Barbara Smith on Zoom

“There’s a Lot More That Needs to Be Done” | An Interview with Barbara Smith

The Drift

“Where would Black feminism be today if it wasn’t for Barbara Smith?” asked the organizing collective Black Women Radicals in 2020. Where indeed? Smith’s influence on Black and queer feminist politics is immeasurable. She helped found the Combahee River Collective, whose 1977 manifesto coined the phrase “identity politics,” and shepherded the emergence of the style of leftist politics that we now call intersectional. As cofounder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, she championed many now-canonical authors and challenged the dominance of white and male writers in the publishing industry. Just as committed to on-the-ground organizing as she is to her literary and intellectual work, Smith served on the city council of Albany from 2006 to 2013 and remains active in local issues through the Albany Justice Coalition. We spoke to her over Zoom about the limitations of the mainstream queer rights movement, the Democratic Party and left electoralism, the enduring potential of community organizing, and today’s confusion and bad-faith debates over ideas that she helped introduce.

You cofounded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which published many books that are now considered canonical texts in queer, women’s, and ethnic studies. In recent years, major publishing houses have at least professed to be committed to championing more women writers of color. Is real progress being made? And does anti-racist, feminist literature mean something different now than it did before, in part because of your work?

My friend Audre Lorde and I began discussing what became Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980, and then we announced it about a year later. At that time, there was little to no interest from mainstream publishers and even independent publishers in writing by women of color. That a queer woman of color can get their first book published by a major press today is because of Kitchen Table. We published that kind of work when no one was interested in it, and we proved that it could sell. Our objective was not sales for profit, it was sales to get to the movement, and to provide material that was useful and valuable. We were not interested in being a niche press. We wanted to have impact. 

As both a literary publisher and a political press, we had high literary standards, and we also saw ourselves as a movement outlet. I don’t think that anybody at a mainstream publishing house really cares about the health of a movement. And I doubt they are getting the kinds of letters that we got — from people all over the world who utilized the press as a political platform, or at least as a political networking platform. Now, this was before social media, the internet, et cetera. But I think that the mainstream houses have recognized what we recognized — that some of the best writing being done is by women of color. 

The New Yorker, for example, looked like an entirely different magazine in the seventies and eighties. Now, I look at it sometimes and say, is this a Black magazine? What’s going on here? I mean, they have extremely serious articles about hip-hop and rap. I love it, because I’ve always felt that African American and African culture has a lot to give to the globe. The whole African diaspora has made this world a better place — specifically culturally. So is it any wonder that The New Yorker is finally looking at popular culture and music by people who are not named Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky? They also have a lot more writers who are women of color, which is just kind of astonishing — though not enough, undoubtedly. It’s The New Yorker, you know. But as I said, mainstream publishing is finding out what we knew all along, and I think that’s quite positive. 

In your essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” you write, “There is not a developed body of Black feminist political theory whose assumptions could be used in the study of Black women’s art.” In the decades since, has a Black feminist criticism come about? Why or why not?

I would say absolutely one has, particularly in academic contexts. I find out about younger Black women scholars now who I did not know about previously. It used to be that I knew virtually everybody who was involved, but there’s been an incredible blossoming. My caveat is that the spirit with which I wrote “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” was a very political spirit, with political objectives and a political perspective. I’m not sure how passionately political today’s academic writing is — or other kinds of writing, in literary journals and elsewhere. Material change has always been an objective for me. When I was involved in publishing, I used to say, we’re not just doing belles lettres here, not just pretty thoughts. You know, we wanted things of substance, we wanted to challenge. I always had this democratic (with a small “d”) perspective about the work that I do, in that I always wanted my writing to be accessible. I always tried to consider who I was writing for and use language accordingly. 

You’ve said that you are from “a part of the women’s movement that doesn’t really get that much play, even to this day.” What historical aspects of the women’s movement have we forgotten, and how do you think about the state of feminism (and feminisms) today? 

It’s really too bad that more people don’t know about the history of socialist feminism, because socialist feminism is poles apart from girlboss feminism and white feminism, as it has more recently been defined and written about. (I’m thinking about Koa Beck’s book.) If more people knew about the history, I think they would see more hope in feminism, and they would also have more respect for feminism because they would say, Damn, they really fought for something important, you know? 

Having class, race, gender, and sexuality as part of your analysis is like having a microscope that lets you see what’s actually going on in a way that, if you only have a magnifying glass — a one-vector way of looking at oppression — you’re not going to see. A multi-issue, structural analysis of how oppression plays itself out is like an electron microscope. It’s a lot different from that magnifying glass. 

