Barbara Smith Is Making A Stand
Barbara Smith has fought oppression for 40 years.
Barbara Smith is the first to admit she knows nothing about lesbian culture, or celesbians, although she’s quick to add, “I find Robin Roberts so charming!” The black lesbian activist and scholar has been in the trenches fighting for intersectional feminist justice for over 40 years. Politics, not pop, resides in Smith’s heart.
“Cultural visibility and popularity in the mainstream consciousness is not going to get us where we need to go,” she explains. “We need to look at the structural barriers at the root of our oppressions.”
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, a collection of essays documenting Smith’s years of activism, teaching, and learning, was published by SUNY Press last year and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for lesbian memoir/autobiography. The book’s title is taken from a Civil Rights Movement freedom song. For Smith, the award was particularly resonant, given the current racial tensions in America. While giving a nod to black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, Smith contends that the Combahee River Collective Statement, written in 1977 by lesbian feminists and feminists of color, was the first to “talk about interlocking oppressions and the simultaneity of oppressions, so that, today, ‘intersectionality’ rolls off the tongue of so many people.”
She is pleased to see that the intersectional politics of the Combahee River Collective, and of the lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970s, is alive today in the Black Lives Matter movement—the three founders of which are Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. The first two of these women identify as queer. Smith is appreciative of the women behind the greatest social justice movement of the 21st century. “While we are not living under state-sanctioned segregation,” she notes about the rise of BLM, “we’re still living in a segregated society.”
She points out that the contemporary cultural prevalence of identity politics also originated in the Combahee statement, but she sees a difference in how the term was used then and how it’s wielded today. “We wanted to legitimately look at the various elements of our identity and forge a politics and a praxis out of those intertwining identities—that’s what we meant about identity politics. We didn’t want to see people beat each other over the head.”
“The thing is,” Smith continues, “everyone has an identity—historically, culturally, politically, and economically based—and you can’t get rid of that. You can’t run away from it. What we meant as feminists of color in the Combahee was not that the only people who are important are people like ourselves. The reason why we asserted identity politics so strongly at that time—at the time black women were so devalued and so marginalized that nobody thought we counted for anything—was that no one thought it was legitimate for us to have our own political perspectives, or that there was even a political perspective to begin with. Where were black women to stand? That was the point we were making.”
Smith’s activism began in the 1960s when she joined the Civil Rights Movement, and has continued into the 2010s; most recently, she was a member of the Albany, N.Y., Common Council from 2006 to 2013. Her passion for social justice has also transformed the classroom—Smith is credited as being one of the founders of black women’s studies, and she has solidified her status as an academic rock star with the publication of All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (co-edited with Gloria T. Hull and Patricia Bell Scott) in 1982, and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology in 1983. She is also the co-founder (and publisher until 1995) of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U. S. publisher for women of color. (Fascinating side note: Smith’s twin sister, Beverly Smith, is also a lesbian, an activist, and a scholar.)
At the epicenter of Smith’s politics is class analysis. America’s wealth disparity transcends categories of race, gender, and sexuality, and, in fact, unites and intersects all three. Oppression is primarily rooted in class distinctions—a politics held by many lesbian-feminists and lesbian-feminists of color, most notably Angela Davis. Poverty does not discriminate, and people of all races, genders, and sexualities are, in today’s America especially, feeling impoverished and exploited in their jobs.
“We need a broader consciousness about how both class and economic oppression affect people in this country,” Smith asserts. “Our economy is not moving. People are basically treading water and staying in place—and just barely getting by. But the One Percent is doing incredibly well, and their riches continue to skyrocket and grow.”
Having worked in many social justice movements for over four decades, Smith believes the key to these movements is their diversity and politics of inclusion. For her lesbian sisters, both young and old, she hopes that they “also identify as feminists and are committed to organizing [the fight against] multiple oppressions, so that they and everybody else will one day get the freedom that they all deserve.”
This also means, Smith stresses, an inclusion of trans women in our movement: “Nowadays, I really feel that there’s room for everybody.” She finds it ironic, as well as disheartening, that so many lesbians are critical of trans women—when not so long ago lesbians’ own gender identity as women was interrogated by straight women. “Back in the good old days of the ’70s, of ’70s lesbian-feminism, lesbians were understood to be outlaws, and we were outlaws in relation to the gender paradigm of nuclear families and very constrictive roles for women. And some of us still are, because we’re not conforming to conventional gender expectations, so the question then is are lesbians actual women, when lesbians by definition don’t fit the normative category of ‘woman’?
“People spend a lot of time debating and arguing when what we should actually be doing is making radical change and working for justice and freedom,” Smith says about the divisiveness plaguing the fight for gender equality. “That’s a better use of our time.”
Amen to that.