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.