Organizing for Reproductive Justice: An Interview with Barbara Smith

This post is part of our forum on “Black Women and Reproductive Rights.”

(Barbara Smith)

In today’s post, Barbara Smith is interviewed by Joseph R. Fitzgerald, Associate Professor of History at Cabrini University and her biographer, on the fight for reproductive justice. Barbara Smith is an author, activist, and independent scholar who has played a groundbreaking role in opening up a national cultural and political dialogue about the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and gender. She was among the first to define an African American women’s literary tradition and to build Black women’s studies and Black feminism in the United States. She has been politically active in many movements for social justice since the 1960s. Barbara and her colleagues in the Combahee River Collective are credited with originating the term “identity politics,” defining it as an inclusive political analysis for contesting the interlocking oppressions of race, gender, class and sexuality. Now widely referred to as “intersectionality,” this analytical approach has shaped scholarship, teaching, and progressive activism. Barbara’s work has been a source of guidance and inspiration to individuals and movements committed to battling both external and internal oppression. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith was published in 2014 by SUNY Press. Follow her on Twitter @TheBarbaraSmith.

Joseph R. Fitzgerald: In a recent email exchange with me, you wrote about the documentary film The Janes. You stated: “It is really good, but so painful to watch having lived through that time and now being subjected to even worse.” Can you please speak about what it was like to live in a pre-Roe America?

Barbara Smith: It was incredibly difficult and nightmarish because if one got pregnant, and particularly if you were not married, you became like a persona non grata. You were stigmatized. There was incredible shame. But it was just something hanging over our head. It was just such a great fear.

One of the things that is different now, post-Roe, is that there is a much more draconian effort in prosecuting and criminalizing everyone who’s involved. If it’s possible, in some ways it’s worse than pre-Roe, but in another way it’s better because now there are abortion medications and people can self-manage abortions. How that will unravel and how that will play out with the new absence of Roe as a constitutional protection, we will see.

Fitzgerald: Some people point to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale as a predictor of what awaits pregnant people now that Roe has been overturned. But as Dr. Dorothy Roberts shows in her classic work Killing the Black Body, this nation has a long history of controlling girls’ and women’s bodies during and after the period of enslavement. Does a person’s knowledge level of US history factor into their preparation for being an effective advocate and activist in human rights struggles such as reproductive justice?

Smith: The answer is yes. And that is always the case no matter what issue you’re working on. Knowing our history—and not just knowing it in broad strokes—helps us to understand what we’re seeing now and also what the possibilities are moving forward. So, if we don’t understand that past it’s very hard for us to be creative and effective in the present and into the future because we don’t know what we’re dealing with.

A few years ago I was buying multiple copies of Howard Zinn’s book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. It is a chronicle of SNCC organizing in the South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. And to me if you want to know what organizing is—that’s why I was buying the multiple copies to give to people—if you want to know what organizing is and looks like, what it takes, what the sacrifices are, and why it is so important, that is an excellent book to read. Because people now think that organizing is something you do as your day job at a 501(c)(3) organization and that is far from the case. Most organizing that has been effective has been done at the grassroots.

Fitzgerald: Black feminists such as yourself were warning us that Roe could be overturned, and then, other rights would be in jeopardy. What do you think is the reason, or reasons, for why so many reproductive rights supporters seem to have been caught flatfooted on this? Is there a generational divide in whether people thought Roe would be forever enshrined as a fundamental right and if so, what is the cause of that divide?

Smith: I think that people who were born after Roe and only grew up knowing that they had a constitutional right to abortion have a different perspective than those of us who grew up before Roe. But as far as, “Would the right ever be taken away?” I think it’s a political difference. I think that the political difference is really the pro-choice perspective, that was much more narrow in its understanding and its assumptions about what they—with their privilege—could and would always have.

Unless we do our politics and frame our politics in relationship to the situations that we actually face then we will indeed be caught up in complacency. I think that people who experience multiple oppressions were not necessarily looking to the system for solutions to oppression. I think they were much more aware that Roe could indeed fall.

Fitzgerald: You were one of the founders of the Combahee River Collective, a collective of Black feminists and socialists who lived in Boston, Massachusetts, in the mid- to late-1970s. Its “Statement” (1977) is where you all first introduced and defined the concept of identity politics, and you all argued for an intersectional approach when working on social issues. The “Statement” is routinely cited as an operational model for multi-issue feminist organizing and ethics. Why do you think the “Statement” has been so influential during these forty-five years since you all wrote it?

Smith: The “Statement” is written in clear language. It’s not jargon. It’s not “high theory.” And it has stood the test of time. Our definition of identity politics was clear. What we meant is that we had a right to organize around issues that affected us as the people who we were—Black women. It is looked at and used not just by feminist organizers. It’s used in progressive movements across the board. I think it’s because it was a multi-issue, multi-level analysis that it works for more than one group of people.

