TENN. It was part reunion and part research seminar, yet a gathering long overdue, according to several attendees.

The nation’s Black women philosophers and philosophy graduate students met at the inaugural conference of the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers (CBWP) at Vanderbilt University in mid-October.

Formed in the last academic year, the CBWP was designed to be a safe space for peers to assess and discuss philosophical issues as well as to encourage, recruit and retain Black women in philosophy, said Dr. Anita Allen, the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

About 100 Black philosophers belong to the American Philosophical Association (APA), which has more than 10,000 members. Although there aren’t any official figures, the association’s Committee of Blacks in Philosophy estimates that fewer than 30 Black women work in the discipline, said CBWP founding director Kathryn Gines, an assistant professor of philosophy and African-American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt.

Discussions with fellow theorists last year and earlier this year laid the foundation for the organization, which was established to support Black women in the field through mentoring, networking and financial support.

Gines tracked down prospective members from women who served in the APA and through word of mouth.

 “It’s amazing,” Gines said. “I initially had a target number of 25, including professors and graduate students. Several inquiries came in after the Web site went up. I received several inquiries from people who discovered the organization through the Internet.”

Gines says a few women she spoke with felt discouraged and very alienated in their institutions or departments where they may be the only Black woman or Black person on the faculty.

Thirty-five women registered for the historic event held at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt. The sessions, particularly the keynote address by Allen, attracted members from the general public as well, almost doubling the number of registrants.

The CBWP honored Dr. Joyce Mitchell Cook, the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in philosophy. She earned her degree at Yale University in 1965. Cook was also the first woman to teach philosophy at Yale College and the first Black woman to teach philosophy at Howard University.

“I was born 40 years too soon,” Cook joked as she received her award.

In the 1980s, Allen and five other women formed a philosophical group for Black women that lasted two years. “It was a small group that included some women here today,” Allen noted.

There were fewer peers in the field at that time to be able to sustain a professional organization, but Allen said now is the time.

Gines said Allen was one of the very first people to reply to her save-the-date e-mail announcing the launching of the organization and conference.

 “The fact that a scholar of her stature would reply so promptly and make herself so accessible was very motivational for me early on when I did not know how many people I could expect in attendance,” Gines said. “E-mail correspondences went out to other prominent senior professors who confirmed to me that the vision of the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers as an organization that fostered mentoring between senior and junior scholars, as well as students, could be made into a reality.”

For more information about the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, visit http://www.vanderbilt.edu/cbwp/.

–Jeannine Hunter

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