December 16, 2014
This past Saturday, just a few hours before the Millions March in NYC, I sat down with a Black lesbian feminist legend, Barbara Smith. Barbara was a co-author of the Combahee River Collective Statement, alongside outspoken Black feminists like Audre Lorde and Chirlane McCray (who is now married to NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio). She is a writer, activist, community organizer, and served two terms on the city council in Albany. She and her colleagues developed the concept of identity politics, a predecessor to what we know today as “intersectionality,” a term later coined by Kimberle Crenshaw. Most recently, she has released a book called Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: 40 Years of Movement Building, which juxtaposes historical documents alongside interviews with activists and scholars to craft the narrative of a Black lesbian feminist who has dedicated her life to wholly inclusive movement building.
As I tried to figure out what kind of outfit transitions well from serious interview to protest, Ms. Smith was killing it on the Melissa Harris Perry show, and approximately 60,000 people began gathering around Washington Square Park to speak out against police terror on Black bodies. But I wondered, how does Barbara feel knowing that this movement seems to be focused primarily on the Black male lives that are taken by police violence? Does she see Black and brown women missing from this narrative? Does she see room to promote an intersectional approach in a movement that seems to be growing like wildfire? As a young person, I am always curious to know what older generations see when they look at enthusiastic young people. I wonder how our moments compare to their moments. Do they see progress, or do they see a nation of apathetic hipsters who attend protests to have their picture taken? I sincerely hoped it would be the former.
I feel like a lot of young folks of color, especially queer women, don’t have as difficult a time understanding intersectionality, just because they live it in their bodies every day and… it almost seems as though compartmentalizing identities is more difficult than understanding them as intersecting. I’m wondering how you, as a Black lesbian, came to develop the language for identity politics at a time when I feel like there were few words for understanding identity by complicating it rather than simplifying it.
When we started trying to develop these politics the term “intersectionality” was not used… We talked about “interlocking oppressions” and we talked about “the simultaneity of oppressions.” This wasn’t just in the Combahee River Collective statement, but it was also in other places, like in our conversations and other things that we might be writing or thinking. But how it came about is that we were just examining our situation, and saying, you know, “Black politics, male-defined, is not going to get it for us. A white, bourgeois politics isn’t going to get it for us. We need to have all the parts of who we are to be incorporated into our political agendas and our political work.”
I came out only a few years after Stonewall, relatively speaking — the mid-70s is only a few years after Stonewall — and fortunately I was in Boston at the time… There was a really radical sector of the lesbian and gay movement, and a big outpost of that more radical and leftist lesbian and gay movement was in Boston. There’s a wonderful publication called Gay Community News… GCN was just an incredible publication, they published for many years, and unlike most gay publications, most women’s publications, they actually covered racial issues and class issues and sex radical kind of issues, so, that was kind of like a “part of our crowd” so to speak. So we were surrounded by really insightful, very very courageous people. And the cross-pollination of all that kind of iconoclasm, in-your-face-ism, whatever you want to call it, that helped us too… the bottom line is we examined the situation we found ourselves in and said, “this shit has got to change.”
This is kind of a serendipitous day to do this interview of course, with the Millions March in D.C. and Albany, where you’re going back to, and in NY… in two hours, I think? Do you feel like your life’s work is coming to a head or is this sort of just another wave of many waves?
Well, my life’s work is far from done! The thing is that I do really see the kind of organizing that people are doing around these issues — police brutality, racism, etc. — that there’s a much greater willingness from people on all ends of this current form of organizing to be more inclusive. As you know I was just on the Melissa Harris Perry show this morning… and we were talking about how there are women and LGBT people who absolutely are respected and seen as leaders. To me that’s just really exciting. I think that the work that we did in the 70s has been available to people long enough now that you actually have like a third generation. Because my generation of activists and scholars and theorists and etc., we’re like senior citizens now… So as I said, there’s been a chance for some of those ideas to take, perhaps, a deeper root. One of my frustrations is that often, young people don’t know where the ideas came from. That’s one of the reasons why I’m happy that this book is out! Because I hope that more people will get to look at the history and say, “Ohh, really? They were talking about that back then? That’s really interesting!”
That was going to be my next question, is whether you feel as though people are using the lessons from past generations. And to ask you what it’s like to watch the movement transition from one generation to the next? I’m sure that it can be frustrating sometimes. Especially with this particular movement gaining so much traction, and so many people. It can be sort of difficult to make those lessons known to such a large contingency.
