Barbara Smith

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Barbara Smith
Barbara Smith at NWSA 2017 (cropped).jpg
Born (1946-12-16) December 16, 1946 (age 73)
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
OccupationIndependent scholar, writer, activist
Alma materMount Holyoke College (BA)
University of Pittsburgh (MA)
Literary movementBlack feminism

Barbara Smith (born December 16, 1946),[1] is an American lesbian feminist and socialist who has played a significant role in building and sustaining Black feminism in the United States.[2] Since the early 1970s, she has been active as a critic, teacher, lecturer, author, scholar, and publisher of Black feminist thought. She has also taught at numerous colleges and universities over the last 25 years. Smith's essays, reviews, articles, short stories and literary criticism have appeared in a range of publications, including The New York Times Book Review, The Black Scholar, Ms., Gay Community News, The Guardian, The Village Voice, Conditions and The Nation. Barbara has a twin sister, Beverly Smith, who is also a lesbian feminist activist and writer.

Early life[edit]

Barbara's parents, Hilda Beall Smith and Gartrell Smith, met while attending a historically black college in central Georgia, Fort Valley State University (then Fort Valley State College), in the mid-1940s. Employed by the armed services, Gartrell Smith was possibly stationed in Cleveland, Ohio, when he and Hilda Beall Smith eloped. In search of better economic opportunities and to escape Jim Crow racism, they moved from Georgia to Ohio.[3]

But Beall Smith's relatives did not approve of the marriage, and the relationship fell apart, forcing the then-pregnant Beall Smith to return home to her family in Georgia. Their children, Barbara and Beverly, identical twins, were born prematurely.[4][5] Beall Smith died from complications of rheumatic fever when Smith was nine, and the siblings were brought up by Smith’s extended family, with her grandmother as primary caretaker.[6] The Smith siblings grew up in Cleveland, in a two-family house inhabited by her grandmother, two aunts, the husband of an aunt, and (formerly) their mother.[7]

Smith credits her dedication to scholarship to her upbringing. Her grandmother had been a schoolteacher to black pupils, and her aunts attended school whenever they could. Smith recalls, "I never was interested in any other grade except for an A. [laughs] But that wasn’t because someone was threatening me at home. It was not about that. It was like, ‘We go to work every day. You go to school. School is your job’ [...] There was no intimidation around achieving in school. It was just like, you have a mind, you're supposed to use it."[8]

Although her family rarely spoke about segregation or economic disparities, Smith recalled instances of racial discrimination: believing that she was "ugly" because she grew up not seeing anyone "who faintly looked like [her] being looked at as a beautiful person,"[9] along with experiencing the racial hostility of a French instructor who believed Smith did not belong in her summer French seminar.[10]

A gifted student, Smith excelled in her honors classes and performed well on her PSAT. Her grades and test scores gained her entrance to Mount Holyoke College in 1965. Fatigued by racial animosity at the college, she transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York City, where she studied the social sciences. She returned to Mount Holyoke for her senior year and graduated in 1969.[11]

Early activism[edit]

"Born into segregation", Smith believed it was easy to develop a political consciousness.[12] As high school students, she and her sister participated in school desegregation protests in 1964. She attended several speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., and met civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.[7]

Before entering college, Smith became a volunteer for CORE. In 1965, she helped desegregate Mount Holyoke College and participated in Students for a Democratic Society activities. During her year at the New School for Social Research, she traveled to Chicago and participated in the protests accompanying the Democratic National convention.[7]

As Black Nationalism emerged from the Civil Rights Movement, Smith became extremely put off by the sexism she experienced in male-dominated groups, and turned to black feminist politics.[13] In 1973, she attended her first meeting of the National Black Feminist Organization in New York City. From her first moments at the conference, Smith "knew I was home."[7]

Smith settled in Boston after receiving an MA in literature from the University of Pittsburgh. Beverly Smith's staff position at Ms. Magazine allowed Beverly to obtain critical contacts,[14] and through the publication, Barbara met Margaret Sloan, a founder of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). Intrigued by the call for attendance to the NBFO's Eastern Regional Conference in 1974, Smith caucused with women from the Boston area and made contacts in order to establish a Boston NBFO chapter.[15]

