Barbara Smith, critic, teacher, activist, lecturer, and author of The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom (1998, Rutgers University Press) offers her own opinion. Right or wrong, history should and must be more comprehensive and inclusive, especially when it comes to literary tradition. For Smith, a long time advocate and innovator in the field of Black Women’s Studies, this does not mean “rewriting” history, but opening it up to include all races and genders.
Smith is an author and independent scholar who has played a groundbreaking role in opening up a national cultural and political dialogue about the intersections of race, class, sexuality and gender. In her innovative work. She was among the first to define an African American women’s literary tradition and to build black women’s studies and black feminism in the United States.”
Smith describes herself as being “born into segregation” in 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio. Describing a “world class education” there, Smith’s formative years were hardly typical of most black Kentuckians. Yet, her experiences during that time seem almost universal. Although she cannot recall a singular incident that sparked her decision towards activism, like many other African Americans, Smith remembers one of her first “ugly immersions” into the pool of racism. Despite the honor of being selected to take a French class at the early age of eight, Smith’s experience (along with her twin sister) was anything but honorable. “There were only two or three black students there, and I remember feeling hated and unusual. The teacher was mean to us, and obviously did not think we belonged there. My sister and I brought cookies to class, and many of the white kids would not eat the cookies.”
Growing up during the Civil Rights era meant the dichotomy of being aware of the strides blacks were making, and at the same time viewing the struggle (via television), that it took to gain those achievements. With roots in Georgia, Smith’s family was “conscious of blacks achieving positions of power, but … growing up in the general atmosphere of racism, it did not take long to notice that things were not fair.”
Smith recalls regretting not being able to join in the 1963 March on Washington, but she notes that her “first involvement [in the movement] was not observing, but action. I attended a demonstration for desegregation at a high school. Although I had never been to a place like that, I knew I just didn’t like things the way they were.”
As a college student in the late 60s at the prestigious (but mostly white) Mount Holyoke, Smith found herself facing other obstacles. She remembers “I wanted to write both fiction and essays, like my hero, James Baldwin. Unfortunately the white male poet and rising literary star who taught short story that year gave me very little encouragement. In fact I was humiliated by his response to my work [Introduction to The Truth That Never Hurts].”
Deciding to work from the inside to change things, Smith began an independent study of black writers (although having to concentrate almost exclusively on males) that was the foundation of her later activism in the field.
“Although I enjoyed reading Langston and James Baldwin, I wanted to incorporate people like Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, etc.”
In an effort to study literature that included “someone like [her]self,” she discovered a dearth of material. Trying to decide on a major, she found a study of Black Literature (not to mention Black Women’s Literature), “nearly impossible except as part of Sociology, in the context of blacks as a ‘social problem.'”
It was then that she wanted to “expand the knowledge base beyond the point of zero.” Smith was determined to find an academic place for black women writers to be known, and she found that she was not alone in her quest.
The women’s movement was gaining strength at this time, and Smith was exposed to others with similar goals and interests. Writer Alice Walker, who was teaching a course at the University of Pittsburgh, was one of these people. Smith asked to audit that course, and she reflects that, “having that syllabus and being exposed to black women’s literature on that level had quite an impact. After that, my objective in attending Graduate School was so that I could teach Black literature. The kinds of things that people can study now were not available at that time.” Smith felt that literary criticism was crucial to the expansion of knowledge. “As I was learning, and looking at the primary texts concerning women of color, there was no framework for looking at a body of work and making sense out of it.”
Teaching was one way to “spread the word about women of color,” but, having written since elementary school, Smith decided to use that medium for her activism as well. Once again, a meeting with a like mind reinforced her commitment. In the introduction to her book, Smith writes of Audra Lorde: ” …knowing her was …important to my survival and growth as a writer. My involvement in black feminist organizing, especially the Combahee River Collective, my work to build black women’s studies, and my academic training and personal immersion in literature were all elements that made it possible for me to write.”
Once the commitment was made, Smith wasted no time. Her articles, essays, literary criticism, and short stories have appeared in a variety of publications. She has edited three major collections about black women, and she is also the co-author with many well-known feminist writers. Her most recent group effort is as general editor of The Reader’s Companion to U. S. Women’s History with Wilma Mankiller, Gwendolyn Mink, Marysa Navarro, and Gloria Steinem.
