Barbara Smith: Mother of Black Feminism, Revolutionary Publisher
Hilda Smith received a college education — the first member of her family to do so — and she expected her twin daughters Barbara and Beverly to do the same. Born on December 16th of 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio, Barbara Smith grew up with a love of reading, but did not see her experiences as a black girl reflected in the books she voraciously read. It was not until she found James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On the Mountain that she saw a family in literature that remotely looked like her own. Still, she grew up thinking she was ugly because she never saw anyone who looked like her represented as a beautiful or worthy person.
Hilda died when the Smith twins were nine years old, but their grandmother and aunt, who helped raise them, continued to emphasize the importance of education. The Smith sisters were interested in activism as well as academics, participating in civil rights protests and marches during their high school years. Barbara went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1969 and a Master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971. Beginning in the 1970s, she became involved in the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements and quickly realized neither were attentive to the concerns of women of color.
In 1974, Smith co-founded the Combahee River Collective in Boston, Massachusetts. Unlike more mainstream black feminist groups such as the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), Combahee explicitly integrated the concerns of black lesbians into black feminist politics and organizing. After Smith attended a regional meeting of the NBFO in New York City in 1973, she intended to form a chapter in Boston, but chose instead to found her own organization due to the NBFO’s failure to incorporate black lesbians. The name of the collective, which met regularly from 1974 to 1980, was taken from a Civil War-era raid enacted by Harriet Tubman. Tubman worked with the Union Army to free 750 slaves during a raid that took place on the Combahee River in South Carolina. Smith chose the name because she wanted to reference black women’s history and the historical roots of black feminism.
Combahee is best known for their collective statement, co-authored by Smith, her sister Beverly, and Demita Frazier in 1977, which outlines the principles of black feminism and provides new ways for looking at identity-based oppressions and social justice work. The statement, authored following a black feminist retreat held by the collective in July of 1977, was also the first time black women specifically discussed the politics of sexuality as essential to black feminist activism. Chirlane McCray, a Combahee member, later authored an essay entitled “I Am a Lesbian,” published in Essence magazine in September of 1979, to help dispel the notion there were no gay black women. Following on the heels of Combahee’s collective statement, McCray’s essay was the first time an out black lesbian wrote about her sexuality in a black magazine.
The statement traces the historical roots of contemporary black feminism, outlines the collective’s beliefs, discusses problems in black feminist organizing, and names black women’s issues. Most significantly, the collective approached black feminism through the perspective of what they termed “identity politics,” or, the necessity of seeing black feminism as a movement through which the interconnected oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, and class could be combated. The statement thus decentered gender as the primary oppression of feminist organizing and race as the primary oppression of black organizing.
“We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression,” they said, and further described Combahee’s objective as the “development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.” The collective’s approach to the interconnected nature of oppressions was largely based on their personal experiences as black lesbian activists, and as Smith explained:
“Because I came out in the context of black liberation, women’s liberation and–most significantly–the newly emerging black feminist movement that I was helping to build, I worked from the assumption that all of the ‘isms’ were connected.”
Putting ideas articulated within the Combahee River Collective Statement into practice, Smith also transformed the emerging academic disciplines of Black and Women’s Studies and the publishing industry. Black Studies, developed as an academic arm of the Civil Rights Movement and broader anti-racist struggles, Smith noted, focused on the lives and experiences of black men, whereas Women’s Studies, developed as the academic wing of the second-wave Women’s Movement, focused on the lives and experiences of white women. In 1973, Smith taught one of the first university courses on black women’s literature at Emerson College in Boston and began writing criticism of black women’s literature that was attentive to issues of sexuality. In her landmark essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” first published in 1977, she posited a lesbian reading of the characters Sula and Nel from Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula.
Though she regularly taught the work of black women writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Ann Petry, they were not widely regarded as important literary figures, and Smith often had trouble acquiring the necessary books for her courses. Each semester she waited to hear from the university bookstore to see if her course could go forward as planned. Smith saw it necessary to address the lack of publishing opportunities that existed for women of color in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her friend and colleague, the self-described black lesbian feminist mother poet warrior Audre Lorde, felt the same way. During a phone conversation, she told Smith, “We really need to do something about publishing.”
This prompted Smith to co-found Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press along with Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Hattie Gossett, June Jordan, Cherríe Moraga, and Susan L. Yung. The press’ name was chosen because, as Smith explained: “the kitchen is the center of the home, the place where women in particular work and communicate with each other.” As the first publisher in the United States for women of color, Kitchen Table also foregrounded the voices of lesbian and queer women in landmark anthologies such as Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Smith, and This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color, edited by Anzaldúa and Moraga. Going beyond the theory and practice of black feminism, as articulated in the Combahee River Collective Statement, the press worked to build coalitions between women of various ethnicities and sexualities in response to the racial and and sexual exclusions of mainstream social justice movements.
Though Kitchen Table disbanded in 1992 following Audre Lorde’s untimely death from cancer, the legacy of the press continues through the changes it inspired in the mainstream publishing industry. Kitchen Table brought the work of women of color, many of whom were also lesbian or queer, to the forefront of American literature, and large publishing houses began to publish the work of writers such as Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, and Alice Walker.
Following her mother’s wishes, Barbara Smith used her knowledge to radically change the way we think about black women’s oppression, in particular, and the practice of social justice, in general. She has also been critical of the the extent to which the mainstream LGBTQ Rights Movement has strayed from its revolutionary roots, has excluded the concerns of LGBTQ people of color, and has shied away from working for long-term systemic change. The critiques Smith raises of the Gay Rights Movement in an essay she penned for The Nation remains just as relevant today as when they were first written in 1993, especially in light of the Trump administration’s attacks on LGBTQ Americans and immigrants and the increasing corporatization of Pride:
“Revolution seems like a largely irrelevant concept to the gay movement of the nineties. The liberation politics of the earlier era, which relied upon radical grassroots strategies to eradicate oppression, have been largely replaced by an assimilationist ‘civil rights’ agenda. The most visible elements of the movement have put their faith almost exclusively in electoral and legislative initiatives, bolstered by mainstream media coverage, to alleviate discrimination. When the word ‘radical’ is used at all, it means confrontational, ‘in your face’ tactics, not strategic organizing aimed at the roots of oppression…
When lesbians and gay men of color urge the gay leadership to make connections between heterosexism and issues like police brutality, racial violence, homelessness, reproductive freedom and violence against women and children, the standard dismissive response is, ‘Those are not our issues.’ At a time when the gay movement is under unprecedented public scrutiny, lesbians and gay men of color and others committed to anti-racist organizing are asking: Does the gay and lesbian movement want to create a just society for everyone? Or does it only want to eradicate the last little glitch that makes life difficult for privileged (white male) queers?…
If the gay movement ultimately wants to make a real difference, as opposed to settling for handouts, it must consider creating a multi-issue revolutionary agenda. This is not about political correctness, it’s about winning. As black lesbian poet and warrior Audre Lorde insisted, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Gay rights are not enough for me, and I doubt that they’re enough for most of us. Frankly, I want the same thing now that I did thirty years ago when I joined the civil rights movement and twenty years ago when I joined the women’s movement, came out and felt more alive than I ever dreamed possible: freedom.”