The Root Interview: Beverly Guy-Sheftall on Black Feminism

The noted Spelman College scholar and author talks to The Root about what Oprah should be doing, Michelle Obama and why the president is a feminist.

BGS: I would say it happened in the early ’90s, when the anthology All the Women Are White, All the Men Are Black, but Some of Us Are Brave was first printed. It was the first cogent and eloquent articulation of black feminist thought. And the title really says it all. That publication made it difficult to ignore black feminist studies. Additionally, there was a proliferation of black women literary scholars — Patricia Hill Collins, Toni Morrison and others — that helped pave the way.

TR: Is black feminism in your view a visible movement, in comparison with what it was in the 1960s?

BGS: I think it is. The impact of black feminist thinking and writing permeates black communities and culture, even though we may not say it explicitly. One of the things that black feminist thought does is bring attention to the fact that there are no black women on the Supreme Court. Also, any examination of violence against black women is Black Feminism 101, and a testament to its viability.

TR: You came on two years ago as president of the National Women’s Studies Association. What was your agenda when you started, and as your term comes to an end, do you think you’ve accomplished your goals?

BGS: I wanted NWSA to be an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural organization where women of color and their feminisms would not be marginalized. And in looking at the 2010 conference program, you can see that black feminism and transnational feminism are the core of the event, not off to the side. So in that way, I think I’ve accomplished my goals.

The other thing I’m pleased with is the shift in age. I’m struck at how young this year’s participants are, so I think that this organization has a very bright future. Truthfully, we were worried. We’d always ask, “Who is going to succeed us?” And as I look around, I no longer see that as an issue. 

TR: How can nonacademics and nonactivists gain access to knowledge about black feminism?

BGS: I think that disjuncture between the academy and the community is more blurred when it comes to black feminism, because there are many black feminists who don’t confine their work to the academy. People know who bell hooks is. When Ntozake Shange wrote her play, she did that as a community service. When Michelle Wallace wrote Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, she did that as a journalist. When Paula Giddings wrote When and Where I Enter, she was not in the academy. We need to remember that the pioneering women of this movement often operated outside of the academy and outside of political movements.

TR: Where do black men fit into black feminism? What has been their role?