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.

Known for her eccentricity and boldness, Beverly Guy-Sheftall has never been scared to take the brave action necessary for change. (With her fondness for bright colors and head-to-toe leopard prints, she’s also not scared of taking fashion risks.) A pioneer of black feminism in the 1960s, she took the helm of black feminist studies, raging against strong sentiments that positioned black feminism as obsolete once black women gained access to the labor force. Since then she has worked tirelessly to institute black feminist studies as a legitimate discipline, and continues to do so as the founder and director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College, where she is also the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies.

An accomplished and well-respected scholar, Guy-Sheftall has co-edited and written books that continue to serve as the cornerstone of black feminism, most notably Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought and Still Brave, the follow-up to the anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave. She also co-founded SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, which has become a critical resource for black women’s studies.   

Now, as the president of the National Women’s Studies Association, Guy-Sheftall has succeeded in adding color to what has historically been a mostly white organization. Under her leadership, issues around feminists of color have permeated the organization’s discourse, creating a more inclusive space for women’s-studies scholars.

As the end of her two-year term as president draws near, Guy-Sheftall sat with The Root at the 2010 NWSA conference to discuss her role with the organization, the importance of black feminism and the lessons she hopes to pass on to future feminists of color.

The Root: You’ve been a part of black feminism from the very beginning. Tell us about where it was then, and where it is now.

Beverly Guy-Sheftall: Coming out of the civil rights era, black feminism was a contentious, debatable, demonized and divisive notion. It was perceived to be a pro-white, anti-male doctrine that would destroy black families and prohibit unity. I can remember going to all-black gatherings and people asking me whether or not I was a lesbian, because being pro-female translated into a hate for men.

Now, though, black feminist thought is very much an important part of a broader women’s studies — it would be very difficult to avoid black feminism when speaking about a more general feminism. What’s interesting, though, is that black feminism is still very much a suspect politic in black spaces. Despite our progress, it seems that in some hetero-patriarchal paradigms, like black studies and black culture, feminism seems to be less accepted.

TR: So when do you think black feminism cemented its place in scholarship and in the black consciousness?