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: We have a generation of young black college men who have been impacted by black feminism. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that all the black males that I consider feminists are between the ages of 30 and 45, because they had women’s-studies classes, were taught by black feminists, and came up in an age where they had black feminist friends and parents.

People like Marc Anthony Neal attribute his perspective to having taken classes with Alexis DeVeaux. Kevin Powell’s analysis of For Colored Girls was influenced by his black feminism. Barack Obama was raised by his white feminist mother, so he has an inclusive politic around gender and sexuality.

TR: With the election of Barack Obama, questions about a post-racial America always seem to surface in mainstream media. How does black feminist thought respond to those suggestions?

BGS: We are not post-anything. We still live in a white-supremacist, sexist and homophobic culture. Think back to the presidential campaign, when Michelle was demonized and portrayed as emasculating, so she had to be repackaged. If we were living in a post-racial or post-feminist world, Michelle could be whoever she wanted to be. We don’t hear much about her being an educated career woman and lawyer. And look at all the attention we pay to her body — her arms, her bottom, her hair. All of that attention is a racialized sexism. So his election really suggested that we still have a lot more work to do.

TR: What do you see as the plight of young black feminists today?

BGS: Dealing with racism and sexism is still at the top of their agenda, but I also see that this generation is consumed with achieving a work-life balance. “How can I study, have a partner, be a mother and have a career all at once?” seems to be an important question for young black women.

The second issue I hear, mostly from heterosexual black women, is a deep concern about being un-partnered, which I blame on an overwhelming discourse around this idea that there are no available black men. And to that I say, young black women have got to get rid of the notion that they will not have a fulfilling life if they don’t have those things. They also need to expand their notions of what is a desirable partner.

TR: If the progress of the women’s movement is any indication, then shouldn’t being un-partnered be less of an issue for this generation than it was for yours?

BGS: I am a magazine addict, and if I pick up one more magazine that reads “So-and-so is pregnant,” or “So-and-so was the happiest she’s ever been during the nine months of her pregnancy,” I am going to scream! So in some ways, young women may be more connected to these gender scripts than we were, because marriage and motherhood is at the center of popular discourse. 

I also think that Christianity and all of its messages and norms of marriage and motherhood keeps people trapped. Its messages are hard to ignore, so I think that black women really need more models. They don’t see women who say, “I chose not to have children and opted out of marriage, and this is why and it was the best decision I ever made in my life.” I wish that Oprah would address that, but she doesn’t.

TR: What’s next for you? And what advice do you give to young black women?

BGS: I hope to write a personal memoir. I chose not to remarry and chose not to have children, and want to tell young feminists that my life has been very fulfilling despite not having those things. And to our future feminists, I say, abandon the scripts you hear and ask yourself, “What kind of life do I want to live?” That is what constitutes liberation — defining your life for yourself.

Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root‘s editorial office manager.

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