What follows below are my remarks at the 2018 National Women’s Studies Association Conference honoring the work of Beverly Guy-Sheftall.
It is my great honor to say a few words about the incomparable Beverly Guy-Sheftall. To give her her flowers while she is here. Who would have thought a shy girl from Memphis, Tennessee would become a world renown educational freedom fighter by working on gender justice at Spelman College? As a first year student from little bitty Fayetteville, Arkansas, I was floored when Dr. Guy-Sheftall told my entering class about Sarah Baartman’s experiences as a human exhibit in Europe, the way her body was examined in life and death under the cloak of objective science but which was in reality reflective of scientific racism and sexism. In my first week at Spelman, before I’d even attended a class, Dr. Guy-Sheftall had blown my mind!
After that moment, I knew I wanted to take every class I could with her. At some point she revealed one of my favorite stories about her childhood. Her mother insisted that she did not need to take home economics. Beverly’s mother knew that her daughter had other work to do and other skills to learn. Her mother’s nurturing of her intellect allowed her to become the venerable scholar she is today and her mother’s actions also account for Beverly’s rarely if ever used oven.
Who has time to cook when you are growing a field of scholarship?
In typical Gemini fashion, Beverly is doing all the things all the time. If you ever send Beverly an email, don’t be surprised if you get a response at 2:30am. A prolific night-owl, Beverly will answer your email while in between books she’s reading and finishing that day. Her nightly productivity has resulted in multiple collaborative texts, the development and flourishing of the Spelman College Women’s and Resource Center and her latest venture with the Mellon Foundation, a Gender and Sexuality Institute dedicated to addressing the violence disproportionately experienced by Black women and girls.
Who has time to sleep when you are remaking institutions?
No one has a more eclectic sense of style or a more pithy set of one liners. Beverly does not dabble in shade. Beverly reads. And her reads are legendary. Some of you were there, in 2004 when Beverly said, at the Chicago hip hop feminism conference organized by Cathy Cohen, that it was ludicrous to compare Madonna’s self fashioned and commercialized eroticism to the exploitation of Black women dancers in rap videos. Beverly said it so simply, “You can’t compare exploitation to the whorification of white women.”
Who has time for propriety when you are telling the truth?
Beverly set the stage for me to be in that room, at that conference, and hear that comment. It was in her Feminist Theory class, that the so-called Nelly protest was born that launched me, Leana Cabral, and Spelman into a national spotlight. How could Spelman, a historically Black women’s institution, host the rapper Nelly on campus for a bone marrow registration drive after depicting Black women as objects in his music and videos? Beverly gave us the time to process, in class, our conflicted feelings about his video “Tip Drill” and his impending visit to campus. She thought our voices mattered and she gave us the space to work it out. Our meek interest in writing a letter blossomed, with her encouragement, to naming Nelly the Misogynist of the Month, which distressed him so much he elected not to come to campus at all. The national attention that Nelly’s bowing out garnered, lead to the invitation to the Hip Hop Feminism conference, where I got my first honoraria check, and got to see Beverly’s brilliance in action.
Who has time for the theory vs. activism debate when your classroom is a spaceship for praxis?
The resulting media attention raised Beverly’s star as well but she has remained committed to Spelman despite its sometime ambivalent relationship to her. She could be at any institution but she remains dedicated to the students of Spelman College, teaching and mentoring new generations of Black feminists who will be in every sector of society, even some we haven’t thought of yet.
Who has time for the Ivy league or PWIs when you can make a choice to change the world?
We’ve done this here before, but if you have ever taken a class with Beverly, heard or read her words and been moved? Stand up.
Beverly, look around. This is the profound power of your scholarship in a discipline forged out of necessity for something different. You have inspired generations of Black feminists and feminists writ large. I hope you can feel your impact because we continue to feel yours.