Barbara Smith, Groundbreaking Publisher of Women of Color
Barbara Smith on her passion for literature, self-image, and breaking barriers of segregation in the world of literature.
Groundbreaking Publisher of Women of Color
Smith on bringing black women's literature to colleges and publishing, and the changing self-image of young women of color.
BARBARA SMITH: I grew up thinking that I was really ugly because I never saw anyone who looked faintly like me being looked at as a beautiful person. The message that I got was that black people and black women did not matter.
There were high expectations in our family for everyone, including my sister and me. I always was interested in writing and in English and in reading, and particularly in reading, devouring books.
I had the opportunity to read "Go Tell It on the Mountain." It was a complete break point moment, because that was the first time I'd ever read anything that was remotely similar to the kind of family I was growing up in.
The reason I went to graduate school was so I could teach African American literature. And there was not a single woman of color on the syllabus. Black studies and black literature was about black male experiences, and women's studies, which was just beginning at the same time, was very much about white women's experiences.
We were just left out of the curriculum.
It was wonderful. It was like every new day was a revelation. We were learning about ourselves. I mean, one of the ways you figure out who you are in the world is that you experience art that reflects your experience, and that's what we're doing every single day. Wow, I just read "Their Eyes Were Watching God," you will not believe this book.
We realize that until we had our own means of getting our voices out and our points of view out, that we would be a few steps back. We needed to have a press of our own.
The books that we created and the pamphlets and the posters, they were so embraced. People were so excited.
We really made an impact on mainstream publishing. You saw more and more women of color being published by those presses. People like Isabel Allende and Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, and it's because we started it.
I still speak on college and university campuses. And I just meet younger black women who have come of age thinking that they had great value, that there was nothing wrong with the way they looked, the way they sounded, the things that were important to them. Because they do look out and see their faces reflected in places that we did not.