Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women's Equality in African American Communities
Author Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women's Studies and English and Director, Women's Research and Resource Center, Spelman College, and commentator Sharon Harley, Associate Professor of Afro-American History, University of Maryland and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center
Speaking to a packed room, author Beverly Guy-Sheftall discussed Gender Talk, the book she co-authored with Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole. In working on it, Dr. Guy-Sheftall said, she and Dr. Cole sought to incorporate the multiplicity of stories in the African-American community, drawing out narratives across traditional lines of class, ethnicity, sexuality and gender. They conducted individual interviews and meetings of discussion groups, during which they found all the participants surprisingly open and honest about their life experiences. Gender played a significant role in many of the stories they heard.
Dr. Guy-Sheftall stressed the importance of the intersectionality of gender and race, explaining that while African-American women are all too often forced to identify themselves primarily as either African Americans or as women, an accurate picture of the African-American female experience can be gained only through an examination of the unique combination of identities. Black women's studies in fact emerged as a discipline in the early 1970s because of both the insensitivity of Women's Studies to race and ethnicity and the insensitivity in the civil rights movement to the voices of African-American women. She emphasized that "race matters, but gender matters too," and that black women's studies, which produce works such as Gender Talk, not only hold up a mirror to the racism and sexism of the larger society but include a critique of white supremacy.
Guy-Sheftall reported that she and Dr. Cole were bewildered by the response of the African-American community to the Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings and the controversy and Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment. Before the hearings, Guy-Sheftall said, the community was opposed to Thomas' appointment, but after Hill testified, it closed ranks behind him. Its willingness to ignore the phenomenon and impact of black misogyny led the two women to begin working on their book. Gender issues had been hard for the community to discuss; ironically, the HIV-AIDs crisis opened a window for talk about sexuality and made their interviews somewhat easier than they had expected.
Sharon Harley offered high praise for the book's exposure of "race secrets" that lead African Americans to conceal conflicts within the community and understate the significance of gender-based stereotypes and power dynamics in their relationships. She agreed that it is necessary to address the problem of patriarchal norms and to end the male-centric bias of public discourse on the African-American experience, even if the immediate result of that attempt is a worsening of the gender divide. Harley expressed doubt that men and women living in impoverished urban communities, white or black, realize that they are in a state of gender crisis., with domestic violence and sexual abuse all too present.
At the same time, Harley criticized what she considered the high priority placed on gender in Gender Talk. She referenced the importance of poverty, inequality, disempowerment, injustice, racism and disenfranchisement, and expressed a desire to see an analysis of the African-American community that addresses all these aspects of communal dynamics rather than focusing on only one. In investigating intersectionality, she suggested, a more comprehensive synthesis of African-American identity should be possible.
During the question-and-answer period, Harley and Guy-Sheftall were drawn into an animated discussion about the place of hip-hop culture in African-American identity—the subject of one chapter in the book—and were faced with the question of how to combat hip-hop's misogynistic assumptions without alienating young people who have grown up with it. Some audience members likened hip-hop music to the protest music of the 1960s, soliciting both strident disagreement and enthusiastic support from other audience members. Harley pointed out that hip-hop is a symptom as well as a cause. While hip-hop artists are misogynistic, she noted, it is community members who buy their music.
When a questioner expressed doubt about existence of a "gender crisis" in the African-American community, Dr. Guy-Sheftall replied with a barrage of statistics: 54% of African-American children are raised in single-parent, largely female-headed, households; 68% of African-American children are born to unmarried mothers; while 78% of African-American households were headed by married couples in 1960, only 40% are today. Pointing to the negative effects of homicide, drugs, incarceration, ubiquitous sexual imagery and an imbalance in the sex ratio in African-American communities, Dr. Guy-Sheftall noted that the statistics demonstrate that the current problems of the African-American family cannot be blamed on slavery, which is not responsible, e.g., for the decline in the number of two-parent households over the last forty years. Rather, she suggested, the community itself must consider the reasons for these changes and take steps to correct them, and the dialogue about them must continue.
Continue it did, as the discussion spilled out into the hallway and a large number of audience members continued to pepper Dr. Guy-Sheftall with questions and comments for an hour after the formal program ended.
Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129