Barbara Smith was born on 16th December 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio, and is an identical twin having a sister named Beverley. Hilda Beall Smith, their mother, raised the girls alone after their father Gartrell Smith left the family whilst she was pregnant.
When Ms Smith was nine her mother died from complications due to rheumatic fever, and she and her sister were raised by her mother’s extended family, primarily cared for by their grandmother. The area governed by segregation and rife with overt racism. Their grandmother was a strong influence as a teacher herself and their aunt worked for Cleveland Public Library, frequently bringing home books for the girls This created an atmosphere in which academic achievement was prized and strived for. From early on, Ms Smith became involved in activism against segregation and both she and her sister participated in the desegregation rallies in 1964 in their area. Ms Smith also wrote for the school newspaper, and from early on wanted to become a writer.
Ms Smith was a high achiever and despite being discriminated against in school won a place to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachussetts, in 1965. However, the racism and sexism she experienced in the institution, in particular from a white male lecturer who taught a writing course in her sophomore year, led her to transfer to The New School in New York returning to Mount Holyoke College for her senior year and graduation in 1969. She then went on to obtain an MA from the University of Pittsburgh and took a job at the University of Massachussetts, developing her own course on black feminist writing as there was none in existence at the time.
Before entering college Ms Smith volunteered for the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and whilst there was active in the Students for a Democratic Society. However, disillusioned by the sexism in the organisations and in the dominant feminist organisations which were heavily white-feminist biased, Ms Smith turned towards black feminist activism.
In 1973 Ms Smith joined the Boston-based arm of the National Black Feminist Organisation, Cohambee River Collective, which is credited with coining the term “identity politics”. In 1974 she became the first woman of colour to be appointed to the Modern Language Association’s Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession. This commission was vital to the development of Women’s Studies in the United States, and Ms Smith fought to ensure the voices of all women of colour were not ignored. She has expressed the support she gained in this work gave her the courage to come out as lesbian at this time. This proved problematic to her as her sexual identity as a lesbian caused her to be on the receiving end of prejudice.
Ms Smith wrote, edited and produced myriad articles, essays, speeches and books on the topic, but continually faced racism and sexism in the publishing industry and in 1980 decided to tackle the bias. To do this, she founded “Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press”, the first such specific publishing house in the United States. The impact this publishing house has had in supporting, promoting and sustaining black feminism, black women’s studies and an African American women’s literary tradition is profound and far-reaching.
From 1995 to 1996 Ms Smith was appointed Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomberg Center for Research into Black Culture, New York City and was a Fellow at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachussetts from 1996 to 1997.
Ms Smith has received many awards and citations throughout her career, including:
Outstanding Woman of Color Award, 1982
Women Educator’s Curriculum Award, 1983
Stonewall Award for Service to the Lesbian and Gay Community, 1994
Nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize as part of the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize project,
Ms Smith continues to write articles, essays, reviews and short stories to stimulate a national dialogue about the issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. She tours the United States lecturing in colleges and universities and is also active in many organisations which have a specific remit to fight for intersectional social justice. In 2005 she became an elected council member for Albany, New York, and in 2009 was re-elected. She is particularly active in this role with regard to issues of youth development, violence prevention, and educational opportunities for poor, minority and under-served persons.
All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (1982, co-editor)
Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983, Editor)
Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism (1984 1 of 3 authors)
The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History (1998, co-editor)
‘Feisty Characters’ and ‘Other People’s Causes’: Memories of White Racism and U.S. Feminism -Essays in The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation (1998)
Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom: The Truth that Never Hurts (1998)
A 110-page pdf transcript of an interview in 2003 by Loretta Ross for the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project (held in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, Northampton, Massachussetts, USA) can be accessed here: http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/vof/transcripts/Smith.pdf