Smith, Barbara 1946–
Barbara Smith 1946–
As a black woman and a lesbian, Barbara Smith has felt first-hand the ugly sting of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Born into segregation, Smith was no stranger to these harsh realities, however she was dismayed to find that they also existed within progressive rights movements. As a feminist, she fought against sexism, yet found that white women in the movement often excluded blacks. As a black feminist, she fought against both sexism and racism, yet found that other black women in the movement shunned her because she was a lesbian. In the fight for gay and lesbian rights, she found that white gays and lesbians did not embrace the struggles of their black brothers and sisters.
Oppressed on all sides, Smith did not cower, rather she broadened the scope of her activism, becoming a champion of the need to recognize the interconnect-edness of oppressions—race, sexuality, gender, and class. For Smith, the struggle for gay rights is the struggle for black rights, anti-Semitism is as vile as homophobia, and women—black, white, straight or gay—all have a stake in the women’s movement. Smith’s ultimate hope is that, as she told Ace Weekly, “we can recognize the humanity of people’s differences, and try to treat each other more humanely.”
Barbara Smith and her twin sister, Beverly, were born on November 16, 1946, in Cleveland, Ohio. The twins grew up in an extended family of women that included their mother, Hilda, their maternal grandmother, and a great aunt. Without men around, the twins learned the strengths of a woman as caretaker and provider. They also learned something much harsher—the cruelty of racism and sexism. Watching their mother and aunts ignored by shopkeepers and insulted by white strangers, the twins sensed that there was something wrong. Smith wrote in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, “The cold eyes of certain white teachers…the Black men who yelled from cars as Beverly and I stood waiting for the bus convinced me that I had done something horrible.”
Fortunately, she lived in a house of strong women. Education and reading were not just encouraged, but expected. Their mother had been one of the first in the family to graduate from college. Though she died when the twins were just nine, her belief in education strongly influenced the twins. Smith’s aunt held a job at the Cleveland Public Library and brought home bags full of books. Despite the demons of racism and sexism looming outside their door, at home Smith and her sister enjoyed a sanctuary of books, a place to let their minds grow and their dreams unfold.
Smith began to learn that there was nothing wrong with her, but that there was something very wrong with society. Watching the dramas of the Civil Rights Movement first-hand, she was moved. “I’m kind of a natural activist,” she told Patricia Bell-Scott in Ms. magazine. “By the time I was eight I noticed that things were not fair.” She attended her first demonstration when she was in high school arid found one part of her calling—
At a Glance…
Career: Educator. University of Massachusetts, instructor, 1976-81; Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, director and publisher, 1981-95; Barnard College, instructor, 1983; New York University, instructor, 1985; University of Minnesota, visiting professor, 1986; Hobart William Smith College, visiting professor, 1987; Mount Holyoke College, visiting professor, 1988; Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, scholar in residence, 1995-96; writer in residence at numerous colleges; freelance writer and lecturer.
Awards: Outstanding Woman of Color Award, 1982; Women Educator’s Curriculum Award, 1983; Stonewall Award for Service to the Lesbian and Gay Community, 1994; Radcliffe College, Bunting Institute, fellow, 1996-97; City University of New York, Humanities Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, Rocker-feller fellow, 1998-99.
activism. The other part was writing. She told Ms., “I wanted to be a writer as soon as I found out that you could be one.”
In high school, Smith pursed writing and joined the school newspaper. At age 18, she left for the prestigious campus of Mount Holyoke College and immersed herself in writing courses. As a sophomore, she took a short story course with a rising literary star who was also a white male. He criticized her work and embarrassed her tirelessly. His dismissal of her writing aspirations affected Smith so deeply that she abandoned her dream of writing and focused on literary criticism instead.
Smith was particularly interested in studying black literature, especially that of black women. Unfortunately, such a field did not yet exist. Not one to be dismayed, Smith designed her own course of study on black writers. Following graduation, she obtained a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971 and took her first job at the University of Massachusetts. She assumed that she would pursue the life of an academic and only write within that context. However, “the feminist movement altered my expectations about everything,” she wrote in Truth.
Being a “natural activist,” she was drawn to the feminist movement as a thirsty woman to a rushing stream. It gave voice to many of her own feelings about oppression. Moreover, she finally found a place for her writing in the numerous journals that had sprouted up in tandem with the movement. It was an empowering time for Smith, both as a woman and as a writer. With this empowerment also came the courage to come out as a lesbian. She wrote in Truth, “coming out in the mid-seventies was a crucial factor in finding my voice.”
