Barbara Smith (born 1946) is an American lesbian feminist and socialist who has played a significant role in building and sustaining Black Feminism in the United States. 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 twenty five 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.
Barbara and Beverly Smith, identical twins, were born in Cleveland. Their family, wanting to find better economic opportunities and escape from Jim Crow racism, moved from Georgia and settled in Ohio. Gartrell Smith, the twins’ father, was absent from family life. Their mother, Hilda Beall Smith, met Gartrell Smith during her attendance at 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 when he and Hilda Beall Smith eloped. However, Beall Smith’s relatives did not approve of the marriage, and the relationship fell apart, forcing a then-pregnant Beall Smith to return home to her family. The twins were born prematurely.
Beall Smith died from complications of rheumatic fever when Smith was nine, and the siblings were brought up by Smiths’ extended family, with her grandmother as primary caretaker. The Smith siblings grew up in working-class family, living in a two-family house that inhabited their grandmother, two aunts, the husband of an aunt, themselves, and (formerly) their mother. Smith credits her dedication to scholarship due to her familial upbringing. Her grandmother had been a schoolteacher to black pupils when she lived in Georgia, and her aunts attended school whenever they could. On education, Smith recalled, “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.”
Despite being academically gifted and attending well-funded and resourced public schools, Smith, as a shy child, did not escape humiliating experiences of racism. Although her family rarely spoke on issues of Jim Crow racism in the South or economic racial disparities in their hometown, 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” in media, along with experiencing the racial hostility of a French instructor who believed Smith did not belong in her summer French seminar.
A gifted student, Smith excelled in her honors classed and performed well on her PSAT. Her grades and test scores gained her entrance to Mount Holyoke College in 1965. Fatigued by the racial animosity at the college, she transferred to the New School and pursued study in social sciences, but later returned to graduate from Mount Holyoke for her senior year in 1969.
“Being born into segregation,” Smith believed it was easy to develop a political consciousness. As high school students, Smith and her sister Beverly participated in school desegregation protests in 1964. Before entering college, Smith became a volunteer for CORE in 1965, and during college, she participated in Students for a Democratic Society activities. As Black Nationalism emerged from the Civil Rights Movement, she became extremely put off by the sexism she experienced in male-dominated groups, and turned to black feminist politics.
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, and through the publication, 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.
In 1975, with Beverly and Demita Frazier, a Chicago activist, established a Boston NBFO chapter. Due to lack of direction from the national organization, the Boston chapter maintained an independent nature, deciding as a group to focus on consciousness-raising and grassroots organizing that assisted the poor and working classes of Boston.
Combahee River Collective
Frustrated by the lack of communication from the national organization, but also having realized that the Boston chapter held politics that were significantly more radical than the platform of the NBFO, the group decided to split entirely and form a separate group. Named after a successful military operation led by Harriet Tubman during the Civil War at a river in South Carolina, Combahee River Collective moved quickly to write a manifesto. The Combahee River Collective Statement outlines the objectives of the group, but also identifies the group on the grounds of being 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." Additionally, the collective 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." The collective's organizational structure was deliberately not articulated to avoid hierarchy and provide members with a sense of equality, and was cited in a memo authored by Smith as essential to ensuing that "black feminism [surviving] as a radical movement." Combahee members organized retreats to discuss issues within the Statement, ways to incorporate black feminism into the consciousnesses of black women, as well as pressing issues in their own communities. But the organization lost momentum, as conversations of lesbianism and educational advancement alienated some members from participating. As a result, leadership conflict and interpersonal disputes, membership in Combahee declined and the last meeting was held in February 1980.
Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press
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; however, due to her interest in social movements in 1960s, she resigned herself to literature studies at home. She pursued graduate study in literature in an attempt to seek out women writers of color, but came to terms with the fact that black women were not included in the American literary canon. After reading an article is "Ms." Magazine 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, and began doing so once she received a teaching load at Emerson College in 1973.