Yeah, I mean unless you have your own television network or like the New York Times or the LA Times — ’cause newspapers unfortunately have fallen on very difficult times as far as circulation goes — but unless you have a major media outlet, it’s very hard to get your ideas out. Except now we have the internet and social media. It’s really not about: does every single person down in Washington or every single person who will be here in NYC later today, demonstrating, are they aware? But there’s some key communication that’s going. And I never get that frustrated by organizing — unless organizing leaves people out. That’s when I get frustrated. But if organizing is inclusive, and has the mind of connection and respect for people wherever they are, and whoever they are, if that’s happening then I feel good. And also, I always feel good when people “speak truth to power,” and do what needs to be done, so…
And you feel as though this is really including everybody? Because sometimes I feel as though it can be hard for people to show up to marches, and it feels like a lot of this is focused on showing up, blocking traffic and that can be difficult for people who are physically unable to attend.
Mmhmm, or have a job, or have several children… Or are homeless. Exactly… I don’t know if the success of organizing or activism is around pulling people in or away from the responsibilities or challenges of their daily lives. One of the things that made the civil rights movement so unique is that it was a poor peoples movement, and that’s one of the thousand reasons that I love the civil rights movement. It was the first movement I was ever involved in. And, because it was poor Black people, primarily southern, it had a set of values and an inclusiveness that has been unique… There’s the concept that was talked about at the time of the “beloved community.” That’s always something that you’re striving for. Y’know you never quite get there if you’re an actual organizer or activist because you know there’s more around the bend… The farm workers movement was unique, and still is because it does indeed organize people who don’t have class or white skinned privilege around the things that are most pressing for them. Some of the other movements, like the women’s movement, the mainstream women’s movement: not so much, because it was often white women with access to privilege who were well educated, very intelligent, and bored out of their skulls doing the little wife routine, or the little woman routine. That was different.
So you’ve talked about your connection to your southern roots. And my oldest living relative is my great grandmother Evelyn who is 98. She’s from Valdosta, Georgia.
Wow! My people are from Georgia!
I read that! She migrated here to New York when she was a baby. Her parents brought her here. So I’ve been sort of trying to mine her experience for my own edification.
So her parents came during the first migration, between WWI and WWII, given her age.
Cause 98, yes, so they came very early. My family came during the first migration to Cleveland. So they came after WWI and before WWII.
And she seems very focused on remembering the good times, y’know, going to dance halls and that’s totally her prerogative! She’s 98 years old, she can do whatever she wants! I guess I wanted to know what your experience has been mining that experience of your relatives and your connection to your Black southern roots and what has stuck with you the most.
Most of the people I grew up with were deceased by the time I was in my mid-late 20s, almost all of them. Starting with my mother who died when I was nine years old. So, the thing is that I have never really had a chance to have the kind of conversations that you and so many other people who are very sharp have with their older family members, because by the time I had the brains to know that was something I would love to do, they were gone… I often say that one of the reasons I’m so involved — there are many reasons — but one of the reasons I am drawn to Black studies… and Black literature and other related Black disciplines is because it’s a way of finding out about my past and my family’s past even though I can’t specifically ask them questions. I can have a general overview, like for example finding out that Georgia was probably the second worst state as far as lynchings after Mississippi… Have you ever heard the Nina Simon song “Mississippi, Goddam”?
I love that song.
Love it. Love it love it. And of course I was around when it came out. We loved that song. And it’s so hysterical because the style of the song is like it’s from a musical, and she says “This is a song from a musical but the musical hasn’t been written yet.” But it’s just so bouncy and so cute. And yet, It’s Mississippi, goddamn…
I do remember my aunt whose name was LaRue she talked about like when she was getting ready to come up to Cleveland. So she was a teenager… Where they lived there was a white man who I think owned a store and he was sitting on the porch… and she’s going by and he says to her y’know “LaRue, you don’t need to go up there. You don’t need to go up north.” It was threatening! And I just think what did this young Black woman, a teenager, what did she think? … She’s living in Georgia in the early 1900s where they’re lynching people every five minutes!… And then my uncle, who was a mechanic, which is a very good job for a Black man at the time, he was an auto mechanic… also talked about how, when he left they put him on a bus…. And basically sent him up north so that he would be alive. Now I don’t know what had happened. But the thing is he didn’t want to go, but the way he put it was “they made me leave, because they were afraid for what might happen.”
On the topic of ancestry, my maternal grandfather’s alma mater was Lincoln University, which recently had a little controversy.
Well at least they fired his behind.
Did they? I’m so glad.
