The Ms. Q&A: Barbara Smith on Finding Hope in the Struggle

The Combahee River Collective’s Black Feminist Statement turns 40 this year, along with the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA). In honor of the anniversaries, the intersections of feminist academia and the movement for black lives is the central focus of this year’s NWSA Conference. Barbara Smith, co-founder of the Collective, talked to Ms. about its legacy in the feminist movement, intersectionality and identity politics and finding hope in the struggle.

What is your hope for the legacy of the Combahee River Collective?

Smith: We were about doing organizing, black feminist organizing. We did more than write a statement. We were committed to both theory and practice. That’s what makes the Combahee River Collective unique. It was very clear that we weren’t just talking about black feminist identity. We were about doing the work, and that still needs to be the case.

Could you describe the work you were getting done?

We were organizing around issues affecting black women at a time when no one thought those issues existed. No one was talking about violence against women or reproductive rights as they impacted women of color.  The white women’s movement defined those issues through a white lens, and black nationalism and black power at that time were not paying attention to race and white supremacy on black women.  Very few were talking about homophobia.  Our statement looked at all of those issues with an incisive anti-capitalist perspective. We were looking at all the issues affecting black women.  We had not identified all issues at the writing of the statement, but we laid out a template that would allow people to identify those issues in the future and struggle around them.

Were you also involved in NWSA at the time?

I was at the first NWSA conference following the founding of the association. It was the same year I presented “Racism and Women’s Studies.”

What would you say is the significance of NWSA celebrating the anniversary of the CRC Black Feminist Statement alongside its own anniversary?

It’s quite amazing because the politics of the Combahee River Collective were radical leftist politics. The fact that now, this many years later, that the NWSA would see value in our legacy and those interventions, I’m amazed to this day. Personally, I had two focuses at that time: the building of black women’s studies and the building of black feminism.  I did not necessarily see those two things as residing comfortably with each other, particularly on the academic women’s studies side. So the fact that the work I was involved in simultaneously would be recognized as being of value by the leading women’s studies organization in the nation, that was quite profound. I think it shows that there’s been growth and development.

Have we learned the lessons from Combahee River Collective’s black feminist statement? There has been a great deal of lip service to “intersectionality,” and although we can recognize someone like Kimberlé Crenshaw coining the term intersectionality, I think most of us recognize the work Combahee River Collective did in laying the foundation for that analysis.

I think our focus on the simultaneity of oppression and identity politics, the concepts we brought forth in our statement work hand in hand with intersectionality. Historically the statement predates the work Crenshaw did on critical race theory and the development of the term. But they are absolutely in concert with each other and they are focused on similar political perspectives on how women of color experience oppression and how we fight it.

Do you think we have grasped the complexity around intersectionality and multiple oppressions?

Well, you can’t work on one vector of oppression and think you’re going to solve whatever problem you’re addressing. You have to be able to understand how systems of oppression connect with each other. So, let’s say you’re working on Food Insecurity and the undermining of safe and healthy food supplies, even if that’s where you are focusing your struggle, you still need an understanding of how class, race, gender, sexuality, how they have impact on the work you’re doing and you should also just care about what other people are worried about at the same time.

Here in Albany, we have a neighborhood that has serious environmental injustice with pollution coming from freight trains and diesel trucks. If we only focus on food apartheid–a better term than food deserts or food insecurity–and don’t take into account the other environmental injustices happening, even in that regard, we’ve missed the boat. The same neighborhood also experiences gun violence and high unemployment, so we cannot address these issues by looking simplistically at just one vector of oppression. But there has been so many distortion and lies about what we meant by identity politics.

In Mark Lilla’s recent book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, he cites from the Combahee River Collective statement, and it’s at the beginning of a chapter titled “Pseudo Politics.” It’s so incredibly insulting! Here’s someone who probably didn’t lift a finger to effect actual political change, but sits in his comfort and privilege to tell others what to think of these political issues. He’s gotten major play for saying awful things about those of us who think it is important to take into account the various standpoints from those of us who are not white, male, cisgender, heterosexual and wealthy. His arguments only work for those who identify that way, but they don’t think they’re practicing identity politics when in fact they are.

What is the biggest misunderstanding about identity politics?

When we used the term identity politics, we did not mean that we would not work with anyone who was different from ourselves and that we did not believe strongly and fervently in coalition politics. We did. The reason that we used the term identity politics is because we were asserting in the mid to late 1970’s that black women had a right to create our own political agendas based upon our actual political identities. No one ever brings this up.

When anyone talks about the failures of and the wrongheadedness of identity politics, they never examine or acknowledge what we meant for ourselves. And that I find infuriating. Because their understandings are so superficial. They want to use our own words to beat us up with and anyone else who thinks it makes a difference if you’re a trans woman of color who’s homeless and whose experiences will color the ways that she sees the world and what her needs are when it comes to change and social justice. Instead they take the most simplistic meaning and don’t place it in a proper historical context.

For black women in the 1970’s to say that the most meaningful politics come out of our identities, that was a revolutionary statement. No one else was saying that. Of course today, even Beyoncé can be a black feminist, but how did she get to be one?

How do you think multiple systems of oppression and identity politics play out in our current political climate?

The majority of people living in the United States are under attack by the present administration –  Muslims, women, LGBT people, black people, immigrants, poor people. One of the things I have said in the past and what this period embodies is that the right wing has an intersectional perspective about who they hold in contempt and who they wish to obliterate. The counter to that is a multi-issued coalition politics to fight and challenge all these attacks that are coming from our government. I think these politics are more vital and more useful than ever, and given the level of attention to these politics, we have to find other ways to struggle and we all have to be in this together and have consciousness about what our sisters and brothers are experiencing.

How do you see these issues impacting on the current #MeToo hashtag movement around sexual assault and harassment?

It’s really good whenever people who are being abused and brutalized speak out. I know there have been criticisms that the reason people are listening to this is because the victims are famous Hollywood women with lots of privilege. I don’t know if that’s a fair assessment of it, but I think it’s important for women and other people to speak out when they are under attack. I think the limitations is about who is believed. Women of color have been saying this for years and have been enduring this for years, but no one would listen because we’re not white and rich and famous. I think that critique is valid. On the other hand, there is a nationwide furor and set of discussions going on about what’s it like to be a woman and subject to the reality of unwanted sexual advances or the threat of them. That’s a good conversation to have.

How do we remain hopeful despite being under attack?

There’s always hope in struggle. You can’t struggle without hope. As long as people are struggling and organizing, there’s hope. In some instances, the scales are falling away from people’s eyes and some are beginning to see how undemocratic, how abusive and how wrong the hatemongering is that we’re experiencing during this period. People want a new way. I’m very excited about the poor people’s campaign that William Barber is co-leading and I’m involved in New York state for a similar campaign. Because I’m involved with struggle, I’m always hopeful.



Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.