Image credit: AYELALA bka LAL by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2020), Graphite and Acrylic on Arches 300# CP.
I have always been committed to Black, feminist education: but sometimes you have to create the college you want to teach at. Let me explain.
When I graduated from Spelman College in 1966 at the height of the civil rights movement, I reflected upon the kind of professional life I wanted to craft, though, as for many young people, the details of this portrait were fuzzy and out of focus. I spent a year at Wellesley College studying literature and then returned to Atlanta for a master’s degree in English at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University or AU).
By this time, at the urging of my mother, I understood that I wanted to be a college professor. My uncle was the president of Alabama State University, so I went there after AU for my first job (a path that might astonish young people entering the market today).
But after two years, my then-husband, who taught economics, decided to attend law school at Emory University. We returned to Atlanta, and I began a non-tenure track position in the English department in 1971. Shortly after I began teaching the required first-year composition and World Literature courses, I began to realize that the Eurocentric, Christian-centered, male-dominated, conservative college that I had left in 1966 was as yet unaffected by the vast changes brought about by the civil rights movement, and it was then that I made a critical decision for my career. Even though I was an untenured professor I decided that I would position myself as a “radical” teacher who would try and disrupt some of the “mis-education” of the curriculum, which at the time mirrored the traditional higher education curriculum throughout the United States.
I am now certain that I had been impacted significantly by my immersion in academic feminism. I had written a master’s thesis on “Faulkner’s Treatment of Women in His Major Novels” at Atlanta University. At the same time, I participated in a consciousness raising group, organized by a member of the National Black Feminist Organization founded in 1972, that met regularly at the nearby public housing project. Committed to transformation concerning issues of race and gender, I designed the first women’s studies classes in the English Department, and perhaps at the College more broadly: “Images of Women in Literature,” “Images of Women in the Media,” and two mini-courses on “Black Women Writers.”
In 1976, five years after I began teaching at Spelman, I made the most difficult decision of my academic career: playing a role in the lock-up of the Board of Trustees because of their decision not to appoint the first Black woman president of Spelman. Since its founding in 1881, the college had had a number of white women, and one Black male as president, so this was an opportunity for historic change.
It was the first week of April, which is when the Board of Trustees always met in the student center on campus. Because I was untenured, and students were also involved in the protest, I knew that I could, and probably would, lose my job. But I also knew that if I survived and was allowed to remain at Spelman I would continue to practice what I had been preaching to the students who chose to join the small band of faculty engaging in positive social and institutional change. I also vowed to myself that I would continue my oppositional stance with respect to faculty and curriculum development around gender and sexuality issues and faculty governance.
Spelman didn’t have to look far to see where I stood, since it was during this time that I also published my first book—the coedited, first anthology of Black women’s literature, Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature (1979). It was also becoming clearer what I needed to do institutionally: make Black feminism visible. So, although we failed to prevent the hiring of the male Dr. Donald Stewart in 1976, although I was still untenured in 1981 (ten years after arriving at Spelman), I decided to leave the English Department and establish the Women’s Research and Resource Center.
For me, “teaching while Black” had come to include creating the institutional structures and reforms that made my pedagogy possible, and that’s the 1987 struggle, almost ten years after the lock-up protest, that resulted in Spelman finally hiring our first woman president, Johnnetta Betsch Cole. This time, I chose to work under the radar with a particular Board member in perhaps one of the most contentious episodes in Spelman’s recent history. The Board was divided. Johnnetta was not our risk-averse faculty’s choice, but I knew that if the Board made the wrong decision in this case, the future of Spelman as a progressive, feminist-aspiring institution would be in peril, along with my ability to stay there.
So, I decided to marshal all of my Black feminist energies and knowledge, and, with visiting history professor Paula Giddings, became a collaborator behind the scenes by drafting documents for a few Board members that would help to make the case for Cole as our first Black woman president. The resistance to her presidency in various circles was connected to why Spelman needed Dr. Cole: her radical political commitments. Prior to entering Spelman’s presidential pool, as a professor at other universities, Dr. Cole publicly opposed the 1983 United States invasion of Granada, she had traveled to Cuba, and was committed to the women’s movement and feminism.
