‘What I Believe,’ A Keynote Address By Hess Scholar Barbara Smith

The Wolfe Institute's new Hess Scholar-in-Residence Barbara Smith./Mount Holyoke

By Gabriela Flores


   Working to dismantle racism, homophobia, classism, and other repressions is no easy feat. From organizing as a teen in her native Cleveland, Ohio, to forming coalitions that broke down systemic barriers, activist and author Barbara Smith has undeniably become a trailblazer. Throughout her week-long stay at Brooklyn College, she shared her experiences as a Black lesbian feminist, whose life’s work included giving women of color the space to have their thoughts published and heard. As this year’s Hess Scholar-in-Residence, Smith’s lessons culminated in a keynote address delivered on Thursday, Mar. 16 at the Claire Tow Theater. 

    “So many of us in this room wouldn’t be here without Barbara Smith – many of us came into our own as students, as scholars, reading and learning from Barbara Smith,” said Distinguished Professor Jeanne Theoharis, who introduced Smith before her speech began. 

    The college’s Wolfe Institute annually hosts a nationally-recognized scholar to share knowledge in their respective field, provoke critical thoughts among BC members, and participate in public discussions. This year, Smith was named Hess Scholar-in-Residence after facing health complications prior to her nomination. Her back arthritis and other challenges, however, did not stop her from coming downtown to Brooklyn. Throughout her appearances on campus, Smith delved into topics ranging from the LGBTQ+ community to identity politics, a concept that she and her colleagues at the Combahee River Collective defined as systemic oppressions being shaped by the intersectionality of a person’s several identities. Together with her twin sister Beverly, and Demita Frazier, Smith founded the CRC, a Black feminist socialist coalition that formed in 1974.

    Smith has made innumerable contributions to modern-day thoughts and organizations related to race, gender, sexuality, and class. In continuing to uplift feminists, Smith formed the Kitchen Table Press in Brooklyn with poet Audre Lorde, named after the most common place where women’s ideas spark. There, the Hess Scholar and her fellow authors aimed to give feminist lesbian women of color the control and publishing rights of their content rooted in lived experiences. From works like “Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology” to “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” Smith assumed the role of editor, author, and publisher. 

   For Professor Gaston Alonso, the director of the Wolfe Institute, Smith’s work was the crux of his thesis while in college and remains highly impactful. 

    “Thank you for teaching us how to transform our university and our community in ways that point us towards a more loving, a more beautiful, a more just world,” Alonso said prior to Smith beginning her keynote. 

    In warmly welcoming the Hess Scholar, BC President Michelle Anderson, and former Wolfe Director Rosamond S. King delivered their remarks early on. Student poets Tishana Chapman and Julianna Salinas soon took the stage with original pieces. Each delivered two works true to their identities as writers and women of color, pushing to evolve unapologetically or go against the status quo. With his undeniable musical talents and Smith’s sharp lyrics, Professor Malcolm J. Merriweather conducted BC Conservatory of Music singers, drum accompaniment, and played on the piano himself. The performance was the world premiere of  “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” which pays respects to Smith’s book of the same name. As the voices of lead singer Lucia Bradford and a 10-member choir filled the room, they carried direct messages of not letting segregation, homophobia, book-banning, white supremacy, and Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis stop them from “marching on the freedom land.” 

    Channeling Smith’s spirit, all introductions to her keynote address carried a similar sentiment of doing something against the oppression or systemic limitations communities may face. 

    “And the question tonight, as we take this keynote to heart, must be: ‘How will we be brave? What will we create at our own kitchen tables,” said Theoharis. 

    At the onset of her speech, Smith recollected memories of her grandmother reading “The Little Match Girl” to her and her sister Beverly. The story’s protagonist was an impoverished little girl who sold matches and eventually froze to death because she was afraid of going back home to face her abusive father for not making any sales. From an early age, Barbara and Beverly were upset with the circumstances that the match girl faced, and as they have done throughout their lives, they sought to change things for the better. 

    “Be it as it may, but I think we grasped early on that life can be scary and unfair, and we did not like that,” Smith said. 

     Smith’s grandmother was her primary disciplinarian, showing her key lessons like greeting adults in their Cleveland neighborhood the southern way by asking, “How do you do?” Her mother was hard at work, coming back from long hours usually near bedtime. Although she died when Smith was only nine, she taught her the importance of appreciating kind gestures after the Hess Scholar and her sister did not like presents from their aunt LaRue decades ago. 

