DR. BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL
Originally published on November 4, 2016.
Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall is often regarded as a pioneering scholar and figure in black feminism. After graduating from Spelman College in 1966, she went on to earn degrees at Atlanta University and Emory University and founded the Spelman College Women's Research and Resource Center. Dr. Guy-Sheftall has published several books including Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought, and Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality, and Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women's Equality in African American Communities, co-authored with Johnetta B. Cole.
Currently, she is the Chair of the Women's Research & Resource Center and Comparative Women Studies Department at her alma mater, Spelman College. She often travels and engages in intellectual and stimulating dialogues with many in education and women and gender studies spaces.
Auburn Avenue had the privilege to speak with Dr. Guy-Sheftall about her life's work and perspectives on black feminism.
What does it feel like to have such a pivotal role in the history of black feminism?
[Laughs] Oh my goodness. When I first got involved in black feminism, it was a pretty demonized concept in the African American community. I constantly had to justify or explain why I was calling myself a feminist. People would say it's anti-male, it’s divisive, and that black women didn’t really need feminism. It was pretty difficult space to constantly claim, though I constantly claimed it. What makes me pleased over these 40 years is that I don’t have to constantly justify why I am a black feminist. I see loads of young black women and men taking women’s studies courses, getting involved in progressive feminist struggles, and speaking out against misogynist images in popular culture, speaking about violence against black women—I’m speaking specifically about the Say Her Name movement. At this point in my career, I feel happy about the way feminism has been embraced.
Take us back to the 1960's... how was your experience as a college student and young black woman, then?
Back in the 1960’s, I was a student at Spelman. Even though there was clearly sexism on college campuses and sexism in the beginning racial struggles, our attention was focused on race. As a college student I wasn’t thinking so much about gender issues, even though I was very aware that were huge differences between the way students at Spelman and students Morehouse were treated in terms of freedom to move about. I was aware of rigid curfews and a dress code at Spelman, not in place at Morehouse. I didn’t have a feminist framework in which to view it.
In intellectual and educational spaces, was there ever a time when you found it difficult to say exactly what you wanted to say?
Not much. I did experience the consequences of being open about my political thoughts. However, there are a lot of taboo subjects in black communities. Sexuality is one. In gender politics, especially with respect to black men and women, there are taboo subjects. Probably one of the most difficult moments with around this issues was the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill situation in 1991. Speaking out in favor of Anita Hill was, surprisingly, a controversial stance to take. Very few black folk spoke out against Clarence Thomas. Speaking out against sexual assault in the black community is still difficult.
Has the American society has become more aware of its inadequacies in recognizing and dealing with the issue of equality for women, particularly black women?
Sometimes I say 'yes' and other times I say 'no.' It’s sort of a conundrum. It depends on where you are and the who the audiences are. If you look at national polls, many white people would like to believe that race and gender are no longer issues. If you did polls in black communities and asked them which of us was having the most difficulties—black men or black women—they would say black men. I would say the particular plight of black women, vis-a-vis race, is still invisible to most people including some black women. A good example of that fact is that we had to have a movement called Say Her Name, to say that black women are also victims of police violence.
What is your opinion of the modern-day black liberation movement that is currently taking place?
Sometimes I don’t know where it is. It seems to be fractured and not as public or visible as I would like for it to be. It seems to be off the radar for the media. If I think about the 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s, sometimes it can be frustrating in terms of the lack of visibility.
How important are writers in these types of movements?
Writers are as important today, but I don’t think they have the same level of influence. I think social media has eclipsed the importance of writers. I don’t know if people even read the newspaper like they used to. People used to read The Crisis Magazine and black magazines that dealt with political issues. There is a young generation of people that don’t engage print media.
With regard to LGBTQ rights, what is your opinion of the inclusion to admit transgender students at same gender institutions?
I am in favor of admitting transgender students to same sex institutions. However, I would quickly add that our colleges and universities have to do a lot of work on our campuses with respect to raising consciousness about the issue. They need to make sure that transgender students are not discriminated against once they get there and that it's a safe space.
Can you talk a little about the Toni Cade Bambara Scholars/Writers/Activists Program at Spelman College?
The program, that’s now in its 16th year, is the most important scholar-activist spaces on campus. It is one of the spaces in which students can develop activist and leadership skills. It is the only annual conference that students conceptualize and organize and it reaches out to communities outside of Spelman. We recognize Toni Cade Bambara’s birthday in March; however, during the year on every Friday, the Toni Cade Bambara collective meets in the Women’s Center. We host speakers and activities on campus and the conference is a culminating activity. We are one of the few HBCU’s that annually recognize a radical, black feminist writer.
What is the future of black feminism? What, in your opinion, are the next steps?
I thought I would never be saying this but I think black feminism is strong. I just came back from the Black Feminist Think Tank in Michigan. It is a group of mostly young black feminist scholars that are committed to the think tank collective. We’re producing really important books and working on important projects. I guess I pretty convinced that black feminism will live on college campuses. I’m more concerned if black feminism is confined to the academy. I wish that we could get black girls and boys involved before they get to college, when they are in high school. If I had my wish list, number one would be figuring out how to take black feminism to communities that are not necessarily university communities.
Considering your past work and contributions to the field, do you have any regrets?
I wish I had been louder and more radical. There were times when I sort of retreated because I got exhausted. I wish I had been more ‘in your face,’ particularly at black colleges.