“Being different isn’t a personal attack, it has no reflection on you. Different is just different: the way we look, the way we love, where we come from. That was Dr. King’s dream, to have us accept our differences as well as our commonalities.”
Perhaps as one of the most influential civil rights activists and journalists of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, Ida B. Wells is undeniably underrated. Being born into slavery and losing her family to the yellow fever epidemic in 1878, Ida certainly had several personal battles waged against her. However, this powerful woman went on to co-own the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, document cases of lynching throughout the country, and even become a founding member of the NAACP. Later in her turbulent life, she married and had a family, while still continuing her journalistic work and her fight for freedom.
For this feature, I had the honor and privilege of speaking to Tiana Ferell, the great-great granddaughter of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Ferell, a prosperous writer and producer based in the Atlanta area, had plenty to say about her craft, her passions, and of course, her incredible ancestor.
Analog Magazine: Tell us a little bit about your titles and roles, and what your day-to-day life entails.
Tiana Ferrell: I have so many! I run Tiana Ferrell productions, so we produce stage plays, we write content, and we do a lot of project management. That’s the bread and butter. On a day-to-day basis, I am writing, interviewing, and bringing projects to execution, if it’s a stage play or a screenplay. I also, of course, continue the family legacy of Miss Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Sometimes that includes partnerships with our Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation, or The Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Mississippi. There’s always different projects going on. With continuing the legacy through my production company, I wrote and produced a stage play on the life of Ida B. Wells. It’s not her entire life, but the beginning stages. She was such a well-rounded person, and I wanted to share an unsung story because Ida is still new to history. We didn’t know about her until the 1970s when her daughter, Alfreda, published her autobiography. There’s still a lot of things we don’t know about Ida B. Wells. I wanted to share what ignited that fire in her, and the Ohio Railroad in Memphis through the ladies’ car incident. A lot of people don’t know about that story, and it’s one of those things that was swept under the rug, because we didn’t want to accept (we as in America), that African-Americans have rights. She won her case in court in Memphis, and we wanted everybody to know that. That was something kept secret that I wanted to bring to the forefront.
AM: Where were you born and raised, and how did your upbringing affect your future goals?
TF: I was actually born in California. I moved to Atlanta when I was around six, and I moved around a couple places, like Memphis and Holly Springs, Mississippi at one point. However, I always came back to Atlanta and Atlanta is my home. My upbringing prepared me for the challenges that I would face. It made me stronger, knowing that I looked differently than some of my neighbors, and that once I got a certain age, I would be perceived as such. I was so naive growing up; I was the only black child in the school. But I thought that I was like everybody else, and when my family explained to me who Ida B. Wells was, I wasn’t impressed as a child. I just thought she was a dead relative, right? One day, when I became a teenager, I was in the store with my friends and someone looked at me like I was stealing, and I thought, “Wow, I am different. This is what they were trying to prepare me for.” I read Ida’s biography when I was a teenager, and at that moment, it kind of clicked. Like, “Wow, this is who we’ve been talking about at the dinner table!” Every time I complained about something minuscule, like “It’s cold outside,” I would think, “Do you think Ida B. Wells would be complaining that it’s cold outside?” So everything just came full-circle and made sense. I was very shy (I still am incredibly shy), and I think my upbringing definitely prepared me for things, because I always, even today, have to say, “Okay, what would Ida do? Why are you shy? Why are you nervous? Why are you uncomfortable?” I’m sure Ida B. Wells’ entire life was uncomfortable, and she made it through the discomfort, and you’re complaining about being shy- how trivial. Although the world still needs some work, I definitely have it easier because of Ida B. Wells.
AM: What were your parents like?
TF: I am related to Ida B. Wells through my father’s side, and my father’s mother is Ida B. Wells’ granddaughter. My father always reminded me where I came from and why it’s important to give back. He encouraged me to go to Ida’s alma mater, Rust College, because I had no interest in doing that. I wanted to go to all of the well-known schools that everybody else is attracted to. They convinced me to channel Ida, and although I did not graduate from there because they didn’t have the curriculum I was looking for, I felt a connection to her when I was walking the streets and able to visit her parents’ resting place. I was able to feel the souls of my ancestors. I’ve always been reminded by my parents, especially my father, how important it is to continue the legacy. They always reminded me that it’s important because Ida B. Wells wasn’t known until her daughter published her biography. It was up to our family to ensure that the world knows how special she was.
AM: When did you start getting into activism/advocacy/writing?
TF: I would say my early twenties. Like I said, I struggle with my shyness, so it was definitely something I wanted to do when I was a teenager, but I just wasn’t ready to have the spotlight on me. It was definitely my early twenties- when the cause outweighed the shyness. Something needs to be done, something needs to be said, and I can’t keep waiting on someone else to say it. That was the tipping point for me; again, “What would Ida B. Wells do? She wouldn’t wait on the perfect scenario. She wouldn’t wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow’s not promised- we have to do it today. My grandmother encouraged me to do some things as well. She said, “I’m not gonna live forever, it’s time for you to take the torch. You have to be more involved.”
AM: At what age did you realize your great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, was a critical member of the civil rights movement?
TF: I would say my early teens. To see not only what she did, but to know that she was shut out because she was a woman. Even some of her friends, who respected her, left her out of their autobiographies. It’s just like, “Wow, she’s so ahead of her time.” It’s very impressive.
AM: How would your family and friends describe you?
TF: Like I said, I am incredibly shy, but if I set my mind to do something, I’m going to see it through and I’m going to do it very well. There’s no half-stepping. They would also describe me as strong-headed and determined. I care about my community, probably more so than I do myself. I definitely want to make the world a better place for those who come after me. I’m also very organized- I am a Type A personality. My closet is color-coded! Lastly, I hope that they would say that I am nice. That’s what I want to be remembered for- just being kind.