    “My mother never disciplined me, never. She didn’t raise her voice to us, as I recollect, because my grandmother did all of that,” Smith said while chuckling. “So having my mother die so early, having the fact that she was not my primary disciplinarian, but my grandmother was – on steroids – I, of course, idolized her in a way.”

    After her mother’s death, Smith and her only sister were taken care of by their aunt, who led by example how to lead with kindness. With their female role models, the Smith sisters were taught to be compassionate of others, which eventually lit the activist in them. Hailing from a family with roots in Dublin, Georgia, Smith’s knowledge of their experiences living in the south during high lynching and hostility towards Black people was limited. That was until she was scouring the web while preparing her speech for last Thursday. While researching, she found that her native small town Dublin had a race riot in 1919 during the Red Summer, the outbreak of racial violence. At the time, Black community members guarded African-Amercian Rob Ashley from getting lynched by white locals, after he was accused of murdering a white man and wounding another. Smith wonders if her family had any involvement in the action. Although they did not pass on their pasts to her, Smith’s family background remains etched in her identity.

    “I think I took what they had experienced down home through my pores without them having to say anything,” she said.

    Smith’s relatives were in tune with the latest efforts to secure basic rights for the Black community. If they did not catch updates on televised news, they would do so through sermons at their Baptist church. Growing up in the last years of legal segregation, as well as coming to age with the Civil Rights Movement and key moments like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, Smith found herself admiring activists of her time. In April 1964, the then-budding activist attended her first protest demonstration where she and other young people boycotted schools against school racial segregation. Having tasted the feeling of making fundamental change happen, Smith and her sister were adamant about becoming more involved, later joining the Congress of Racial Equality in 1965 after graduating high school – all with the support of their aunt LaRue. 

     “The person responsible for raising me from the age of nine was very much a woman of the world. Aunt LaRue was open-minded, incredibly smart, sophisticated yet down to earth, with a sly sense of humor,” Smith said. “None of my friends ever meet aunt LaRue, but I always say that she was my role model and that whatever good qualities I had was because I wanted to be like her.” Although Smith’s aunt was supportive of her nieces’ activism, she did not let them march on Washington in 1963 for jobs and freedom, which the scholar “never got over.”

     Wearing her loved ones’ teachings and values on her sleeve, Smith faced a moment of divergence when she came out as lesbian. Although she noticed her attraction to women in her teenage years, she came out in the mid-1970s after her aunt LaRue and most of those who helped raise her had died. 

    “There was no visible gay community that I was aware of. Being queer in those days was an insult, not a name we had reclaimed. And it was viewed as a mental illness, a mortal sin, a crime, and usually all three,” she said. Smith graduated from Mount Holyoke College in June 1969, a few weeks before the Stonewall Rebellion, where members of the gay community protested against police raids that happened at the Stonewall Inn in NYC. Two years later, LaRue passed away. Today, she still wonders if her aunt had not died in 1971 if she would’ve come out later in life or not at all. 

    “My grandmother, in particular, raised me to be a good little girl, which on a number of levels, besides being queer, I never really achieved,” Smith said with a chuckle. But being raised with her family’s integrity and “habit of telling the truth,” she felt encouraged to come out as lesbian with her living relatives, including her uncle. 

     After remaining seated for the bulk of her keynote due to her arthritis, Smith stood up and walked to the podium to deliver her beliefs in sum. There, she addressed the crowd with her utmost important belief in political struggle. 

    “Struggle requires organizing, that is coming together with other people who are similarly motivated to work on a problem, or a set of problems, caused by systemic oppression and exploitation,” Smith said. “Struggle does not primarily mean fighting with people within your own organization, or people who are on your side with whom you disagree.” Considering on a case-by-case basis who she lets into her life’s lens as a Black lesbian feminist, Smith noted the importance of sharing insight without judgment of those who do not share similar experiences of oppression or identity. To enact material change, she echoes the words of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, who pushes his readers to take a “constructive approach” to address problems by actually doing something about it. 

   As she’s noticed throughout her career, coalition building and action are vital to enact on the streets, not simply in dialogue. In closing, she quoted Bernice Johnson Reagon’s work titled “Coalition Politics,” emphasizing the importance of not confusing “home and coalition.” 

    “I am just so gratified that people here saw fit to bring me into your community, and for this moment in time, but hopefully not just a moment, to be in the struggle together and also for me at least to experience incredible joy,” Smith said, concluding her keynote. 

     Professors Lawrence Johnson and Donna Lee Granville from the sociology department, as well as Ingrid Thomas-Clark from secondary education, welcomed Smith to BC’s Black faculty and staff family at the event’s end with gifts.