In 1974 Smith co-founded the Cohambee River Collective in Boston, a community-based black feminist group. One of the most important legacies of the group was that it was actively committed to not only struggling against the oppression of black women, but also against sexual, racial, and class oppression. She told Ms., “We understood that dealing with sexual politics didn’t mean you weren’t a race woman, and that speaking out about homophobia didn’t mean that you didn’t want to end poverty.”
After a brief stint as a book reviewer for the National Observer, Smith made an important discovery about herself. “I decided that I would never again put myself in the position of having to make my writing conform to someone else’s standards of beliefs,” she wrote in Truth. She made good on that decision at a 1977 National Conference of Afro-American Writers with the presentation of her seminal work, Towards a Black Feminist Criticism. It was the first study to explore black female literature and the role of black lesbians in it, the book is considered one of the major factors in opening the field of black women’s literature.
Realizing that mainstream publications were not very interested in what women of color had to say, Smith co-founded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980. Envisioned as a place for all women of color—black, Latino, Native American—to be able to publish their work, Kitchen Table, was as much a political outlet as it was a literary one. “We do not simply publish a work because it is by a woman of color, but because it consciously examines the specific situations and issues that women of color face from a positive and original perspective,” Smith told Ace Weekly.
Kitchen Table Press published many important works including two publications that have contributed significantly to black feminist literary criticism: Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Smith and This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Smith worked as editor, contributor, and publisher for the press until 1995. However, Kitchen Table Press was a labor of love and activism, not one of profit. Smith struggled to get by on teaching positions, fellowships, speaking engagements, and occasional publication fees.
Even though she wrote throughout her years with Kitchen Table, she was never able to give herself to it fully. The work she had produced had been published in small journals or by independent presses and had yet to reach a wide audience. The Truth That Never Hurts, was her response to this. Featuring selected essays from 1968 to 1998, Truth presented an overview of Smith’s philosophies, struggles, truths, and accomplishments.
“Reading through Smith’s book is having the constant double feeling that ‘things have changed’ while also remaining largely unchanged,” a Lambda Book Report reviewer wrote. Smith’s book pointed out that, even as black and homosexual men and women assume high positions of power in government and business, others are still beaten by strangers, shunned by neighbors, and harassed by police. Smith told the Boston Phoenix, “I think there are black people like Clarence Thomas, for instance, who actually thinks he has arrived, but all he had to do is be in his car in the wrong white neighborhood to be disabused of this notion.”
Just as oppression has not changed in the years since Smith began her work as an activist and author, neither has Smith’s message. She continued to call for awareness that racism, sexism, and homophobia do still exist, and that they affect all people. Despite still feeling the sting of racism herself—she was once run off the road by a white driver in Watertown, Massachusetts—and homophobia—a group of black youths set her car on fire because she was a lesbian—she remained committed to her work. She told Between the Lines, “Of course I get discouraged, but I don’t get despondent. I know I’m part of a long, strong struggle, and that when I’m gone there will be others to carry on.” With her powerful writing, her total commitment to crushing oppression in all its forms, and her exquisite faith, Smith has created a legacy that will not soon be forgotten. Those who come after her will find that the path she has carved out is full of hope and humanity.
(Editor with Gloria T. Hull and Patricia Bell Scott) All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, Feminist Press, 1982.
(Editor) Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983.
(Editor with Elly Bulkin and Minnie Bruce Pratt) Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism, Firebrand Books, 1984.
The Truth That Neuer Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freeaom, Rutgers University Press, 1998.
Smith, Barbara, ed. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983.
Smith, Barbara, The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom, Rutgers University Press, 1998.
The Boston Phoenix, February 1999.
Lambda Book Review, January 1999.
Ms., January/February 1995.
Smith, Barbara 1949(?)—
Barbara Smith 1949(?)—
Former model and actress Barbara Smith is the proprietor of B. Smith’s, a hugely successful bistro with locations in New York City and Washington, D.C. Smith plans to open restaurants across the country. In 1995 her popularity resulted inB. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends, the first book of its kind by an African American and the first addressed to the African American community. High praise greeted the glossy guide, which encouraged the author to branch out into other areas of entertainment.
Smith was born on August 24, 1949 (according to most sources), outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her earliest role models were her parents and maternal grandmother. “My grandmother was an extremely strong woman, as matriarchs are,” Smith told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB)± “but at the same time she was a very loving and warm woman with a great sense of humor and laughter. My parents were exceptional because they were very talented as a couple and they had a great marriage. I was very influenced by what they did. They had beautiful vegetable gardens, beautiful flower gardens. They did all of their own restorations— they were the original Bob Villa [the famed remodeling king and television host] and Martha Stewart [guru of fine living]. It was a beautiful house that we lived in. They did a great job with their God-given talents.”
