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MAKERS Profile

Barbara Smith

Publisher, Women of Color

More From Barbara

In this video

Smith on bringing black women's literature to colleges and publishing, and the changing self-image of young women of color.

Barbara's Biography

Cause of Choice: Albany Family Education Alliance
Most Proud Of: Functioning with integrity and being humane in a world in which it isn't always valued.
Personal Canon: Groundbreaking and now-underappreciated novelist Ann Petry. She ranks Petry’s The Street with better-known masterpieces like Richard Wright’s Native Son.
Most Meaningful Advice Received: "You can catch more flies with honey, than you can with vinegar."

Barbara Smith and her twin sister Beverly are the products of a powerful upbringing. As young girls growing up in Cleveland, they were surrounded by an extended family made up entirely of intellectually and politically-oriented women. A librarian aunt brought books home and made the house a center for discussion and pointed political awareness. "I'm kind of a natural activist," she later told Ms. magazine. "By the time I was eight I noticed that things were not fair." Barbara joined Mount Holyoke’s class of 1969 and was quickly among a wave of scholars and critics leading in the definition of a distinctive African-American women’s literary tradition and establishing Black women’s studies in college and university curricula.
The new critical approach in turn informed political action and in 1974 Smith co-founded the Combahee River Collective, an early and influential Black feminist group. Her leadership made the group a conscience for different movements by calling attention to the ways racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism intersect. When feminists were ignoring issues of race, Smith was there. And when African-Americans were indulging in homophobia, she was there, too. "We understood that dealing with sexual politics didn't mean you weren't a race woman, and that speaking out about homophobia didn't mean that you didn't want to end poverty." Smith’s political action—recognized in a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nomination—has continued to be interwoven with writing and criticism. She co-founded, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first US publisher of women of color, in 1980. She is currently serving her second term as a member of the Albany Common Council.

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