Q&A: Barbara Smith

A pioneer of feminism now uses her movement skills as an elected official in upstate New York.

By Sue Katz Sep 04, 2008

You were one of the first feminists to develop an analysis about the intersection of gender, sexuality, race and class. Is it true that you were involved in inventing the term “identity politics”?

I was a co-author of the Combahee River Collective Statement where the term “identity politics” was used. I’ve tried to track it down, and that seems to be the first use. When we talked about identify politics we were talking about the legitimacy of asserting a political agenda that took into account the multiple identities that we ourselves experienced, including being Black, female, working-class and lesbian. The political perspectives of the Left, the Black male activists and the white feminists didn’t take into account that someone who was female could also be Black. We wanted a politics that addressed all aspects of our identity, which is what our 1982 anthology, All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, was about.

The apparent conflicts around race and feminism that surfaced during the Democratic primary campaign seem to indicate that Black women are still not viewed in the entirety of their identity.

It’s déjà vu, the same thing all over again. We’ve seen some really negative responses to an historic primary campaign–with both a Black man and a white woman as frontrunners of the Democratic Party. The assertion that sexism is more pervasive or has worse effects than racism is not only invalid, but it sure alienates women of color from the dialogue. I want to be clear that Clinton was subjected to sexism and that Obama has been subjected to racism, and the recent attacks on Michelle Obama show that she was subjected to both.

The race/gender splits that we saw in the presidential primaries point to the lack of engagement with the complexities of how race plays itself out in the United Sates, especially in tandem with gender. Women from mainstream feminism never had any deep commitment to understanding issues of race or never felt any particular solidarity with women of color as women of color, instead of women painted colors. People who want to get past racism look at Black people as white people painted with color. They don’t look at history, 400 years of white supremacy and the impact that has on people of color to this day in this country.

You are also revered as a pioneer publisher. Why did Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga and you decide in 1980 to create Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press?

At that time there were few vehicles for women of color to bring their voices into print. It was the era of the “special issue” of a feminist publication. There were so many of them then; it was an incredibly heady cultural environment. Sometimes they’d produce a “women of color” issue, which was all well and good, but we wanted to have a “press of our own,” to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. Kitchen Table had a strong political stance.

Apparently, things have now improved. There are a lot of younger women of color writers who are getting published in mainstream contexts…but we were unique because of our political, activist, leftist perspective. I stopped being involved in Kitchen Table in 1995, although it continued for another year or so.

After decades of revolutionary activism, why did you enter local electoral politics, and what is your present role?

The Albany Common Council is the legislative body of the city of Albany. I am one of 15 Councilors in this city with fewer than 100,000 people. We have several communities of color which are poor and disenfranchised, and I live in Arbor Hill, one of the biggest. I’ve been living in Albany since 1984 and in Arbor Hill since 1987.

The quality of life in Arbor Hill really changed for the worse throughout the 1990s. Crime and poverty increased, businesses closed. It became less of a working-class Black community and more of an impoverished neighborhood. The drug trade was a major factor. A family of drug dealers took over the main street…and turned it into their drug supermarket. Now there’s a huge amount of violence: shootings, murders. They basically tore up the neighborhood.

It didn’t seem that the police were that aggressive in countering what the drug dealers were doing. There has been a constant turnover of police chiefs since I moved to Albany and ongoing conflict and tension between people of color communities and the police department. By the early 2000s, I got fed up by things that I was personally being affected by. I got a flyer about a neighborhood meeting. I looked at the issues on the flyer, and I was concerned about them.

Community people and officials asked you to run for office. What convinced you to take the leap and how out were you during your campaign?

After a murder in our neighborhood, people asked me to run for Council, which was the next logical step in community-based organizing for justice. I didn’t have a really aggressive opponent, but I had a lot of support. I didn’t run explicitly as a lesbian, but I didn’t deny it. I was endorsed by major LGBT organizations. It would have been a real challenge to run an explicitly out campaign, especially in Albany. My main goal was to win and serve. I plan to run again next year.

Now that you’ve been doing the job for a while, how similar is it to movement activism?

It’s fascinating being in the council. It’s frustrating because it can be very slow, but it’s also very concrete…It’s not revolutionary, but it is gratifying. Little things like getting streets repaired fall into a larger context in trying to get a functioning democracy in the city of Albany.

I do ask myself how this fits in with a revolutionary agenda. Although this is reform, the issues are the same: eradicating economic injustice and working with women of color who are disproportionately affected by economic and racist oppression. I could not have imagined being involved in electoral politics decades ago. It doesn’t fit in with movement politics. I constantly compare organizing issues.

We do have some precedents, like Bernie Sanders in Vermont, Paul Wellstone (who died in 2002), Dennis Kucinich, Ron Dellums, John Conyers, Cynthia McKinney, Julian Bond–people who had a bigger vision.

As the recession deepens, do you see evidence of neighborhood violence getting worse? What role are the Albany police playing?

A teenager was shot last August in my ward, Fourth Ward; there was a huge outcry. The person who was arrested, tried and convicted was another 15-year-old. We started to meet and formed an inner-city youth and family coalition. We need it, given that a 10-year-old girl was murdered just weeks ago, and the person picked up for it was 15. In the meantime, in January there was a triple murder: a 15-year-old and two in their 20s. I’ve been to three funerals since last August of minors who died from gunshots.

I’m vice-chair of the Public Safety Committee. We had a series of problems with the police department, including police brutality, illegal guns and a white woman who alleges a vaginal search by police on the street. After these and other incidents, a group of five council members plus the council president called for outside investigation of the Albany Police Department. After we contacted our State Commission of Investigations we were subjected to both a firestorm of criticism and a lot of support. It was a very bold action, particularly in the context of a place called Albany, where the level of a closed system rivals any city machine in the country. For example, we have had a total of only three mayors since 1941. We’re waiting to see what the State Commission will decide to do. Even though this work is not radical, there certainly are elements of courage and taking risk.

Sue Katz used to be proud of her martial arts career and world travel, but now it’s all about her edgy blog, Consenting Adult.