Today we address a feminist icon, civil rights legend, and queer revolutionary, Barbara Smith, one of the longest and most committed activists to freedom and justice for all people. She’s 73 years old today but age has hardly slowed her down. As she is still actively sought after by people from all walks of life. Smith’s 50 plus years of social justice advocacy makes her one of the most knowledgable and qualified civil rights leaders in the world. An incredible feat for anyone, but especially a black lesbian born in the middle of the Jim Crow era. How did she manage to become the fierce leader she is today? Well, let’s start back at the beginning.
On a chilly winter evening, just a few weeks before Christmas, twin girls were born on December 16, 1946. Barbara and Beverly Smith were born to a struggling young couple who had eloped and runaway to Ohio. Seeking to outrun the extreme racism of their home in Georgia. But the twin’s father, Gartrell, was rejected by his wife Hilda’s, family. Frustrated and overwhelmed, the young newlywed mother took her daughters alone back home to Georgia. For the next several years she raised them with support from her family. Then, when the girls were just 9 years old, Hilda Beall Smith contracted Rheumatic Fever and died a few weeks later.
The sisters were then sent to live with their grandmother in Cleveland, Ohio where their father’s family still resided. What happened to Gartrell Smith seems to be a bit of a mystery. We do know that he was in the armed services and perhaps was stationed overseas and never came home. Whatever the reason, it was Barbara and Beverly’s grandmother and aunts who raised them. And this influence would play a profound impact on their lives. The young girls saw how their aunts were treated badly by white business owners because they were black. Or how their grandmother was ignored by men because she was a woman. Barbara would write later in life in her book Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology:
“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.” [Source – Enclyclopedia]
Throughout her adolescence, Barbara would struggle with feeling ugly and unwanted. She pointed out how there no one, “who faintly looked like me being looked at as a beautiful person”. The lack of representation was only one of the many issues black Americans faced during this time. But it shows the incredibly deep impression this leaves on a child of color who only sees themselves portrayed as grotesque or broken or strange. And the local and daily interactions did not help. Barbara once had to dispute a French teacher who believed the young teen had no place in her summer French course. This assumption was based solely on Barbara’s race as the teacher completely disregarded her high grades and excellent school record.
Regardless of the many obstacles, Barbara excelled in her studies. And when she wasn’t acing her courses, she and her twin were protesting racial injustice. By their junior and senior year of high school, the two regularly participated in desegregation rallies and became active in the civil rights scene. They also joined CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. An organization that was creating quite an upheaval in the Jim Crow South of the early ’60s. Just 3 years before the teens joined the movement, CORE had staged Freedom Summer. A campaign based in Mississippi which accomplished such tasks as; registering over 80,000 Black Mississippians to vote and creating 30 Freedom Schools for black children in the State.
And while all of this exciting news was inspiring, it was always weighed with the gravity of violence that followed the campaign. That summer alone, 80 activists were beaten by mobs or the police, and 67 homes and churches were firebombed. Two years later, right around the time that Barbara and Beverly were joining up, three CORE members were murdered by the Klu Klux Klan. It would be 41 years before any justice was served and only one of the men was tried, convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Yet the tides were slowly turning, and Barbara and her sister were insistent on being a part of this historical movement.
As seniors in high school, they helped to desegregate Mount Holyoke College. And after graduation, Barbara attended the college for a brief period but blatant racism was difficult. So in the fall, she transferred to The New School University in New York City. A college that had been founded to encourage progressive values and mold new and bold thinkers. There she studied social sciences for the next 3 years and returned to Mount Holyoke to complete her degree. While The New School was the place Barbara wanted to be, no doubt she realized a diploma from Mount Holyoke would carry more weight.
She then used the degree to gain entrance into the University of Massachusetts where she earned her masters. And upon graduation, Barbara was hired on staff. One of her biggest frustrations was the lack of academic material about black literature. So Barbara designed her own course, one of the earliest of its kind taught in mainstream Universities. And along with her educational success, throughout her college experience, Barbara also continued her activism. But she was frustrated with the sexism within the Civil Rights movement. Along her journey, Barbara had learned a lot about single-issue activism and realized it didn’t serve her full identity.