Smith was the first woman of color to be appointed to the Modern Language Association’s Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession. It was at the annual convention in December 1974 that she noted that “not a single program on black women’s literature was included.” The next year Smith saw that a “seminar on Zora Neale Hurston was included for the first time. I wanted to spread the news that there was something called a black women’s writer, and she needed to be included in the tradition.”
“To be a writer, you have to be comfortable with the tools of your trade.” It was in this vein that the already busy Smith decided in 1980 (with Ms. Lorde) to co-found Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Smith writes ” … a small but devoted group of feminist activists, teachers, and writers, many of them black women, have been working to make visible the writing, culture, and history of women of color. It was their work, not Madison Avenue’s that laid the political and ideological groundwork for Kitchen Table.” Smith once again broke the rules of popular politics by making the press a political as well as literary tool. “We have always considered the Press to be both an activist and a literary publisher, because we are equally committed to producing work of high artistic quality that simultaneously contributes to the liberation of women of color and of all people. We do not simply publish a work because it is by a woman of color, but because it consciously examines the specific situations and issues that women of color face from a positive and original perspective.” Kitchen Table, although no longer in business, was “international in scope, creating books that would never have been known otherwise. Many books were sent free to AIDS organizations, jails, mental health centers, and of course all types of women’s centers.”
Although the Women’s Writers Conference has been moved from UK to the Carnegie Center, Smith has spoken there and done research for the conference “to benefit something that I very much support.” Smith credits her writing as very much tied in with her political work. In the introduction to The Truth That Never Hurts, Smith writes, “I have been able to use writing to raise questions, to criticize the status quo, to open up a dialogue, to imagine something better, and always, I hope, to shake things up. I love not having to get permission to write what I believe. Even if no one reads it, I can still write it.”
She adds, “My grounding in sociology, especially in social theory, which began during my junior year at the New School for Social Research, had a major impact upon my later ability to write political analysis of issues that had been previously unexplored.”
One of Smith’s early essays in 1977, “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism” is very often cited as “a major catalyst in opening the field of black women’s literature (Rutgers Univ. Press).”
Smith’s belief is that “it started people thinking differently” about a subject that “had been ignored in both contexts, black and white.” In her fight to acknowledge what many consider to be a minority within a minority, Smith does not spare her colleagues in either the academic or feminist worlds, although she stresses that we are all intertwined in the struggle of humanity. She states, “I am not complaining, just observing … I would want people to be more open to the reality of where they live. I am willing to talk to anybody, as long as we are on the same wavelength and share basic core values, such as the right to live free of violence, and have our basic human needs accessible. Beyond that, we can flourish.”
Teaching, writing, and publishing eventually led to speaking and lecturing as well, and it is what she has to say that is the essence of Ms. Smith and her mission. She asserts, “I hope that my writing inspires people towards activism. It is the responsibility of the community to take a stand against racism, injustice, and violence. There are so many myths, lies, and stereotypes that lead to violence and hatred. I believe in the capability of people to be their best selves.”
Still, Smith is emphatic that the answers are not in place and that they are not simple. Early on Smith asserts that she “really dislikes glittering generalities”, but, “There is a mentality today that the major battles have already been won. There is a push, especially by the right wing, to say that racism no longer exists, that we don’t need things like Affirmative Action, that in fact are very necessary. The issue of racism concerns multi-issued politics; race, gender, class, and sexuality are all interlocked.” She stresses that “working towards change means bringing all those elements together.”
In her duties as an editor, it is Smith’s “commitment to make sure any work is highly inclusive, be it an article on law, religion, sex, etc., it is important to include the relevant information about women of color.”
Smith notes that, “Black people have a tradition of radicals, people who say ‘we don’t like this’ and do something about it. We have had this for a really long time, it has just not been recorded faithfully.”
Many reviewers of Smith’s work cite this inclusiveness as a major contribution to the literary and feminist tradition. Cornel West has written, “Barbara Smith is visionary, courageous, and insightful. Her work provides a crucial challenge to all of us.”
When asked what would be her main goal and wish for people who are exposed to her through her writing or speaking, Smith hopes that “we can recognize the humanity of people’s differences, and try to treat each other more humanely. If I had something written on my headstone, I would hope that it says ‘Here is a person that loves humanity’.”
