The Ms. Q&A: Barbara Smith Looks Back on a Lifetime of Black Feminist Struggle

Barbara Smith is one of the most influential Black feminists of our time.

Smith co-founded the Combahee River Collective in 1974—best known for its groundbreaking Combahee River Collective Statement, which called attention to racism in the feminist movement and sexual oppression in the Black community. Since the 1970s, Smith has written extensively on Black feminist thought. Her landmark essay, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” published in 1977, underscored the significance of sexuality in reading Black women’s literature. 

In 1980, Smith co-founded, with Audre Lorde, the publishing house Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which exclusively published writings by women of color. In 1982, she coedited, with Patricia Bell-Scott and Gloria T. Hull, the first Black women’s studies anthology—All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. A year later, she edited Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, a trailblazing collection which featured writings by Black feminist and lesbian activists.

In an exclusive interview, Smith looked back on her activist career for Ms.—and took stock of the progress we’ve made and the fights we still have left ahead.

Tell us more about how you became an activist. How did your upbringing, and early experiences growing up in the U.S., affect your desire to engage in social and political activism?

I was born in Cleveland in 1946, which means that I was born during the last decades of official Jim Crow. Most of my family had migrated to Cleveland from Dublin, Georgia following World War I. Although they did not talk in detail about the horrors of domestic terrorism that they had experienced, they nurtured an alert level of racial consciousness in my twin sister and me. I often describe them as race women. They talked with each other in our hearing about the news, especially news that affected our people. When the Civil Rights movement began to get national attention, through the new medium of television, they paid close attention to what was going on. They also read Black newspapers, kept in touch with family members down South, and were active in our church where the minister consistently spoke out about racial issues.

Although I grew up in the North and did not directly experience the most extreme manifestations of white supremacy, Cleveland was definitely segregated. I sometimes think that I gained my initial racial consciousness through osmosis, by watching how my family members moved through the world. They did not necessarily have to say in detail how frightening and demeaning conditions had been in the South. Somehow I got that just by being around them.

When I was growing up many of the people I most admired were activists: Martin Luther King of course, but also Autherine Lucy, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Fannie Lou Hamer, Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine. The Civil Rights movement in Cleveland focused upon school desegregation and there was a major school boycott in 1964 in which CORE (where I later volunteered) had a leadership role. Students were actively recruited to become involved and that was my entrée into activism and organizing.

Blain: In 1974, you co-founded the Combahee River Collective—a Black feminist organization in Boston. Can you tell us more about your work with the organization, and the drafting of the Combahee River Collective Statement? What is most memorable to you about those years, and why?

The Combahee River Collective was originally a chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization. In 1975, our group in Boston decided to become an independent organization, and named ourselves after the Combahee River in South Carolina, where Harriet Tubman led a raid during the Civil War that freed more than 750 enslaved people. The collective was relatively small. In addition to our own organizing, we often worked in coalition with other groups focusing on issues like sterilization abuse, abortion rights and violence against women. In the late 1970s we organized seven political retreats so that Black feminists who did not live in Boston could meet each other, strategize and work together. The writers Cheryl Clarke, Akasha (Gloria) Hull and Audre Lorde participated in the retreats.

Zillah Eisenstein invited members of the collective to contribute to her anthology: Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism. That was the catalyst for my sister Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier and me to co-author “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” 

The statement’s Black socialist feminist analysis has had significant impact upon a variety of movements—not only the women’s movement. It provided a framework for intersectionality because it discussed the effects of simultaneous oppressions in the lives of Black women. It also introduced the much misunderstood and maligned concept of identity politics. What we meant by the term was that we had a right to define specific political agendas based in our identities as Black women in contrast to traditional Black politics which ignored the politics of gender. We never intended identity politics to be used as a justification for narrow separatism.

The most memorable organizing we did occurred when the Collective provided practical and ideological leadership throughout the city when twelve Black women were murdered in a four month period in 1979. What is most memorable overall was how amazing it was finally to find a place where it felt like we belonged—politically, culturally, emotionally and spiritually—even if we had to build it for ourselves. 

You also co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980, which published a myriad of groundbreaking books written exclusively by women of color during the 1980s and 1990s. Can you tell us more about the circumstances that led to the creation of Kitchen Table? When you reflect on the press’ tenure, what are you most proud of?

During a phone conversation with my friend Audre Lorde in the fall of 1980 she suggested that we needed to have our own press. I completely agreed and that is how Kitchen Table began. Kitchen Table was the first press for women of color in the United States that reached a wide national audience. From the very beginning we made a commitment to be a press for all women of color. Latina, Asian American, Indigenous and Black women formed the core group that got the press underway. We decided to publish women of color at a time when there was virtually no interest in this writing, especially if it had a feminist political perspective or if it dealt with LGBTQIA subject matter. Kitchen Table was unique because it was both a political and a literary publisher. I am proud of the quality of the work that we produced. Some of our books are considered classics that continue to find new audiences and are assigned in courses to this day.

When I see young, often queer women writers of color publish their first books with mainstream commercial publishers, I attribute their access to what Kitchen Table did to open the way.

In your writings over the years, you have highlighted the marginalization of queer activists of color in political movements. In what ways have things improved since the 1970s? From your perspective, what has changed—and what has remained consistent?

It seems like it is a lot easier for some people to be out these days than it was in previous decades. Because of years of movement organizing some attitudes have changed and some rights have been won. There is a celebrity culture that some LGBTQIA people of color get to participate in that would have been unimaginable until the last ten years or so. I believe, however, that most queer people of color still have difficult lives because of how homophobia and transphobia intersect with poverty, racism and gender oppression. The ongoing epidemic of murders of Black trans women reveals the violent hatred that our community faces and how much work still needs to be done.  

You have had a remarkable career as an activist, author and educator. What would you say is your greatest accomplishment? 

I think my greatest accomplishment is a lifetime of involvement in radical political organizing, starting when I was a teenager. A lot of people relate to politics as a kind of intellectual exercise. They are knowledgeable about the major issues oppressed people face; they follow current events; they may express opinions or write about injustice. What they are less likely to do is to get involved in the day to day work of organizing to make fundamental political change. They do not put themselves in situations of learning from and being led by those who are most directly targeted by systemic oppression. My observation is that all of our major leaps forward toward liberation come from the grassroots, not from the top down.

What projects are you currently working on? From where do you draw inspiration?

These are perilous times when as many of us as possible need to be speaking out and challenging the status quo. I always stay politically active mostly on a local level. I’m excited that a comrade and I recently started a study group with younger activists of color.

I am inspired by young organizers from two different eras. Those who are working today on a variety of issues including the Movement for Black Lives, immigrant rights, LGBTQIA liberation, disability rights, militarism, the climate crisis, Palestinian liberation, violence against women and more. The other group of young people are those who were in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I missed the opportunity to participate in SNCC because of my age and geographic location, but I have been inspired by SNCC my entire life. I admire their astonishing courage and their brilliant iconoclasm. They changed the course of history and my life.


Barbara Smith turned 70 in 2016. Because she has dedicated her life’s work towards liberation, and not to a career with a pension, she is still working paycheck to paycheck in order to make ends meet, pay her bills, and maintain health insurance. If you would like to offer support, please consider joining the Barbara Smith Caring Circle.

About

Keisha N. Blain is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the multi-prize winning book, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).