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MAKERS Moment

Origins of Black Women’s Studies

Origins of Black Women’s Studies

More From Barbara

In this video

Smith explains how black female scholars, excluded from the texts of black studies and women's studies, created a new field.

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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