In addition to the writers’ conference, Smith will be the keynote speaker at Lexington’s “Take Back the Night” rally. She is currently researching another book.
The Kentucky Women Writers Conference is holding a one-day fall gathering on October 9 at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. The conference is an annual gathering of women writers and scholars, from novelists to playwrights to poets, not to mention readers and students of literature. This year’s conference features feminist scholar Barbara Smith, who will be reading from a forthcoming book as well as participating in the panel discussion entitled, Does Feminism Have a Future with the Next Generation?
“One of the reasons we wanted to talk about whether or not feminism has a future with the next generation is because last year we overheard some women from Berea college saying ‘Gosh, there’s nobody here our age’, we really want to get some college students, even younger students, involved,” says Crystal Wilkinson, an advisory committee member and the assistant director at the Carnegie Center.
While last year marked the twentieth anniversary for the conference, it was also the first year the conference was independent from the University of Kentucky.
“It was always treated as an ongoing conference at the University,” says Laura Sutton, a member of the advisory committee, “In more recent years, we’ve relied on volunteer efforts. Last year was the first year it wasn’t sponsored by UK. UK is no longer on the name of the conference, but I’m an employee of the University and many of our volunteers and members of the advisory committee are affiliated with the University. Some of the writers we bring in are UK people, so there’s still a close relationship.”
According to Wilkinson, the University of Kentucky wasn’t able to fund money for a director or to fund the program in general, so as a committee they decided to expand their efforts and include other universities as well, with continued support from the University of Kentucky.
“This conference has a real strong history of bringing in a lot of well noted writers. A lot of the country’s most famous women writers have attended the conference at one time or another,” Wilkinson says.
Past presenters have included Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Barbara Kingsolver, bell hooks, Bobby Ann Mason, Dorothy Allison, Joy Harjo, Lee Smith, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
“I attended the conference when I was a senior at the University in ’89 and back then students got to attend for free, so I took advantage of that. There was a writer there, who we all know now, Barbara Kingsolver, but no one knew who she was in ’89 because her first book had just been published. I remember her so clearly. In some ways that conference changed my life because I decided to go into book publishing,” Sutton says.
Sutton says the main objective of the conference is to highlight women’s literature and other artistic endeavors. The writing is the centerpiece, but beyond that they look at artistic endeavors by women…film, performance art, theatrical productions. They are trying to take a more interdisciplinary approach to writing.
Aside from the Barbara Smith reading and the panel discussion, there will be several “Write-On-the-Spot” workshops ranging from creative writing to filmmaking to writing for performance. Local writers and teachers will hold the concurrent workshops.
“The writing workshops are sort of the bread and butter of the conference,” Sutton says, “So many people in Lexington and throughout the state are hungry for these types of things.”
This one-day event will act as a fundraiser for the three-day Kentucky Women Writers Conference that happens in the spring. The theme of this larger conference is “The Writer and Outsider.”
The conference will be held from 1:30-5:45pm October 9 at the Carnegie Center (251 W Second St). Registration is $40 for adults and $15 for students and seniors. For more information or to register, call 254-4175.
Barbara Smith will also be taking part in the Annual Take Back the Night Rally October 10 in Triangle Park in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Call 255-9808 for more info.
BIO: African-American feminist scholar Barbara Smith is a critic, teacher, activist, lecturer, and publisher. Her articles, essays, literary criticism, and short stories have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The Black Scholar, Ms., and The Village Voice.
She has edited three major collections about black women: Conditions: Five, The Black Women’s Issue (with Lorraine Bethel in 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 in 1982), and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983). She is also co-author of Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism (1984) and one of the editors of The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History (1998). Her newest book is The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom (1998).
Smith is co-founder and former publisher of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the only U.S. publisher specializing in works by women of color. She has held a number of artist residencies including ones at the Millay Colony for the Arts, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. She has been a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a Fellow at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, and a 1998-1999 Rockefeller Fellow in the Humanities at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York. She has lectured at various colleges and universities across the country.
Smith has also appeared in several films including Pink Triangles and Marion Riggs’ Black Is, Black Ain’t.
Smith now resides in Albany, New York.
Barbara Smith’s book signing will be at Joseph-Beth October 9, 1999 from 5-6:30pm.