In 1975, with Beverly and Demita Frazier, a Chicago activist, Smith established a Boston NBFO chapter. Due to lack of direction from the national organization, the Boston chapter had an independent nature, deciding as a group to focus on consciousness-raising and grassroots organizing that assisted Boston's poor and working classes.[15]


Combahee River Collective[edit]

Frustrated by the lack of communication from the national organization, but also realizing that the Boston chapter's politics were significantly more radical than the NBFO's, the group decided to split off entirely. Named after a successful military operation Harriet Tubman led during the Civil War at a river in South Carolina, the Combahee River Collective moved quickly to write a manifesto.[15] The Combahee River Collective Statement[16] outlines the group's objectives, but also identifies it as a class-conscious, sexuality-affirming black feminist organization. Recognizing lesbianism as a legitimate identity reinforced the debate within black feminism and the larger women's movement.

As a socialist Black feminist organization, the collective emphasized the intersections of racial, gender, heterosexist, and class oppression in the lives of African-Americans and other women of color. Like other black feminist organizations at the time, Combahee articulated "many of the concerns specific to black women, from anger with black men for dating and marrying white women, to internal conflict over skin color, hair texture, and facial features, to the differences between the mobility of white and black women...also attacking the myth of black matriarch and stereotypical portrayals of black women in popular culture."[17] The collective also worked on issues such as "reproductive rights, rape, prison reform, sterilization abuse, violence against women, health care, and racism within the white women's movement."[18] It was deliberately structured to avoid hierarchy and give members a sense of equality; Smith cited this structure as essential to ensuring that "black feminism [survives] as a radical movement."[19] Combahee members organized retreats to discuss issues within the Statement, ways to incorporate black feminism into black women's consciousness, and pressing issues in their own communities.[20] But the organization lost momentum as conversations about lesbianism and educational advancement alienated some members. As a result of leadership conflict and interpersonal disputes, Combahee's membership declined. The last meeting was in February 1980.[21]

Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press[edit]

An enthusiast of American literature and writing, Smith pursued English study throughout her education. After being enthralled by James Baldwin's novel Go Tell It on the Mountain she resolved to become an expatriate writer, but due to her interest in social movements in the 1960s, she resigned herself to literature studies at home.[9] She pursued graduate study in literature in an attempt to seek out women writers of color, but came to terms with the fact that the American literary canon did not include black women. After reading in a Ms. article that Alice Walker would be teaching a course on African-American women writers, Smith enrolled and vowed to teach women writers of color whenever she taught. She began doing so at Emerson College in 1973.[9]

Dismayed that works available by writers of color prominently featured the experiences of men, Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press on her friend Audre Lorde's suggestion.[22] Established in 1980 in Boston, Kitchen Table relocated to New York in 1981. In collaboration with Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, Hattie Gossett, Susan L. Yung, June Jordan, and Gloria Anzaldúa,[23] Smith published several pamphlets and books that came to be embraced in ethnic studies, women's studies, queer studies, and black studies programs, such as Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, This Bridge Called My Back, Cuentos: Stories by Latinas, and I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities. Smith has said that Kitchen Table's legacy lies in contemporary publishing, as women of color writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison have entered the American literary canon, as well as influencing feminist studies to incorporate intersectionality as a lens of inquiry.[9]

Smith continued to write and produced a collection of her essays, articles, and reviews after her involvement in Kitchen Table ended. Her article "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism" (1982),[24] first published in Conditions magazine, is frequently cited as the breakthrough article in Black women's literature and Black lesbian discussion.[25] Smith has edited three major collections about Black women: Conditions 5: The Black Women's Issue (1979, with Lorraine Bethel); All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (1982, with Gloria T. Hull and Patricia Bell-Scott); and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (first edition, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983; second edition, Rutgers University Press, 2000). She has since collected her various writings in the anthology The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom (1998).

