Barbara Smith - History and Activism

History and Activism

In 1975 Smith reorganized the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization to establish the Combahee River Collective.

As a socialist Black feminist organization the collective emphasized the intersectionality of racial, gender, heterosexist, and class oppression in the lives of Blacks and other women of color. 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," explains Beverly Guy-Sheftall in her introduction to Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-Feminist Thought. After working for the National Observer in 1974, Smith committed herself to avoiding being "in the position of having to make own writing conform to someone else's standards or beliefs," (Smith 1998).

Soon thereafter Smith felt the need for women of color to have their own autonomous publishing resource and in 1980, along with Audre Lorde and Cherríe Moraga, co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher for women of color. During her time as the publisher for Kitchen Table, Smith continued to write and a collection of her essays, articles and reviews can be found in The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom.

Smith's article "Toward a Black Feminist Consciousness" (1982), first published in All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men, But some of Us 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. She has edited three major collections about Black women: Conditions (magazine) : Five, The Black Women's Issue (with Lorraine Bethel), 1979; All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (with Gloria T. Hull and Patricia Bell Scott), 1982; and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, (first edition, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983; second edition, Rutgers University Press, 2000).

"What I really feel is radical is trying to make coalitions with people who are different from you. I feel it is radical to be dealing with race and sex and class and sexual identity all at one time. I think that is really radical because it has never been done before," (Smith as cited in Hill Collins, 2000).

Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term identity politics, which they defined as "a politics that grew out of our objective material experiences as Black women. Smith noted in an interview in off our backs, a feminist magazine, that "I have been called an essentialist. By `essentialist' mean that when I look in the mirror and see a Black woman, I think it means something. It's not just a representation. I share a political status with other Black women although my history is unique."

Continuing her work as a community organizer, Smith was elected to the Albany NY Common Council (city council) in 2005, representing Ward 4. She was reelected in 2009, and also worked during this period on staff with David Kaczynski at New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on innovative solutions to violent crime. Smith continues to serve the 4th Ward, and is active on the issues of youth development, violence prevention, and educational opportunities for poor, minority and underserved persons.

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