AM: Have you ever experienced prejudice or sexism in your own life while striving for your professional goals?
TF: Definitely. Especially in civil rights organizations, a lot of men over-talk you or don’t take you seriously. When I pitched my play, I wasn’t able to get a lot of people on the line because I was a woman. I remember speaking to some of my partners who said, “We have to get a man on our team, because this is just the way it is sometimes.” Sexism is a big one, and racism. I remember I was at an event and I was called a racial slur. I walked past somebody and I heard it, but I just kept going. They didn’t realize that I was coming up to speak. After, that same person wanted to shake my hand and take a picture with me! Because, you know, now I’m different. I’m the token one, right? However, I never even said anything to that person; I just went on about my day. Sometimes I’m baffled and dumbfounded that it’s still going on. I think to myself, “Did that make you feel any better, saying that to me or somebody else? I’m still here, we’re still going on with our day.”
AM: What type of journalism and digital media are you interested in, and how do you feel that has bettered you as a person?
TF: I kind of transitioned from journalism into storytelling. My goal now is to educate through the arts, because now, in a world where everything is at your fingertips, and our attention spans are so small, a lot of people don’t read anymore. How do I reach them? How I do I educate them? I do it through entertaining them; that’s my goal now, and that’s what I’m working towards. The arts are so important. Before a child can talk, they sing. Before they can write, they draw.
AM: What topics do you enjoy pursuing in your writing?
TF: Definitely activism, and I like to explore historical topics. I also just like to tell true stories, because there are so many things that happen in our lives that we can piece together. Not only is there a story, there’s always a teaching element to it
AM: Can you tell us, in turn, what Ida B Wells’ journalism career meant to you in regards to carrying on her legacy?
TF: I think now I’ve accepted that it’s in my DNA and it is my destiny. For years, I was told that I was a good writer, but I didn’t enjoy it so I sort of ran from it. When I was in high school, my teachers told me that my writing was awesome. When I got to Rust College, where Ida attended, my English professor told us on the first day of class that she doesn’t give out 100s because there’s no such thing as a perfect paper. You miss a comma, you miss a period, or something like that. We had this big paper due, and she gave us a few weeks to do it, but of course I procrastinated and did it the night before. I received a 100 on it, and she said it was impeccable. At that time, I didn’t know what “impeccable” meant, so I went to go look it up and said, “Wow, it means flawless.” And at first, being a teenager, I thought, “Ha ha, I thought you didn’t give 100s!” She pulled me to the side and said, “Tiana, you are phenomenal. I have never given out a 100. There was not one error in your paper.” But again, I kind of blew it off. I can’t remember the day I accepted that I had a gift as a writer. That wasn’t me trying to chase Ida, but I learned that you can’t outrun destiny. I should have been writing since college, but I took a detour.
AM: What modern pressings issues do you see in American society that deserve more attention and activism?
TF: Definitely equal rights for women. That’s something we hear brought up frequently because it’s still going on. You’d think that we wouldn’t be talking about this anymore, but when it comes to fair wage and feeling safe, not getting catcalled or sexually harassed, and things of that nature, we still have work to do. I also think that LGBTQ rights definitely needs more attention. I think we definitely need more education on love; it just goes back to that old saying that we’re afraid of what we don’t know and what we don’t understand. It makes us act foolish at times because we think being different is “bad.” Being different isn’t a personal attack, it has no reflection on you. Different is just different: the way we look, the way we love, where we come from. That was Dr. King’s dream, to have us accept our differences as well as our commonalities. I think that’s something that needs to be reminded to us- that all of our issues may not seem that big. I moved to Holly Springs a few years ago to try to go back to work and help my community. I wasn’t embraced by everybody there- just because I’m from a big city, I’m different. A lot of people weren’t okay with that.
AM: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned so far in life?
TF: It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. And storms don’t last forever.
AM: What are your aspirations for the future?
TF: I am working on a couple of movie scripts right now, so hopefully I can have those done by the end of the year. And again, I just want to share with the world about Ida, whether that’s through the stage play or another medium.
AM: What advice do you have for other young writers, PR professionals, and college students interested in going down a similar path?
TF: Get as much exposure as you can, whether it’s an internship or from your professor. I was the girl who sat after class for as long as my professor would allow me to. I fell in love with PR during an internship for my masters program, because again, I was a good writer. Just because I did that internship, I realized PR was something I was good at. If you’re doing a press release, make sure you get to the point as quickly as possible. When you’re emailing it out, you have to make sure you come up with a good subject line as well. When it comes to gaining exposure for your clients, you have to make connections. A lot of people call themselves PR professionals, but they don’t have a contact at the local radio station. You have to have those connections so you can call someone and say “Hey, Tiana, I really need you to cover this,” because your clients expect you to have some sort of coverage. When it comes to other areas, rather than just saying “network,” I would say use your network. That was something I had to discover. I was like, “Wow, I know a lot of people, but I’m afraid to ask for certain things. Use your network and say ‘Hey, do you have a couple of minutes?’ Or, ‘Do you happen to have the phone number of this person?’. Use your network! When it comes to writing, or whatever your craft is, just hone in on it. There’s no getting around it; you have to practice and you have to educate yourself. Now, I’m constantly taking different writing classes. When I decided that I wanted to write a play, I took a playwriting class at MIT. You always have to continue your education; that’s very important. Any professional organization, such as attorneys, need their education credits every year. It’s no different for writers or anybody else. Continue your education so you can stay on the forefront. What you put into it, you’re going to get out of it. If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be to be patient. We want everything to happen yesterday. Now, I see that everything that did happen was moving me in the direction that I was supposed to go. We sometimes get down on ourselves, but the universe is moving us in the direction that we are supposed to take. ★