Barbara Smith is a black feminist, scholar, writer and sociopolitical powerhouse who has spent decades advocating for marginalized communities. Yesterday she came to Yale to give a master’s tea in Pierson College, where she touched on issues of activism and intersectionality. WKND sat down with Ms. Smith to talk history, race relations, and LGBTQ issues in America.
Q: In some of your past interviews, you mention how exposure to Black female literature greatly impacted your academic, political and social work. Could you explain more about that?
A: After attending Mount Holyoke College, I entered graduate school. My motivation for going to grad school was that I wanted to teach African-American literature, which was virtually not taught in universities in those days. Not even in historically Black colleges and universities. One of the first courses that I took was a seminar in Women’s literature. And just like African-American literature and studies, Women’s studies and literature was barely available. The person who taught the course was obviously innovative, but there were no women of color in the entire syllabus. Later, I had found out that Alice Walker was teaching a course on Black Women’s Literature at Wellesley College because I was a subscriber to Ms. Magazine. So I wrote to Alice Walker and asked if I could audit her course. That was the opportunity to be exposed to more Black women writers. People mostly associate me with helping to establish Black women’s studies in the U.S. and to build [the] Black feminist movement in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s. I went to become the co-founder of the Kitchen Table Press, a major publisher of stories by women of color.
Q: What about your activism during the Civil Rights Movement? And the changes and issues within it? What were your feelings at that moment?
A: It was exciting to come of age during the most dynamic periods — socially and politically — in U.S. history. As Black people living in the North [Ms. Smith was born in Cleveland], it was all impacting us. Especially the focus on Selma in the spring of 1965. I had graduated from high school with my twin sister, Beverly. We were anticipating going to college, but due to my age I was fully aware of the activism in the South. We were also paying attention to what was going on there because our family had moved from Georgia. When we began building the black women’s movement, we were exhilarated to find and work with other people who also thought that Black women were of value, were capable and that there was no need for us to be afterthoughts. There was a lot of sexism in the Civil Rights Movement and even more in the Black Power and Black Nationalist movements. For very alert, young Black women, that wasn’t working for us.
Q: What were the results of challenging those movements’ sexism?
A: We experienced a large amount of pushback, defamation and marginalization from the mainstream. There were people who were so radical about confronting racism, yet they saw us as race traitors for talking about sexism. We worked on a variety of women’s health issues, particularly sterilization abuse, which mostly affects Black, Latina and indigenous women. And women who had cognitive disabilities. The state thought they could control their reproductive capacities and rights. We also brought attention to violence towards women. And you can still see that attention to violence against women in newspapers right now, with what’s going on in these campus fraternities. The more things change, the more these issues are out in the open.
Q: Has there been any radical change in feminist thought and advocacy since the 1960s and 1970s, from your perspective?
A: There have always been different strains of politics. Everyone who says that they’re a feminist doesn’t necessarily believe the same things and have the same values as another person. There are mainstream and bourgeois feminists whose major concern is that they need to get paid the same as a man, they need to have as much power as a man and do things that men do. And then there are people who say that we need to look at the intersection of race, gender, class, sexual orientation and gender identity, then figure out how our politics are based on those things. I was one of the first people who began to talk about an intersectional perspective and how we understand our political and personal lives. I was a part of an organization, the Combahee River Collective, and we wrote a statement in 1977 that was one of the first, strongest and most analytical articulations of intersectional politics. A lot of people use the word, but not many know where it came from.
Q: This mainstream brand of feminism, as you call it, could be seen as not enough.
A: It’s still quite popular. We have that term “lean in,” and the book which became a mega-bestseller for Sheryl Sandberg. That is a way of understanding what women’s position is that doesn’t necessarily have depth. What if you are simultaneously a person of color, a woman and you don’t have economic or class privilege? This conversation occurred at this year’s Academy Awards when Patricia Arquette — an actor I love — talked about pay equity. But she went on to say that White women had done so much for people of color and gay people, so it was time they help them in return. Hello! Has she never thought that there are people who are simultaneously [all of] those things? It made no sense. Besides, pay equity mostly affects women who don’t earn a lot of money. It’s not people who are the top of the pay pyramids most affected by pay equity. The vast majority of people who make minimum wage are women, and that’s where pay equity hits.
Some people are articulating these narrow thoughts of feminism, as opposed to a deeper understanding of feminism and politics from an intersectional perspective. But I will say that it’s much more acceptable for women of color to be out as feminists now than back then. Now, Beyoncé can perform at the music awards and have “feminist” in sky-high letters behind her and still be the queen of us all. I think she’s made statements about her understanding of feminism and I think that she has more depth than some of the other manifestations we’ve been talking about. That’s interesting and unique. And the fact that “Selma” was directed by a black woman [Ava DuVernay] — that was powerful. In her film, the women are visible. There were women portrayed in that film that I didn’t even know about. Like the local women from Selma — I didn’t know about them.
Q: And what of activism today? Are we more active now, or more apathetic?
A: The majority of people of my generation were not involved in making dynamic political and social change. People who have that level of commitment and courage have never been the majority. So, don’t think that in the 1960s and 1970s that on an entire campus like Yale’s everybody was out supporting the Black Panthers or something. As far as today, I feel encouraged and impressed that the demonstrations around the verdicts in Ferguson and Long Island are happening. They seem more inclusive, when before there were such strict lines and lanes. People are more willing to be more accepting of diversity. Although I do know that the women who started “Black Lives Matter” feel that their work has been appropriated and have spoken out about that. But as someone who is an elder, I feel very inspired by young people speaking out. And people working across generations. I don’t know about the nuts and bolts of what could be done better. I’ve heard from younger activists that there needs to be more specific demands. Like, what besides “Don’t Shoot” or “Black Lives Matter”? What else are you demanding from the power structure?
Q: You’ve never shied away from presenting yourself as not just a Black feminist, but as a lesbian Black feminist. What sort of positive changes have you seen in regard to LGBTQ support, and what else can be improved upon?
A: One change I’ve seen is how President Obama and his views have evolved. Of course, I heard that he was never opposed to lesbian and gay marriage, but, politically, he couldn’t come out with that. That the first black president is also the first president of any race to openly support gay, lesbian and transgender people is wonderful. And then we see in “Empire,” my favorite show these days, a character is gay and his mother is fiercely supportive of him. I see the changes. For me, being visibly out in this country during the 1970s — well, I’ve paid a lot of dues for that. But I’ve seen results.
One of the things that can be improved upon, I would say, is that we should see the intersectionality in LGBTQ issues. When you look at class, race, gender in relation to LGBTQ identity you begin to see the complexity of what true freedom and justice look like. There was a report issued from the Center of American Progress late last year. It looks at housing discrimination, employment discrimination, poverty, health care discrimination, and on and on. it’s a nuanced and thoroughly researched document about what besides and above marriage we need to be concerned about. We need to understand that the LGBTQ community isn’t just about White, affluent, gay men on TV or in magazines. They’re a part of the community, too, but their experience does not subsume those of us who have multiple identities. The fact is that trans women of color are the most likely to be living poverty, to be incarcerated, to be the subject of hate crimes including murders. Marriages aren’t going to solve hate crimes, transphobia and homophobia. There’s more to LGBTQ freedom than marriage. We must continue to keep plugging away. Still it’s remarkable for me, coming out a few years after Stonewall, that a majority of the states now have marriage equality. We weren’t even thinking about that then. We were trying to stop Anita Bryant!