Barbara Smith was born on December 16, 1946. She is a respected lesbian feminist, teacher, lecturer, author, scholar, publisher, revered critical thinker, and former public official and radio panelist. In 2005, Smith was among the nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Barbara Smith was born in Cleveland, Ohio to Gartrell Smith and Hilda Beall Smith. Her identical twin sister, Beverly Smith, is also a lesbian feminist, activist and writer.
Smith’s family migrated from Georgia to Ohio seeking relief from the racism of Jim Crow laws and better economic opportunities. Gartrell Smith was largely absent from family life; Hilda Beall Smith met her husband during her attendance at Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Georgia 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 Hilda Beall Smith to return home to her family. Barbara Smith and her sister were born prematurely.
Beall Smith died from complications of rheumatic fever when Barbara Smith was nine, and the siblings were brought up by Smiths’ extended family, with her grandmother as primary caretaker. They grew up in working-class family, living in a two-family house inhabited by their maternal grandmother, two aunts, and the husband of one aunt. Smith credits her dedication to scholarship to her familial upbringing—she was surrounded by an extended family made up entirely of intellectually and politically-oriented women. A librarian aunt brought books home, and made the house a center for discussion and pointed political awareness.
“I’m kind of a natural activist,” Smith later told “Ms.” magazine. “By the time I was eight I noticed that things were not fair.” Her grandmother had been a schoolteacher to Black pupils when she lived in Georgia. On education, Smith recalled, “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.”
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 while in college, participated in activities with Students for a Democratic Society. 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.
Despite being academically gifted and attending well-resourced public schools, Barbara Smith was a shy child who did not escape humiliating experiences of racism. She recalled instances of racial discrimination and grew up believing she was “ugly” because she did not see anyone in the media “who faintly looked like [her] being looked at as a beautiful person.” Watching their mother and aunts ignored by shopkeepers and insulted by white strangers, the twins sensed that there was something wrong. Smith wrote in “Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology,” that “The cold eyes of certain white teachers…the Black men who yelled from cars as Beverly and I stood waiting for the bus convinced me that I had done something horrible.” She also experienced racial hostility from a French instructor who believed Smith did not belong in her summer French seminar.
Smith cites James Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” as inspiring her through his portrayal of families that were like hers. A gifted student, Smith excelled in her honors classes, and gained entrance to Mount Holyoke College in 1965. Fatigued by the racial animosity at the college, she transferred to the New School in New York City, and pursued her studies in social science. She later returned to graduate from Mount Holyoke for her senior year in 1969.
Barbara Smith has been politically active in many movements for social justice since the 1960s. She was among the first to define an African American women’s literary tradition, and stood out among a wave of scholars and critics leading in that definition, and establishing Black women’s studies in college and university curricula. Since the early 1970s, Smith has been active as a critic, teacher, lecturer, author, scholar, and publisher of Black feminist critical thought.
Smith settled in Boston after receiving a Master of Art degree in literature from the University of Pittsburgh. Smith’s staff position at “Ms.” allowed her to obtain critical contacts, and through the publication, met Margaret Sloan, a founder of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). Both woman were intrigued by the call for attendance to the NBFO’s Eastern Regional Conference in 1974, and caucused with women from the Boston area, and made contacts in order to establish a Boston NBFO chapter, which they established in 1975. 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.
The Boston chapter held politics that were significantly more radical than the platform of the NBFO, and 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, the Combahee River Collective moved quickly to write a manifesto. The Combahee River Collective Statement identified 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 ensuring that Black feminism would survive as a radical movement. But the organization lost momentum, as conversations of lesbianism and educational advancement alienated some members from participating. As a result of leadership conflict and interpersonal disputes, membership in Combahee declined, and the last meeting was held in February 1980.
An enthusiast of American literature and writing, Smith pursued English study throughout her education. She entered 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 in “Ms.” 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 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, a suggestion of her friend Audre Lorde compelled Smith to establish Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980 in Boston, and they relocated to New York in 1981. In collaboration with a number of notable writers and feminist thinkers, including Lorde and June Jordan, they published several pamphlets and books that would come to be embraced in ethnic studies, women’s studies, queer studies, and Black studies programs. Included were “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. In addition, it influenced feminist studies in incorporating intersectionality as a legitimate lens of inquiry.
During her time as publisher of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Smith 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.
Smith has edited three major collections about Black women: “Conditions (magazine): Five, The Black Women’s Issue” in 1979, “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies” in 1982, and “Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology.” She collected her various writings in the anthology “The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom” in 1998. She is also a co-author of “Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism.”
Barbara 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.”
Smith has taught English, African American literature, Black women writers, and Black women’s studies at a number of institutions for more than forty years, most recently at the College of Saint Rose. Since 2010, Barbara Smith has been a public service professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany’s School of Social Welfare in Albany, New York.
A born leader with many talents, The Honorable Barbara Smith served two terms representing the Fourth Ward in the City of Albany’s Common Council, where she focused on addressing violence and increasing educational opportunity for youth and families, especially in economically challenged neighborhoods. In 2008, she served as the Council’s liaison to the Gun Violence Task Force, and led the effort to establish Albany SNUG/CeaseFire. In April 2013, she announced that she would not seek re-election, and declared her support for her Democratic Primary opponent, Kelly Kimbrough.
In 2014, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith” was published by State University of New York Press. 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. In recognition of her groundbreaking contributions, the Albany Public Library Foundation awarded Barbara Smith the title of Literary Legend on November 14, 2015.
Smith is an activist against Islamaphobia, starting a website and coordinating marches in support of immigrants and refugees.
In August 2017, Smith resigned as a regular panelist on WAMC Radio’s “The Roundtable” because, she said, the program lacks diversity.
Smith continues to lecture, and has donated her papers to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York. She currently works with the City of Albany Mayor’s Office, overseeing initiatives that address economic, racial, and social inequality. According to Smith, her ultimate hope is that “…we can recognize the humanity of people’s differences, and try to treat each other more humanely.”
We thank Barbara Smith for her visionary leadership, her empowering writing, and for her many contributions to our community.