While attending Mount Holyoke, Barbara described the place as having “lesbian undercurrents that nobody talked about”. Whether she first explored her sexuality during this time or not, it no doubt opened her eyes to the possibilities of living openly. Somewhere around the mid-1970’s Barbara came out as a lesbian and became more involved in the black, lesbian, feminist movement. This was especially radical even within the civil rights movement. Smith addressed the issue of male chauvinism in her interview with the Making Gay History podcast. She stated:
There’s an extreme amount, it seems to me, of male chauvinism in certain black context. Which is a direct result of racism and the deficit of never being able to lead or have freedom in a racist country. So, to make up for white supremacy in certain black political context, the black men are even more chauvinistic. Because they’re really going to show who is boss. Because they are so – rightfully – angry about not being recognized as capable and full human beings. In the context where white men get to call the shots. Being a lesbian feminist, as I was in that period, was about sticking holes in every terrorist value and belief [ Source – Making Gay History]
What Barbara experienced was the clash in her intersecting identities. On the one hand, she wanted to fight for her rights as a black American. Yet often found the rights of her gender and orientation ignored. Consequently, within the feminist movement, she often faced racism and homophobia. These issues pushed the young activist to incorporate an all-encompassing approach to social justice. This is exactly why queer people of color have led the way in our countries civil rights revolution. It is precisely because of their intersecting oppressions that they are able to see the many sides of the coins. Whereas single-issue activism may yield a quicker and more resounding result, multi-issue activism yields more substantial and longer-lasting results. This is why Smith, to this day, continues to avoid organizations and communities that shut out other oppressed peoples.
But where then is a black, lesbian feminist to go in the mid-1970s? Having no other resources, Barbara partnered with her sister Beverly and their friend Demita Frazier to found the Combahee River Collective. The name itself spoke to a powerful statement of black feminist power. On the night of June 1, 1863, into the wee hours of the 2nd, Harriet Tubman led 150 Union soldiers deep into Confederate territory. Using intelligence gathered from runaway slaves, Harriet and her command raided the coastline of the Combahee River. Destroying plantations and estates while rescuing over 750 slaves. In the entire ordeal, only one person was killed and 100 of the newly freed men promptly joined the Union Army. Making Harriet Tubman the only woman to have led a successful military campaign during the Civil War.
So it was with great pride that Barbara Smith and other black feminists chose the name Combahee River Collective as the title of their new organization. It was radical and open to all, describing itself as a class conscious, sexuality affirming, black feminist organization. And while Combahee was just what the movement needed, it wasn’t what many civil rights activists or feminists wanted. In February of 1980, the final meeting would be held. But not before Barabara and her friends went out with a bang. This resulted from Barbara’s 1977 piece ‘Toward a Black Feminist Criticism’ and member Chirlane McCray’s powerful 1979 essay ‘I Am A Lesbian’. In both pieces, the women addressed the rainbow elephant in the room. There were such things as black lesbians and they were just as involved in the fight for social justice as everyone else.
In 1978, Smith was invited to speak on the first panel ever about black women writers. However, no other lesbians or even feminists were invited to speak, despite her pleas. Barbara read her essay and all hell broke loose. A prominent member of the group got up as soon as Smith had finished and stated, “I have sympathy for my sister, but homosexuality is the death of the race”. In the back of the room, several of Barbara’s friends watched helplessly as she was berated, insulted, and harassed by her fellow Black writers. Among those watching was the esteemed author and proud lesbian warrior Audre Lorde.
Though the Combahee River Collective was closed down, Barbara was not through. In 1980 she, Lorde, and several other women of color launched The Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. While it was always a modestly small organization, it’s legacy as the first publisher for women of color was hugely impactful. Because of The Kitchen Table and breakthrough essays like Toward A Black Feminist Criticism and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, other authors such as famed Toni Morrison were able to have their work taken seriously. For the next 12 years, the women at The Kitchen Table would produce and publish some of the most critical literature of the day. But in 1992 that chapter in Barbara’s life closed when her friend Audre passed away from cancer.
Smith continued her fight for equal rights for all, while also providing deserved criticisms within her own movements when warranted. She had been protesting for LGBTQ rights since the late 70s’ and continued to do so. Yet she was disappointed in the way the movement began to mirror early Black Civil Rights activism. She wrote in a 1993 essay:
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.” [source – Medium]
What Barbara points out here is the foundational difference between the Gay Rights Movement and the Queer Revolution. The two stemmed from the same circumstances. Yet one evolved into a white lead, conservative based, heteronormative structure. And the other was carried by black and brown people, heralded as a radical agenda, and defied the binaries of our social system. For most of the late 80s’ far into the 2000s’, the two groups could not have been the more polar opposite. The white-based LGBT groups plead for tolerance as they ignored the needs of marginalized people in their own community. And queer revolutionaries threw up their hands in disgust and the Gay Rights Movement became the white, lesbian and gay movement. It wasn’t until the late 2000s into the 2010s’ that major organizations began to experience a shift toward embracing outside the white, binary realm.
