As part of Women's History Month, The Root is exploring the role that feminism plays in African-American lives, from its role in hip-hop to black men embracing the term to radical women who waged war against oppression over the years. We asked noted scholar Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the former president of the National Women's Studies Association and a pioneer in black feminism, to weigh in on where she sees the movement heading today. Here are her thoughts.
As we celebrate Women's History Month this March, it is important to reflect upon the continuing struggle of women around the globe to live better lives — in peace and with justice. Given the horrific circumstances facing our sisters and brothers over the past weeks in Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Ivory Coast and now Libya, it is imperative that we envision a world in which every one of us is free from the ravages of poverty, greed, discrimination, war and authoritarian regimes.
It is my black feminist politics that propels me always to think deeply about the human condition: global realities, especially as they affect people of color, women and children; and the urgency of our need to eliminate racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, religious intolerance, xenophobia and all other oppressions that plague humans wherever they live.
Despite the importance of the politics of feminism and all of the ways in which it addresses oppression of all varieties, I still find myself having to defend my allegiances to the goals of women's movements around the world. I am still challenged about my self-identification as a black feminist. So I want to say what I mean when I use this term.
For me the label "black feminist" enables me to make visible the emancipatory vision and acts of resistance among women who articulate their understanding of the complex nature of black womanhood (in all its diversity); the interlocking nature of the oppressions we suffer; and the necessity of sustained struggle in our quest for self-determination, the liberation of black people and gender equality. It encourages me to express solidarity with other women and people of color engaged in local and global struggles for emancipation.
As I ponder the future of black feminism in the U.S., this is what I see: It is imperative that we find ways to convince black communities — especially black youths — that, in the words of bell hooks, "feminism is for everybody." What this means is that we must develop an abhorrence for violence against women and girls and declare a moratorium on rape.
I'm thinking at the moment about the gang rape of that 11-year-old girl in a small town in Texas. We must stop listening to and buying misogynistic music, no matter who produces it. We must say "No!" to the prison industrial complex and the needless warehousing of black women and men. We must end poverty in our lifetimes and make it possible for everyone to have a living wage and affordable health care. We must recommit ourselves to re-electing President Obama and remember why we voted for him in 2008. The alternatives are unimaginable for feminists everywhere!
For feminism to thrive, we must remember our fallen sisters whose struggles against oppression and for a better world are legendary. I'm thinking about Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida Wells-Barnett, Lorraine Hansberry, Pauli Murray, Coretta Scott King, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Dorothy Height, and many of our mothers and grandmothers. I'm thinking as well about our feminist brothers: Frederick Douglass, William E.B. Du Bois, Bayard Rustin, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, and some of our fathers and grandfathers.
I am hopeful about the vitality of feminism when I see young black girls writing open letters to rap artists about the toxic nature of their images. I am joyous when I see women in the streets of Italy, Egypt, Ivory Coast and Libya risking their lives in pursuit of their own freedoms.
I smile when I ponder the example of my own mother, the feminist who raised me and my two sisters. She encouraged me to live freely, be independent, develop my intellect, treasure friendships with women and be outraged by injustice. The planet is (or will be) in good hands if all of our mothers raise all of their daughters and sons to be feminists!
Beverly Guy-Sheftall is the founder and director of the Women's Research & Resource Center at Spelman College, where she is also the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women's Studies. She has edited or co-edited Who Should Be First? Feminists Speak Out on the 2008 Presidential Election; Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women's Studies; and Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. She is also co-founder of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women.