There were socialist-feminist women’s unions all over the United States. And people don’t know that. This was my heyday of feminist organizing, when the Combahee River Collective was founded and was active. And we didn’t work exclusively. We worked with all kinds of feminists — radical feminists, mainstream bourgeois feminists, people who didn’t call themselves feminists and wouldn’t. We were not separatists. In the Combahee River Collective statement, we talked about the simultaneity of oppression and we talked about how the systems of oppression are interlocking. And that’s really the basis for clear politics. 

What we meant by “identity politics” is that we felt that, as people who were simultaneously identified as female at birth (not terminology we used then), who were also Black at birth, we had a right then to build our own political agendas and programs. The Black movement, the women’s movement — neither was looking directly at what we were experiencing. We also talked about sexuality, though we didn’t have a word for heterosexism or homophobia in 1977. We called it “heterosexual oppression.” And one of the things that distinguished Combahee is that we were out, and we were talking about things nobody wanted to talk about. Nowadays identity politics is a whole different thing, but I’m sure you have a question to ask me about it.

Yes, we do. You coined the term initially — has it simply evolved, or has it been read in bad faith, especially by some on the right? Has its original meaning been so distorted that it should be discarded altogether? 

It’s very distorted. There are people on the left who also really don’t like the concept of identity politics, and that’s much more disheartening. I’m known for using diplomatic words — it’s actually much more infuriating and dangerous that people on the left also make a case against identity politics. They didn’t go to the source and they didn’t think about what we meant. We saw identity politics as a way of connecting with other struggles, not of becoming so self-involved and internal that we didn’t relate to anyone else. We believe in coalitions, and we believe in multi-issue struggle. We certainly didn’t mean that the only people worth dealing with were people identical to ourselves, or at least similar to ourselves. The left hasn’t done its homework. It’s almost like they take the right-wing definition of it and believe that’s true.

People say, for instance, We really need to get away from identity politics and deal with bread-and-butter economic issues, as if the two were opposed to each other. There are also people who think that identity politics means that you are in constant jeopardy from people who are different from you — that is, demographically different from you — as opposed to being able to make political distinctions about who are comrades and who are not. It’s not just, You’re different from me racially, ethnically. Gender, class, nationality: you’re different in all these ways, and therefore, you must be out to get me, and I’m not going to listen to anything you have to say. 

Maurice Mitchell has recently written about the sort of people who say, If we don’t have the perfect kind of language and perfect conformity to a set of standards around these issues of difference that we’re laying out, then we can’t do any work. I think that a more practical way of looking at it is that we’re always in the process of trying to build, and get to better places politically, and that includes our own individual consciousness. In the meantime, there are people who are in dire situations because of how the system works. For example, people who are incarcerated, or people who are unhoused, or people who are in places where the basic components of ongoing life, water and food, have been so decimated that it’s not possible to live there. The climate crisis, et cetera. Can we wait until somebody has the perfect vocabulary for how we talk across differences? Or do we try to get work done in the meantime? 

Are you surprised that, today, “intersectionality” is practically a household word? What has changed or been lost about the term?

The concept of intersectionality was originated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is a legal scholar. It was originally about legal issues and the fact that one needed to look, in a legal context, at all the factors that were affecting discrimination. And there was also, I think, inherent in it an assertion that it was important in a multiracial, multi-identity society to be able to look at other situations and figure out how people could be in common cause. I always feel like the purpose is for people to bond together as opposed to separate. 

People throw out the term “intersectionality” as a buzzword, as you’re saying, and they use it to get points. They might not necessarily have done any deep thinking about what’s really driving all of this, or asked themselves how they can work to change those realities. Just to say, This is an intersectional space, this is an intersectional organization, we believe in intersectionality. And then you ask, well, what do you mean by that? Does intersectionality reach to someone in your organization who is making minimum wage for doing work that you would never do? Or are we just saying that we have all the colors in the crayon box, and that’s our representation for when we publish our annual report that shows that we’re not racist?

At a time when national political power seems out of reach for the left in the short term, some activists and organizers have encouraged leftists to focus on building power at the local level. Based on your experience in Albany, what do you think a local orientation can and cannot accomplish? What is the proper balance between electoral campaigns and other movement-building?