Smith was also influenced by her hairdresser, a woman who traveled and worked throughout the small cities of western Pennsylvania. “As a young girl I saw her as a woman who was very independent,” Smith toldCBB. “She traveled, she made her own money, she had her own business.” Being a stylist was Smith’s first ambition. In fact, in the early 1950s this was one of the only areas in which an independent African American woman could thrive.
From a very young age Smith worked hard in the kitchen and garden with her mother and grandmother and as a paper girl. Then, in high school, she became very involved in home economics, studying nutrition, cooking, sewing, and fashion. Moreover, she would take part in any event concerning fund-raising and also worked as a volunteer—a candy striper—at the local hospital. She was a tall, beautiful teenager, and people were always
At a Glance…
Born August 24, 1949 (according to most sources), near Pittsburgh, PA; daughter of William H. (asteel worker) and Florence (Claybrook; a part-time maid) Smith; married Donald Anderson, 1988 (divorced); married Dan Gasby (a television producer), 1992; children: Dana (stepdaughter) Education; Graduated from John Robert Powers Modeling School, c. 1967.
Model, beginning in Pittsburgh,c 1967; participated in Ebony Fashion Fair, New York City, 1969; first African American woman to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle, 1976; actress, beginning in mid-1970s; retired from modeling, early 1980s; worked as hostess and floor manager at America restaurant, New York City, early 1980s; opened restaurant B. Smith’s, New York City, 1986; opened second B. Smith’s, Washington, DC, 1994; published B, Smith’s Cooking and Entertaining for Friends, Artisan, 1995,
Member: Trustee of the Culinary Institute of America; member of the board of the Feminist Press and the New York Women’s foundation; founding member of the Times Square Business improvement District.
Addresses: Office— 8, Smith’s, 771 8th Ave., New York, NY, 10036.
telling her that she should be a model. “And then you eventually want to be one, “Smith toldCBBwith a laugh.
Smith enrolled in the John Robert Powers modeling school in Pittsburgh, attending classes on weekends throughout high school. She reveled in the curriculum, particularly the instruction in grace and poise. She graduated from Powers just before her high school commencement and today considers the experience a turning point in her life. She remembered to CBBa”It was great because I began to watch my weight and change my eating habits. I always was into clothes because my mother was a great dresser and my father was too, so style was always around; but modeling school took it to another level. “An African American instructor at the Powers school was particularly encouraging, giving Smith the confidence she would need to excel in the white-dominated field of modeling.
Smith moved to Pittsburgh immediately after high school. “I was told I was too dark and that I would never get a job, but I kept going for interviews,” she explained to the New York Beacon.”I didn’t give up. “Then TransWorld Airlines launched a national search for their first black ground hostess. Smith landed the coveted spot through the modeling agency representing her. She achieved other “firsts” while in Pittsburgh as well, among them being crowned the first black Miss Triad, Queen of the Three Rivers. She also went back to school to learn to teach modeling, which she did for some time. While in Pittsburgh, Smith applied repeatedly to the Ebony Fashion Fair, an annual fashion industry gathering. She was accepted on her third try, in 1969. She moved to New York City in order to participate in the fair and decided to stay.
Smith signed with the prestigious Wilhelmina Modeling Agency and eventually appeared on five covers for Essence (she was only the second model to do so) and one for Ebony.Both publications cater to an African American audience. Smith’s big break into the modeling mainstream came in July of 1976 when she appeared on the cover of Mademoiselle; she was the first black woman to grace the magazine’s cover.
Smith loved modeling. She traveled throughout the world, living in Paris, France; Milan, Italy; and Vienna, Austria, as well as Los Angeles, California. She took a great many classes during her tenure as a model, including those in acting, singing, French, and German—anything that interested her. “There is no better education I think than being a student of the universe, so to speak,” she told CBB.“Modeling is a fabulous business to be in because you are in some of the best locales in the world and there are opportunities to do many things. At the same time, it’s extremely difficult, and I would suggest to any young person that they get their college degree so they always have something to fall back on because it’s not a business that will sustain you forever.”
Smith appeared in dozens of television commercials in the 1970s, but her acting career really took off in summer stock performances in the early 1980s. She also appeared in productions in and around New York City. Still, it was as challenging for a black woman to make her mark in acting as it was in modeling. “That situation has changed, but not entirely,” she told CBB.“I probably would have left modeling entirely for acting, but I wasn’t very pleased with the kind of roles available to African American women.”