And while we could attribute this to the evolution of understanding and empathy, there is also the practical point of a concept known as ‘interest convergence’. It’s a crucial aspect of Critical Race Theory, and we took the following definition of the concept from an NPR article by David Shih:
Interest convergence is a theory coined by the late Derrick Bell, law professor and spiritual godfather to the field of study known as critical race theory. Interest convergence stipulates that black people achieve civil rights victories only when white and black interests converge. The signature example is Brown v. Board of Education, which happened because it advanced white interests too, Bell argued. Specifically, desegregation raised the nation’s prestige in world politics during the Cold War. Eventually, when interests diverged, the enforcement of civil rights was curtailed: Brown was undercut by later cases that sanctioned segregation for decades. Bell pointed to later affirmative-action triumphs as examples of renewed interest convergence. [ Source – NPR ]
As explained above, when black and brown people’s white counterparts see a benefit in extending civil rights to all, they jump at the chance. However, in times when it is not perceived as beneficial to support marginalized parts of the community, white individuals will ignore their needs and demands. And though interest convergence specifically applies to matters of race, many of the same themes can be found in other aspects of the queer community. Such as the way transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals were virtually ignored by mainstream LGBTQ organizations until the early 2000s. And even then, it wasn’t until several independent studies were made by trans and non-binary people supporting their claims that cisgender counterparts saw an opportunity to gain state and federal funding. Thus the interests converged as it now became profitable for cisgender LGB people to support the Trans and GNC (Gender-nonconforming) community.
In the social justice world there have always been people crusading for their rights, and people crusading for everyone’s rights. Barbara Smith is a woman who has always fought for equal and equitable rights of all people. And that’s why she walked away from the mainstream LGBTQ movement. In 1987 she was one of only 8 speakers to address the over 1 million queer people who marched on Washington. She had been among the very first 100,000 LGBT marchers at the state capitol in 1979. Yet by the mid-90s’ she saw a group overtaken by a desire to conform. Something the queer revolution has never been about. We are the people who defy the laws, and standards, and socially constructed gender roles. We break the barriers of love and acceptance. We promise an image of a world that could be. But in the 90s’, whether through fear, selfishness, or ignorance, LGB leaders left the non-conformers behind. And it would be nearly two decades before attention would drift to the so-called ‘others’ again.
But while she left the mainstream movement, she by no means abandoned her queer siblings. In 1999, Barabara and several other activists wrote an open letter to the Millennium March organizers. It was titled “Will People of Color Pay the Price?” and detailed the abuse and willful blindness towards the needs of queer minority groups. Yet the letter went unheard and that was the final March on Washington that Barbara Smith attended. Instead, she poured her energy into multi-issue organizing which she continues to pursue to this day. She founded the website Stop Islamophobia several years ago and published a 40-year work in 2014 titled Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith.
Over the years she’s won many awards including the Stonewall Award in 1994 and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She’s also had several pieces of her work archived and she is one of the most sought after literary teachers in the country. Yet at the heart of it all, her passion remains for freedom and justice for all. Just last year she wrote a scathing piece in the New York Times. Staying true to the message she’s preached over 55 years of activism, Barbara concluded her article with these words:
“Gaining rights for some while ignoring the violation and suffering of others does not lead to justice. At best it results in privilege.” [source-NYT ]
Your recommended resource is the book, Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Or watch one of Barbara Smith’s many lectures on Youtube. We linked one on our page titled God Don’t Like Ugly and She’s Not Too Stuck on Pretty Either. And most importantly, make sure you are supporting organizations that promote and focus on the needs of all people. This means they not only recognize that marginalized individuals have more needs, but that they are actively trying to meet those needs. Be aware and stay committed to justice for all.
- Times – https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/us/barbara-smith-black-queer-rights.html
- Medium – https://medium.com/queer-history-for-the-people/barbara-smith-mother-of-black-feminism-revolutionary-publisher-4189232e15b0
- Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Smith
- Encyclopedia – https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/american-literature-biographies/barbara-smith
- NPR (Interest Convergence) – https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/523563345/a-theory-to-better-understand-diversity-and-who-really-benefits
- Making Gay History – https://makinggayhistory.com/podcast/barbara-smith/
- Tubman – https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/combahee-river-raid-june-2-1863/