We had a very open perspective about who we saw as our allies and who we saw as people with whom we were in struggle, who we saw as our comrades.  The fact that it was written from a socialist perspective also gave it—and has given it—incredible staying power. And I often say that that’s what made it unique because we had a material analysis of what was going on in the lives of people like ourselves, namely Black women, a lot of whom were also lesbians. We had understandings, and were beginning to have new understandings, of what was going on in our own lives. But we were also concerned about what was going on in the lives of people who we were connected to and identified with.

It was a very open perspective and it was a perspective that really believed in coalition work and did not dismiss people based upon the fact that they were not exactly the same kind of people that we were. We actually practiced and worked in coalition with other people in the Boston area and probably the most significant example of that was when twelve Black women were murdered in Boston in early 1979. People, when the murders first began to happen, saw them as racial murders. But it was only women who were being murdered and some of the women had been raped. So, then we had to think about the situation differently. The Combahee River Collective was absolutely at the center of bringing various communities together at a time of extreme crisis in the city of Boston.

Fitzgerald: Can you explain in a little more detail how you went about building these coalitions, and what were some of the challenges that you all in the Combahee River Collective, that you faced in trying to build coalitions, and how did you work through them?

Smith: Well, I think the most important thing is that we had an attitude that it was important to do so. We believed in working across differences. I think that as Black women we had had the experience of being that “fly in the buttermilk” on many occasions. And also, because of being socialists and anti-capitalists, we understood that we were part of really a world struggle, a global struggle. We identified as Third World as did most people of color who were on the Left during those years.

When people who started one of the first battered women shelters in the United States, which is Transition House in Boston, when they asked us if we would consider doing anti-racism training with staff because of the fact that so many of the people coming to the shelter were indeed women of color, we said yes. Because we understood that a stronger women’s movement benefited us. We didn’t say “No! Go to hell! Read a book!” What book? There were very few books. [laughing]

I think nowadays there’s much less willingness on the part of people who define themselves as Black feminists, or feminists of color, there is much less willingness to make those leaps. The book This Bridge Called My Back and also Gloria Anzaldúa’s work on borderlands, kind of speaks to that consciousness of “We’re on the margins but we have something to share, and something to do to make what’s not on the margins function a lot better than it is.” As I said, just a lot more willingness to cross those borders and to cross those bridges. But I see a lot of separatism now.

Fitzgerald: Solidarity, as you pointed out, is an important aspect of human rights work. So, how do you define political solidarity and what does it look like when activists are practicing it?

Smith: Solidarity is when you have the backs of people who are in struggle whether it’s exactly your people or your issue or not. We were practicing solidarity politics which sometimes means that you’re not always comfortable and that you have to be, I don’t know, a more expansive person than you might be if you’re just left to your own singular devices.

You have to be able to see your humanity in other people and their humanity in you. That’s what makes it possible to be in solidarity. If we think that everyone who’s not exactly like us means us harm and is really out to get us then we won’t necessarily get very far.

Fitzgerald: If you were on your way to the car in the parking lot and you came across somebody, you know, a younger person—broadly defined, in their teens, 20s, 30s, or maybe even 40s—and they said “Ms. Barbara, you know I want to do something. Do you have any suggestions on where I can start?” What would you say?

Smith: I think it’s important to find out what’s available and what’s going on. When you take a reproductive justice approach, you’re concerned about everything that affects the lives of people and their families to be healthy and successful. We would make sure that we were covering bases, not just a mono-issue perspective. So that’s just really important.

I would really beat the drum for abortion funds. There are abortion funds locally and around the nation that have been in existence for quite a long time. So they have the staff, they have the infrastructure, and they have the methodology to help people who otherwise would not be able to access abortion usually because they don’t have the financial means. Women of means have always been able to have abortions. And those people on the Supreme Court they know that people in their family have had abortions. They’re a bunch of liars. They’re big liars. You know, they lied to Congress when they were being vetted for the position. So, they’re big liars. And those people will be okay post-Roe. But everybody else, we have issues. And abortion funds, if you want to financially be involved and supportive, they are good.

And also find out about the history of African and African American women to find out the reproductive history of enslaved women. Because enslaved Black women, they were subject to rape within the context of enslavement, they had many ways and interventions for preventing more capital for the master through their reproduction.

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Joseph R. Fitzgerald

Joseph R. Fitzgerald is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Cabrini University. His research and teaching interests include His academic specialties include critical race feminism, and the Civil Rights-Black Power era. He is the author of a new biography of the human rights activist Gloria Richardson. Follow him on Twitter @StrugIsEternal.