People have different perspectives about electoral politics. I like what Barbara Ransby, the amazing Black feminist historian, says about electoral politics. She says it’s just one of the tools in our toolbox. You can’t function with just one tool, but it is not something that should be left out. People in my generation who were part of mass movements, we would love to see mass movements that turn the tide of what is going on in the United States and maybe even globally. And I think that there are millions of people who are currently involved in struggle. 

But I’m just one person. I feel really good about the work I’m involved in, but it doesn’t have that characteristic of being dramatic. I’m in a group called the Albany Justice Coalition — I’ve almost always worked in local, small groups — and we came together in 2021 because there was a ballot initiative to give our Community Police Review Board more power than it had ever had. That board has existed for over twenty years, and they never had some of the tools that they needed to be fully effective, like subpoena power, hiring their own investigators, et cetera. The Albany Justice Coalition came together to make sure that ballot initiative passed, and it did pass handily. And of course, in the midst of Covid, we weren’t able to do as much door-knocking and all other kinds of things you usually do to get the word out and to get the vote out. Then we stayed together, and for almost this entire year, we have focused on the issue of housing and evictions. We’ve been working more recently on getting legal counsel for people who have to go to housing court for evictions, because the landlords always have attorneys, and people who are being evicted almost never do. So we have pushed the city and now the county to get up off of some of the Covid relief money that they got, and to put it into helping people to have representation so they don’t lose their homes. I just think we need to keep our eyes open, and we need to not think the worst of other people. I hear about organizations that have beef with each other, and yet they’re working on the same issue. Absolutely, it happened back in the day. But the thing is, it never got us much of anywhere. 

You were very active in social movements as a young person. What do you make of the debates over the role of college students in organizing and activism today? How should younger generations engage politically?

I was born in the mid-1940s, right after World War II. I was a “colored person” or a “Negro” — “Negro” was a polite term that was used then. And by the time I was in college, I was “Black.” It’s not that “Black” had never been used to refer to Black people, but it was an insult in those years before. And then so many things changed: “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud,” Black power. I was involved in that movement and actively involved in the movement to end the war in Vietnam. We believe — and history backs us up on this — that our movement led by young people ended a war. We made it impossible. Besides the fact that the war was so misguided, as all wars are misguided, this one was particularly messed up. 

We pushed the nation toward an anti-war stance that became popular, and it’s really great to have wins. The early days of the second wave of the women’s movement were totally exciting. We were making everything up from scratch, and we were young. We thought we could do anything. If there was a problem, well, We’ll fix that. When we would go to the doctor, they wouldn’t listen to us, and they would disrespect us and treat us like children — we will fix that. I knew people who fixed it by writing Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was originally on newsprint and cost 25, 50 cents. I have one of those copies. And then it became a book. And now they’re a whole set of books that started from that seed. So that was great. 

Another thing about young people’s politics then — and, I think, now — is internationalism. It was so important for us to know that we were connected to struggle around the globe. It was a time when many formerly colonized nations were fighting for and winning their freedom, and we saw ourselves as part of an international struggle. Certainly, speaking out against the war in Vietnam was a kind of international solidarity, and it was also part of anti-imperialist struggles. 

We still have imperialism, and we still have governments that are repressive and dangerous. There’s still a huge amount of work for us to do. I think that anybody who wants to be involved in struggle can and should be. I don’t know that there’s a particular role for college students or young people, except perhaps to do some of the energetic things that people in my age group can no longer do. 

Everyone has heard their parents and grandparents and other older people talk about how much better they were at everything than you. It’s just human nature. But I don’t want to be that person. I heard an interview with Angela Davis in which she was asked for advice. She said, I have no advice for young people, and I thought, that’s the way it needs to be done. All I want is the opportunity to be around people who are younger. One of the exciting things about the Albany Justice Coalition is that it is multigenerational. We get along terrifically, I think because it’s not a hard-line political organization. We have politics — there are some people who are socialist across different ages — but we don’t have a political agenda around a particular set of ideologies or demands. What we’re mostly doing is just holding the city accountable. If there’s police brutality, then we are going to look at that and speak out about that. If there are people who are being priced out of their low-income housing because the rents are being raised, even doubled, then we’re going to be on that, and we will work with members of the Albany Common Council and the county legislature to address it. So as I said, that’s a multigenerational, multiracial organization, and it’s a joy. Those of us who are older, we feel great that we’re integrated into the work. And I think people feel good reciprocally, too, about us being involved.

In 2019 you wrote an op-ed for The New York Times headlined, “Why I Left the Mainstream Queer Rights Movement.” How do you account for the arc of the queer rights movement over time, and your relation to it? What changes has it undergone, for better or worse?