From nearly the beginning of her professional career, Smith planned to open a restaurant. She liked dining out, she was fascinated by the business of restaurants, and she felt her personality was suited to such an occupation. “When you’re a model,” she told Publishers Weekly, “you go to wonderful places where you’re introduced to wonderful food, and you’re invited to marvelous parties. In the ’70s, I cooked up a storm. I liked impressing New Yorkers with my cooking. That’s the last thing people expect from a model.” She also understood that her modeling career would be greatly limited as she got older. For years she had questioned people in the restaurant business, gleaning as much information as she could about the industry and discussing her plans with restauranteurs. She eventually connected with a company called Ark Restaurants. She liked their management style and asked if, when she was done with modeling, she could work for them and learn the business. They agreed.
In the early 1980s Smith began honing her restaurant management skills. She first worked as a hostess at Ark’s America, a popular Manhattan eatery, and then as a floor manager there. After a year she began scouting locations for her own restaurant. With help from a partnership with Ark, B. Smith’s opened on November 22, 1986, in Manhattan’s theater district. The second B. Smith’s opened in October of 1994 in Washington, D.C.’s newly refurbished Union Station train terminal.
As Smith explained to CBB, “For me, a restaurant like B. Smith’s is an extension of the fashion and style business. It’s entertainment.” Indeed, Smith has turned her bistro into a community center; she hosts a play reading series, showcases musical talent, and stages fund-raisers. B. Smith’s also mounts weddings and memorials. “You name it,” she says proudly, “I’ve done it in the restaurant.”
To keep a restaurant flourishing in Manhattan—where rents are high and fashions change in the blink of an eye—is quite an accomplishment. But Smith wanted to do more. “A few years ago I wondered, ’Why isn’t there a book on entertaining that speaks to African Americans?’ “Smith toldEssence. “I felt we needed ideas that address a new generation—one too busy and creative for staid staples such as expensive caterers or goldleaf calligraphy.” In 199 5 she filled this void withB. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends.Smith ventured in Publishers Weekly, “Martha Stewart set the tone for so many of us. I think what makes my book so exciting is that there has never been one done by an African-American before.”
Publishers Weekly contributor Robert Dahlin described B. Smith’s thus: “More than 100 recipes, from appetizers to desserts, with 75 full-color photographs … provide tempting glimpses into Smith’s eclectic international and home cooking. There are also lush depictions of parties she has held, both small and large. “The project actually began as an autobiography, but as the book developed, it focused more and more on Smith’s cooking and entertaining. “You start with what you know best,” she told Dahlin. “I’ve done a lot of parties at the restaurant. And being a model is dealing in fantasy. That’s what you do in a restaurant, and that’s what people do at home when entertaining guests.”
In Essence Smith said, “My book isn’t so much a how-to as it’s a why not? Why not entertain? Just do it with style and conviction!” Noting how the African American community has grown as a market, Smith remarked in Publishers Weekly, j’A lot of black television shows are on the air now. Things have changed. For years we would go to restaurants and not see anyone else black. That’s different now. We’re out there spending and buying. My book reinforces that idea.” In a similar vein, she commented to the Chicago Tribune, “The world doesn’t know that African-Americans live like this. They forget that our grandmothers and great-great grandmothers ran the houses of white people—in incredible style.”
Over the years Smith has continued to make television appearances and accepts three or four commercial jobs a year. She has been seen on “The Cosby Show” and “The Cosby Mysteries.” In the mid-1990s she became a spokesperson for Oil of Olay moisturizers. Having established herself in the restaurant and home entertaining fields, Smith hopes to produce shows for children and women. She also has plans to develop a television show for herself and is at work creating a magazine.
When asked how these myriad projects would affect her restaurant business, Smith responded that the more she’s in the limelight, the better it is for her restaurants. She expects the business to continue its growth, with more restaurants opening nationwide. Smith’s leisure time is devoted to her second husband, Dan Gasby, a television producer, and his daughter, Dana. Their summers are spent at Sag Harbor, New York, where entertaining is a casual affair. “When we throw parties, we personally prefer to do most of our socializing on the sand,” Smith confided in Essence.
Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1995, sec. 7, p. 11.
Essence, May 1987, p. 97; August 1989, pp. 83-88; June 1995, p. 52.
Gourmet, August 1989, p. 126.
New York, March 16, 1992, p. 66.
New York Beacon, March 17, 1995, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995, pp. 38-39.
Washington Post, July 5, 1995, p. El.
Addtional information for this profile was obtained through aCBBinterview with Barbara Smith on January 4, 1996.