Later life[edit]

Continuing her work as a community organizer, Smith was elected to the Albany, New York Common Council (city council) in 2005, representing Ward 4, and reelected in 2009. She also worked during this period with David Kaczynski at New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on innovative solutions to violent crime.[26] During her two terms on the Albany Common Council, Smith was active on issues of youth development, violence prevention, and educational opportunities for poor, minority and underserved persons.[27] She did not seek reelection in 2013. Smith currently works with the City of Albany Mayor's Office spearheading initiatives that address economic, racial, and social inequality.

Smith has continued to lecture and speak. She has donated her papers to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York, and given oral histories of her life to Columbia University and Smith College.[3] She appeared in Marlon Riggs's 1994 documentary Black Is...Black Ain't, and the 2013 PBS and AOL documentary Makers: Women Who Make America. On February 2, 2017, she made a speech at Claiming Williams, "an annual event where the campus community comes together to discuss issues of race, gender, identity, religion and community".[28] Claiming Williams is "moral courage day" at Williams College.[29] Smith said that "taking the high ground, being honest, and deciding to do something that is objectively frightening" are key components of moral courage.[28]

Smith was made a Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College Fellow in 1996 and received a 1994 Stonewall Award for her activism.[30][31] She was awarded the Church Women United's Human Rights Award in 2000[32] and nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.[33]

On November 14, 2015, the Albany Public Library Foundation awarded Smith the title "LITERARY LEGEND", along with Albany native Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West). (The first of these awards, in 2014, was given to writer William Kennedy.)

Smith is an activist against Islamophobia. She established a website, "Stop Islamophobia,"[34] where she demonstrates support for immigrants and refugees. She created a "United States of All" decal and coordinated marches in November and December 2016.

Season 6, episode 3 of the podcast Making Gay History, released in 2019, was about Smith.[35]

In February 2020, Smith endorsed Bernie Sanders for president in the Democratic Party primaries.[36][37]

In June 2020, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first LGBTQ Pride parade, Queerty named her among the fifty heroes “leading the nation toward equality, acceptance, and dignity for all people”.[38][39]

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around[edit]

In 2014, SUNY Press published Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith, a reflective conversation through four decades of activism. Editors Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks worked with Smith to explore her life from her childhood to her recent work as an elected official. By combining hard-to-find historical documents with new unpublished interviews with fellow activists and scholars, the book uncovers the deep roots of today's “identity politics” and “intersectionality” and serves as a primer for practicing solidarity and resistance. It has a foreword by Robin D. G. Kelley.