In earlier days people were fighting for basic rights that other people who were not LGBTQ, Two-Spirit, et cetera, had without having to think about it. And obtaining some of those rights moved us to kind of a conventional way of being in the world. I’m thinking particularly about marriage. Nobody ever thought, back in the seventies when I came out, that legal marriage was going to be possible. And some of us, if we were feminist, were very happy that we had escaped from marriage. It wasn’t going to be possible, but it was like, Yay, we don’t have to do that. Because for women, marriage was not an equal deal. Feminism was in part to get men to wash a dish, do some laundry, change a baby, take somebody to school or pick them up, just the basic stuff of everyday life. But we began to realize how many rights are associated with legal marriage that were eliminated for queer people. I myself have been kicked out of a hospital room because I wasn’t related to the person who had just had surgery. But be that as it may, there have always been different strains within the fight for, as it was called at the time, lesbian and gay rights. Some people were excited about the outlaw, unconventional reality of being queer, and cultivated that. And some people wanted to fit in and be treated like other people. If fitting in means that you’re not murdered for your identity, then yeah, let’s “fit in.” I’m thinking about trans women of color, who are disproportionately the targets of violence and murder, and how absolutely devastating that reality is. The statistics are not going down, either. So there’s always been that tension: are we trying to fit in and be just like everybody else? Or are we the people who show possibilities of alternatives to a nuclear family script that didn’t necessarily do us any favors? 

One of the things that people don’t know about is that there actually is a queer left. We don’t have huge numbers, but we see things differently. I want a queer movement, as I said in that article, that takes into account people who are dying on the streets of cities, particularly young people who get kicked out of their homes, people who are disproportionately committing suicide, people who find it hard to get employment because of transphobia and homophobia and sexism and racism — all of it, just this incredible, terrible concoction of oppression that marginalizes people and makes them unable to do the basic things that they want to do and deserve to do and have a right to do. There was a major statewide gay organization that shut down in New York when marriage equality was passed on a federal level and now people are realizing that, Oops, we didn’t fix everything. Who would ever think that one thing was going to solve all of it? I mean, this is going to be a terrible little piece of shade here, but the NAACP did not close down when Loving v. Virginia was passed. We knew we had other things to fight for.

I want to see all movements pay attention to bigger pictures. It doesn’t mean that you have to work on all those issues simultaneously. There’s only so many hours in a day, and you do want to have a life worth living, which means that you need to have time for fun and for relationships and for family, for joy, as they say. 

How do you rate the efforts of the Democratic Party and the Biden administration? And what should the left be doing to push them further?

I’ve never been impressed by any presidential administration that I’ve lived through. And keep in mind that the person who was the president when I was born was Harry Truman. I admit that I was fascinated by the Kennedy administration when I was a teenager. I was impressed that a Black man could be elected president of the United States because I am all too familiar with the United States and its white supremacy. So that was, to me, a historical breakpoint. But Obama is a neoliberal, so I didn’t really have high expectations otherwise. Biden was his vice president. I think that our job as people on the left is to fight for the rights and the material conditions that all people need and deserve, and if that means pushing a state legislature around solitary confinement in prison, if that means also pushing our New York state legislature to have policies that look at people’s parole eligibility in relationship to age, per the organization Release Aging People in Prison, that’s important work for us to do. 

It’s amazing how almost all the people who I work with, who are now old lefties — although we started out as new lefties in the 1960s — have concerns and do work that pushes agendas in the context of electoral politics and government. We have to because that’s how things work. It’s not that we’re selling out. It’s that if people are going to housing court without representation, you can’t have them go to the alternative housing court over here that you organize, because that’s not going to help them. You know, they’re going to go to the housing court that’s at the city hall about their eviction. So how can we help them there? Whose responsibility would it be to raise funds for legal representation for those people? Well, we say it would be the city government and the county government’s responsibility. We’re not going to be doing fundraisers for that. You know, you have the money, it’s your court system, you need to think about justice within it. People who are a part of the left, we generally are doing some political work to push the system to be accountable. One of the things that Women’s March did was to really call out Biden about not speaking out clearly about what we were facing as Roe ended. They described their actions last summer as a “summer of rage.” And they described the fall as a “fall of reckoning.” And I do believe that their efforts, along with others, actually pushed the Biden administration to speak out and pass some executive orders that were helpful in maintaining access to abortion. There’s a lot more that needs to be done.