Dismayed that works available by writers of color prominently featured the experiences of men, by suggestion of her friend Audre Lorde, Smith founded to establish Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Established in 1980 in Boston, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press relocated to New York in 1981. In collaboration with Cherríe Moraga, Hattie Gossett, Susan L. Yung, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Gloria Anzaldúa, Smith and her colleagues published several pamphlets and books that would come 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 stated the legacy of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press 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 in incorporating intersectionality as a legitimate lens of inquiry.
During her time as publisher of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Smith, having previously contributed to pamphlets and essay anthologies, continued to write and produced a collection of her essays, articles and reviews after her involvement in Kitchen Press ended. Smith's article "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism" (1982), first published in All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies is frequently cited as the breakthrough article in opening the field of Black women's literature and Black lesbian discussion. She has edited three major collections about Black women: Conditions (magazine) : Five, The Black Women's Issue (with Lorraine Bethel), 1979; All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (with Gloria T. Hull and Patricia Bell Scott), 1982; 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 in 1998.
Continuing her work as a community organizer, Smith was elected to the Albany, New York Common Council (city council) in 2005, representing Ward 4. She was reelected in 2009, and also worked during this period on staff with David Kaczynski at New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on innovative solutions to violent crime. During her two terms on the Albany Common Council, Smith served the 4th Ward and was active on the issues of youth development, violence prevention, and educational opportunities for poor, minority and underserved persons. She did not seek re-election 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. She has made appearances in the 1994 Marlon Riggs documentary Black Is...Black Ain't, and more recently, the 2013 PBS and AOL documentary Makers: Women Who Make America.
Smith was made a Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College Fellow in 1996, and received a 1994 Stonewall Award for her activism. She was awarded the Church Women United’s Human Rights Award in 2000 and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around
In 2014, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith was published by SUNY Press. The book is formatted as a reflective conversation through four decades of activism. Editors Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks worked with Barbara Smith to explore her life from her childhood to her recent work as an elected official in Albany, New York. 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 an essential primer for practicing solidarity and resistance. Includes a foreword by Robin D. G. Kelley.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Smith, Barbara. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983, ISBN 0-913175-02-1, pxx, Introduction
- Smith, Barbara, interview by Loretta Ross, transcript of video recording, May 7, 2003, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection, p. 2.
- Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, pp. 3-4.
- Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, p. 4.
- Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, pp. 5-6.
- Smith, Barbara. Interview by Dyllan McGee, Betsy West, and Peter Kunhardt. MAKERS, 2013. Web. 26 February. 2009.
- Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, pp. 8-10.
- Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, p. 13.
- Smith interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, p. 41.
- Springer, Kimberly. Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005). Print. 56.
- Springer, Living for the Revolution (2005). 58
- Springer, Living for the Revolution (2005). 59.
- Cohambee River Collective, Cohambee River Collective Statement. (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1982).
- Hine, Darlene Clark; Hine, William C., and Stanley Harold, "The African-American Odyssey" (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2003), second edition. 594-595.
- Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, ed. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-Feminist Thought. (New York: The New Press, 1995). 65
- Smith, Barbara, "Memorandum to Retreat Participants," folder 12, "Black Feminist Retreats: Fourth Retreat," 1975, Barbara Smith Papers.
- Springer, Living for the Revolution (2005). 107.
- Springer, Living for the Revolution (2005). 142-143.
- Smith, Barbara. "A Press of our Own: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press", Frontiers vol. X, no. 3, 1989, p. 11.
- Short, Kayann. "Coming to the Table: The Differential Politics of This Bridge Called my Back", Genders 19 (1994), pp. 4-8.
- Smith, Barbara, "Towards a Black Feminist Criticism", The Radical Teacher, No. 7 (March 1978), pp. 20-27.
- The City of Albany, New York, "Albany Common Council Members - 2009". PDF.
- The City of Albany, New York, Honorable Barbara Smith. "The Official Site of the City of Albany, New York". Website.
- Bunting Fellowship
- N.O.W. bio of Smith.
- "Barbara Smith". New York State Writers Institute. Retrieved April 26, 2012.
- "Barbara Smith '69 is one of 1,000 Peace Activists Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize". Mount Holyoke College. Retrieved April 26, 2012.
- Black Feminism
- Lesbian Feminism
- Critical race theory
- Combahee River Collective
- Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press