I am pleased to say that it worked: the Board made the difficult decision, in the aftermath of contentious debates on campus, to appoint Dr. Cole. Sometimes, when you fight for something you believe in, you win.
But I want to bear witness to what I think have been the consequences of the radical stances I, and a few others, chose to take at Spelman as we fought for institutional transformation during this juncture in its evolution. We were the first historically Black college with a women’s studies program, a women’s research center, and an LGBT project. Then, the public protest that a few faculty and students waged in 1976 made it possible, over a decade later, for Johnnetta Cole to be appointed president of Spelman.
That presidency, I would argue, helped to transform Spelman in ways that would be difficult to imagine now that it is no longer the conservative institution I first worked at. Dr. Cole supported, with resistance among many alumnae, the first LGBT student organization on campus. She enhanced the intellectual climate on campus, was openly feminist in her stances, and invited guest speakers such as Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Angela Davis, Anita Hill, and Alice Walker.
Dr. Cole was certainly the kind of feminist role model that our students had never experienced in the president’s office. In the ground-breaking Black Women’s Studies anthology, But Some of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men (1993), coeditors Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith call for something that still doesn’t exist in most colleges and universities. But we have managed to craft at Spelman’s Women’s Center an autonomous Black feminist space or institute as an alternative to mainstream academic cultures, one that constantly attends to the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality in various contexts.
Such a place is not just for faculty: it is a site where student activist leadership is welcomed and nurtured. It was, for example, women’s studies students at Spelman who mounted the protest against music star Nelly. Their opposition to misogynist images of Black women in music videos garnered national and international attention and is featured in Byron Hurt’s 2006 documentary about masculinity, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. It is a site where LGBTQ and questioning students feel at home and are introduced to Black Queer Studies. It is a place where our most politically engaged students get energized around a range of issues. It is a place where students, not just our women’s studies students, are intellectually engaged in exciting interdisciplinary discourse about white supremacy, HIV/AIDS, heteropatriarchy, racialized health disparities, homophobia in Black communities, among many other critical societal issues. It is a place where women from around the globe, especially from the Global South, gather in feminist solidarity to work on urgent issues facing persons of African descent, no matter where they live, and craft important collaborative projects.
Along this journey, the Center also supported me. I did get tenure, write the books I wanted to write, teach the courses I wanted to teach, engage in the work off campus that brings me tremendous joy, and collaborate with the most amazing group of women on the planet. What I am most pleased about, however, is that the decision to teach and agitate at Spelman, achieve my own dream of teaching Black feminist studies at an HBCU, and be an “out” radical professor means that I have been able to contribute to the development of a new generation of young feminists who will go out in the world as leaders and agitators no matter what spaces they find themselves in.
I want to end with a praisesong for just one of our daughters, Leana Cabral, a 2006 graduate and a member of radical philosopher Amilcar Cabral’s family, because she illustrates the powerful impact of women’s studies classes and programming at Spelman. When she enrolled in my introductory women’s studies class as a sophomore, despite having come from a politically active family, she was shy. Uneasy about the radical gender politics of the class, she also wasn’t sure whether she would stay at Spelman because of its overall conservatism.
But this is how transformation happens. Cabral left for a year, but she returned as a women’s studies major, enrolled in my feminist theory class, and became one of the behind-the-scenes strategists for the Nelly protest. In her role as convener for the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance on campus, she helped to craft the strategy for the Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUC) anti-rape campaign, which put her in a contentious relationship with senior administration and some students. During her senior year, Cabral also wrote a brilliant thesis, under Professor Patricia McFadden’s tutelage, which was a feminist critique of three revolutionary giants in the struggle for Black liberation—Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, and Kwame Nkrumah.
There is no question in my mind that without radical Black feminist professors, it will not be possible to transform the academy, reinvigorate a transnational women’s movement, or enable the emergence of a new generation of sister/comrades like Leana Cabral. And without transforming our structures and knowledge, we cannot have those scholars. Women’s Studies does that, and continues to provide an important site for the transgressive pedagogies, research and activism that shaped me, shaped Spelman, and in which I hope to be engaged for the rest of my professional career.
Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall is Founding Director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center (since 1981) and Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman College; an adjunct professor at Emory University’s Institute for Women’s Studies, where she teaches graduate courses in the doctoral program; and former President of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA).