For many Yale students, “intersectionality” is a catchphrase. For activist, writer and elected official Barbara Smith, it is her life’s work.
Speaking at a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Thursday, Smith addressed an audience of roughly 30 students and faculty members. Throughout the talk, Smith delved into her longstanding involvement with the civil rights, feminist and gay and lesbian liberation movements.
“[Intersectionality] is a familiar term, but many people don’t know where it came from,” Smith said. “The original analysis and practice grew out of the grassroots black feminist movement, which I helped to build.”
Smith took the audience through her childhood and journey to activism, and then went on to talk generally about contemporary social civil rights issues, such as Ferguson and marriage equality.
Smith said growing up under the Jim Crow regime triggered the growth of her social conscience, recalling how her status as a black woman meant she was considered socially inferior. But Smith said her parents did not let this get in the way of her education, and pushed her to do her best in school. Hard work granted her admission to the all-women’s Mount Holyoke College in 1965.
During her time in college, Smith became involved in a range of social justice movements, including the anti-Vietnam War protests. These experiences proved instrumental in her later work, she said.
Smith said that although there is still much to be done, she is amazed at how much progress has been made since the 1960s, citing the example of gay rights. It is remarkable that today the majority of states have marriage equality, she said.
However, Smith — who identifies as a lesbian — also cautioned that marriage equality will not solve problems like homophobic hate crimes, which are still widespread. Additionally, she noted that marriage has historically oppressed women.
“When I first came out [as a lesbian], I was so happy I wouldn’t have to get married,” she said.
Turning to race relations, Smith said the road ahead is still long, but added that she is impressed by the activism that has sprung up in response to events in Ferguson. She added that she finds recent protests against police brutality and the criminal justice system “inspiring.”
Smith urged the audience to continue the fight for justice and equality in broader issues of civil rights.
“Colleges and universities are always good places to speak up and mobilize people,” she said. “It’s always great when younger people stand up, because you are going to be here much longer.”
Audience members interviewed said Smith’s message resonated with them.
“She spoke really interestingly about her past and where she came from,” said Cassandra Dacosta ’15.
Alexander Borsa ’16 agreed, adding that hearing about the way Smith’s personal experiences affected and animated her political activism was very valuable.
Rianna Johnson-Levy ’17, coordinator of Yale’s LGBT Co-op, said that as someone who is trying to also bring her own black feminist heritage and ideals into campus activism, she found Smith’s talk very insightful.
Smith’s latest book, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” was published last year.