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?
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?
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.