Well he left… but I assume they would have fired him if he hadn’t left, so…
I’m wondering, you know, it’s an educational institution, it’s an historically Black college, that has historically had a really good repuation…
And I think now it’s more of a sports college… but how does that kind of intersectional approach completely sort of go over their heads in places where we’re supposed to be educating people of color?
Right, well white colleges and universities are not doing very well around sexual assault and sexual violence either. So, I think that, and I’ve often said this about people in the Black community who express really backwards statements… particularly around homophobia, is that Black people will tell you, you know what I’m saying? We have a very expressive culture. We have a very oral culture: Hip hop, rap, you name it, poetry… we just talk. And talking is very much valued in Black culture. Being truthful…
“Keeping it real.”
That’s why my book is called “The Truth That Never Hurts,” cause I was just trying to draw that, or play with that… The difference between a white person who has a similar or the same point of view as that Black president from Lincoln [is] he was just stupid enough to say what he thought out loud.
On the same topic of colleges: The whole Rolling Stone interview with the UVA student and the backpedaling that’s happened since then… What are ways, do you think, that people can approach that story and that narrative to keep the conversation about campus sexual assault alive while admitting that bad journalism is bad journalism?
Uh-huh, that is one of the major lessons from that. I saw the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the week before. What she did not do came back to haunt her. I was struck by how very very passionately committed she was to this issue. She presented very well. I listen to what people who are familiar with the situation say. People who are around the survivor say that they believe that something terrible happened to her. That’s what I focus on. I think something terrible did happen to her. The fact that the journalist did not do her due diligence and get the perspective and interviews with people from the other side: that is a horrible situation for that to have been the case, because often people don’t believe women anyway.
We have systems that are broken. Even when errors or mistakes are made doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem with sexual assault. In fact the president of UVA, she is saying exactly that. She is saying that even though this may not be exactly as originally presented, [they] are still going to deal with the issue of sexual assault on [their] campus.
Changing gears: I feel like more often than not problems in communities of color are framed as “men’s issues.” So, whether it is absentee fatherhood, Black on Black crime, or just the idea…
Or even the police brutality and the murders that are happening…
How do you think that can be addressed? The police violence that women face is so much more behind the scenes.
Oh yeah, it often involves sexual assault and rape… That’s true for trans women as well… The part that has been done to address it has been building a Black feminist and feminist of color movement for the last 40 plus years. That’s what been done to address it… I have real issues with the notion that Black men are endangered and Black women are living the life of royalty and having a wonderful experience. It is not accurate in any way shape or form. I am not trying to pit one group against the other… What I am saying is, just look at what’s around you. Look at what’s really happening in our neighborhoods and in our homes and in our institutions and communities as opposed to the PR or whatever… Don’t just look at what the spin is about. Here is a perfect example: in Schenectady — one the upstate cities in the capital region where Albany is — Schenectady I believe it was, five young Black women teenagers, high school students, all of them committed suicide within a short period of time with great proximity to each other. I may have the number incorrect but it was like 4 or 5. The reason that they committed suicide: there was bullying and harassment going on… It was directly related to this sexual violence and domestic violence they were experiencing and to the gang mentality and gang rites of passage they were subjected to. That’s real. That happened.
Another example out of my own organizing experience was when 11 or 12 Black women were murdered in Boston in a 3 month period in 1979. We did everything we possibly could to make the connection between violence against women and racist violence because Boston — I’m sure to this day but certainly in the 1970’s during the school busing crisis — [there was] a huge amount of racial violence and a huge amount of racial conflict. In the 70s racial violence was on everybody’s mind who cared about those things. The thing was, that was all Black women who were murdered. Why was it all Black women?
I lived in Roxbury. I lived in two different neighborhoods when I lived in Boston… The first neighborhood I lived in was the South End, which is now almost completely gentrified but I lived there in the early 70s… Then I was gentrified out of the South End and I moved to Roxbury which is like Harlem.
I would go to the subway in Boston the nearest stop near my home and I saw a KKK graffiti on my walk to the subway. Where am I going when I am getting on the subway? Most often and most likely I was going down to Back Bay to teach at Emerson College because that is one of the things I was doing in those years. I was teaching at Emerson and also taught at UMass Boston. Here I am, this graduate student, but already teaching — clearly committed to something positive — on my way to teach Black Literature to my wonderful students and I’m looking at KKK graffiti. The point I’m making it wasn’t off or inaccurate to look at those murders initially as racial crimes but it was all women…
One of the things that a Black woman said — I can’t remember who, one of the great thinkers — what she said, and I never forgot it, “Black men explode and Black women implode.”
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: 40 Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith is edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks. Available for purchase on Amazon and bookstores near you.