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Lesbian feminist Barbara Smith remains focused
by Sarah Toce
2015-02-11

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Steadfast Black lesbian feminist activist Barbara Smith has never colored in the lines, and after 40 years fighting for equal rights, she isn't about to start now.

"I see all of my work as being connected. So although some people would say, 'You're a publisher;' 'you're a Black feminist activist;' 'you were involved in the civil-rights movement, but also in the LGBT movement;' you were involved in building Black feminism and Black women's studies.'… I see all of those things as being connected," Smith said. "Because they certainly were driven by my sense of priorities and consciousness about what I thought was important to do at the time. And all of the work that I've done certainly has a multi-issue perspective, an inclusive perspective, and a coalition-building perspective."

Becoming an elected official seemed the logical next step for Smith in the early 2000s.

"I ran for office for the first time in 2005. I'm no longer an elected official, but [for a time] I was on our city council—it was called the Common Council," Smith said. "I saw the work as an elected official as being very connected to the Black feminist organizing and the commitment that I had."

While connected to the work she'd engaged in pre-public life, some things were different.

"It was different because it was basically working on reforms and policy changes as opposed to working on movement issues. I sponsored legislation about immigrant rights the year before Arizona came out with their really, really repressive anti-immigrant legislation. Now, the resolution that I sponsored, it was virtually the opposite of what Arizona came out with a year later," Smith explained. "We talked about not profiling people… Even though we talked about how law enforcement should deal with people who they encountered who they thought that might be an immigrant or who might not have legal status as a resident of the United States, it did not have the force of law. But at least it was on paper—it was something that came out of the legislative body of the Common Council."

In addition to immigration reform, Smith also championed the fight to stop the spread of gun violence and worked to understand and implement change in the criminal justice system.

"One of my particular focuses on the Council were things having to do with violence—specifically gun violence—and also issues concerning the criminal justice system and policing," Smith said. "My experience working on violence against women stood me in very good stead around the kinds of work that I was doing [regarding] another kind of violence, which was violence connected to—generally to young men of color, but sometimes to young women of color living in our economically challenged communities, the kind of violence that has characterized our urban settings for many years, unfortunately."

The impetus for Smith's latest role as author in Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around stemmed from a colleague's suggestion over coffee.

"There was an editor at SUNY Press who contacted me in late 2007: Laren McLaughlin. Laren studied women's studies and African-American studies in graduate school and was quite familiar with my work, and proposed doing a book together," Smith said.

That was nearly eight years ago, and the landscape of the world has changed.

"I think that what's going on nationally in this country is because a number of very flagrant incidents of police killings of young Black men have been in close proximity to each other—including one who's 12 years old from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Two grand juries in two different parts of the country not indicting either one of the officers in both of those killings, in Ferguson and in Staten Island…they saw that those deaths were justified," Smith said. "I was just watching the news and they were talking about the findings in a case in Los Angeles, which I had not been even aware of until I watched the news. It's hard to keep up with them all, but to me what all of these incidents show are the fault lines of living in a country that is still under white supremacy. The system of white supremacy has never been eradicated in this country. The Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Black Nationalist movement, all of that still has not—even with changes and laws, even with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act—white supremacy is intact."

Smith further explained, "Every so often white supremacy is going to rear its ugly head—and that's really what we're dealing with. We're also dealing with the legacy of enslavement in relationship to people of African heritage. I see the condition of Black people of African heritage, Black people in this country, as far as their economic status; their social status; issues of violence; issues of joblessness and unemployment; our health profile, health disparities; you name it, it's all a part of that legacy of enslavement."

Smith submerges herself into the topic of white supremacy in Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.

"I live in a poor Black community in the city of Albany and have for most of the time I've lived in Albany," Smith said. "I've lived in Albany for 30 years and I've lived in Arbor Hill since 1987. I consider the problems that face this community, the problems that I was charged with trying to address as the elected representative from this community, I see them on a direct-line continuum from the antebellum period right until now.

"And I know that's not a perspective that people, particularly people on the Right have, because they think everything got solved. They really think everything got solved with public accommodations, the eradication of official Jim Crow, with desegregation, with affirmative action; they think everything's taken care of and they think that those of us who are not suffering from those delusions are just complaining and that we have no clue.

"There's a huge amount of racial polarization, and that is being manifested during this time; totally different points of view about the police and about the criminal justice system, and about all kinds of things that have to do with people's objective material conditions and their status in U.S. society. People have yet to grapple with the incredible gulf that is still the result of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. They have yet to deal with that in a profound way, and as I said this is a particular historical period when they just couldn't keep the curtains closed on it."

The generation to fire up the movement in 2015 is the youth, Smith added.

"These movements all over the country, young people are at the helm of them," Smith said. "And so are women and so are people who identify as queer. It's really kind of exciting when you get right down to it, to see that kind of leadership, the circumstances and the conditions that people are protesting—including myself—that people are protesting are very, very dire, and who knows how they will be addressed given that root causes like systematic and structural white supremacy are not necessarily what the system wants to address and grapple with.

"Young people who are keeping this going in Ferguson, in Oakland in California, and Los Angeles, and New York City and Albany, where I live, all over this country; in Florida, the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, there's just a lot that's going on that is very, very, very inspiring to me, and that I also see as connected to the work and the legacy of those of us who spoke out as young feminists of color back in the '70s and into the early '80s."

Not easily dismayed, Smith is finding inspiration in the current movements of our time by the sheer force of being alive to witness them.

"I always feel politically encouraged even in the worst of moments. And I see a lot of brilliance out there, I see a lot of commitment, I see a lot of courage," she said.

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around is available via SUNY Press at www.BarbaraSmithAintGonna.com .


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