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Jones, Alethia and Virginia Eubanks, editors. With Barbara Smith. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forth Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. Foreword by Robin D. G. Kelley. SUNY Press, 2014.
  • Bethel, Lorraine, and Barbara Smith, eds. Conditions: Five, The Black Women's Issue 2, no. 2 (Autumn, 1979).
  • Bulkin, Elly, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith. Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1984, 1988.
  • Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies. New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1982.
  • Mankiller, Wilma, Gwendolyn Mink, Marysa Navarro, Barbara Smith, and Gloria Steinem, eds. The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
  • Moraga, Cherrie and Smith, Barbara. "Lesbian Literature: A Third World Feminist Perspective" in Margaret Cruikshank, editor, Lesbian Studies: Present and Future. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982[40]
  • Smith, Barbara, and Beverly Smith. "Across the Kitchen Table: A Sister-to-Sister Dialogue." In Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, Massachusetts: Persephone Press, 1981
  • Smith, Barbara. "’Feisty Characters’ and ‘Other People's Causes’: Memories of White Racism and U.S. Feminism." In Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow, eds, The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation. New York: Crown Publishing, 1998.
  • Smith, Barbara, ed. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983.
  • Smith, Barbara. Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom: The Truth that Never Hurts. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
  • Smith, Barbara. "Where Has Gay Liberation Gone? An Interview with Barbara Smith." In Amy Gluckman and Betsy Reed, eds, Homo Economics: Capitalism, Community, and Lesbian and Gay Life. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Anders, Tisa (2012-06-25). "Barbara Smith (1946- ) •". Retrieved 2020-07-12.
  2. ^ Joseph, Gloria I.; Lewis, Jill (1986), Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, South End Press, p. 36, ISBN 0-89608-317-9
  3. ^ a b Smith, Barbara, interview by Loretta Ross, transcript of video recording, May 7, 2003, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection, p. 2.
  4. ^ Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, pp. 3–4.
  5. ^ Smith, Barbara. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983, ISBN 0-913175-02-1, pxx, Introduction
  6. ^ Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, p. 4.
  7. ^ a b c d Bonnie Zimmerman, Encyclopedia of Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, 2013.
  8. ^ Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, pp. 5–6.
  9. ^ a b c d Smith, Barbara. Interview by Dyllan McGee, Betsy West, and Peter Kunhardt. MAKERS, 2013. Web. February 26, 2009.
  10. ^ Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, pp. 8–10.
  11. ^ Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, p. 13.
  12. ^ Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, p. 41.
  13. ^ Springer, Kimberly. Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005). Print. 56.
  14. ^ Springer, Living for the Revolution (2005). 58.
  15. ^ a b c Springer, Living for the Revolution (2005), 59.
  16. ^ Cohambee River Collective, Cohambee River Collective Statement (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1982).
  17. ^ Hine, Darlene Clark; Hine, William C., and Stanley Harold, "The African-American Odyssey" (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2003), 2nd edition. 594–595.
  18. ^ Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, ed. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-Feminist Thought (New York: The New Press, 1995). 65.
  19. ^ Smith, Barbara, "Memorandum to Retreat Participants," folder 12, "Black Feminist Retreats: Fourth Retreat," 1975, Barbara Smith Papers.
  20. ^ Springer, Living for the Revolution (2005). 107.
  21. ^ Springer, Living for the Revolution (2005). 142–143.
  22. ^ Smith, Barbara. "A Press of our Own: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press", Frontiers vol. X, no. 3, 1989, p. 11.
  23. ^ Short, Kayann. "Coming to the Table: The Differential Politics of This Bridge Called my Back", Genders 19 (1994), pp. 4-8.
  24. ^ Smith, Barbara, "Towards a Black Feminist Criticism", The Radical Teacher, No. 7 (March 1978), pp. 20-27.
  25. ^ Smith, Barbara (October 1977). "Toward A Black Feminist Literary Criticism". Conditions. 1 (2): 25–44.
  26. ^ The City of Albany, New York, "Albany Common Council Members - 2009". PDF.
  27. ^ The City of Albany, New York, Honorable Barbara Smith. "The Official Site of the City of Albany, New York" Archived May 1, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Website.
  28. ^ a b WilliamsCollege (2017-02-07), Barbara Smith, YouTube, retrieved 2017-05-15
  29. ^ "February 2 is Claiming Williams Day 2017 – 'Moral Courage'". Claiming Williams. Retrieved 2017-05-15.
  30. ^ "Bunting Fellowship".
  31. ^ "N.O.W. bio of Smith". Archived from the original on October 23, 2008.
  32. ^ "Barbara Smith". New York State Writers Institute. Retrieved April 26, 2012.
  33. ^ "Barbara Smith '69 is one of 1,000 Peace Activists Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize". Mount Holyoke College. 2005-06-29. Retrieved April 26, 2012.
  34. ^ "Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia". Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia. Archived from the original on 2017-08-16. Retrieved 2017-05-15.
  35. ^
  36. ^ "Barbara Smith, Who Helped Coin the Term 'Identity Politics,' Endorses Bernie Sanders". The Root. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  37. ^ Budryk, Zack (2020-02-06). "Sanders touts endorsement of pioneering black feminist Barbara Smith". TheHill. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  38. ^ "Queerty Pride50 2020 Honorees". Queerty. Retrieved 2020-06-30.
  39. ^ Tracer, Daniel (2020-06-26). "Meet 6 Black trailblazers fighting racism: "I didn't come to play; I came to dismantle white supremacy."". Queerty. Retrieved 2020-06-30.
  40. ^ "Margaret Cruikshank papers, 1971-1982".