Construction Work

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith

Edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks, with Barbara Smith

Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015, 324 pp., $29.95, paperback

Reviewed by A.J. Verdelle

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around reads with the definite tone and portraiture of a documentary film. Subtitled, Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith, the book constitutes a significant historical document as well as an intertextual biography of Barbara Smith, a feminist activist and collective builder; a one-time elected official in Albany, New York; and a contributor to progressive and feminist causes as a scholar, publisher, and author. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around collects primary documents—including interviews, campaign posters, photographs, reproductions of broadsides, and impressively contextualized statements from some of the collectives and groups Smith either participated in or founded. Smith, well-known among feminists and lesbians and writers of the 1970s and beyond, has a definite place in history and herstory. This documentary text proves her agency, her initiative, and her mettle.

Smith’s is not a household name, but her work fits alongside womanist activists such as Alice Walker, feminist organizers such as Gloria Steinem, and radical lesbian theorists such as Cherríe Moraga. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around reveals and re-establishes Smith in her rightful place, at the vanguard of the progressive, feminist, and black feminist movements. Like any original, and like many activists, Smith worked with energy and a keen sense of innovation. The book chronicles black feminism and lesbian activism almost from their recorded beginnings. Depending on the organization and the task at hand, Smith changed hats: she could be an architect, a general contractor or, in the trenches, a construction worker. As an organizer, a pioneer, and a collective member, an agitator and dreamer, Smith was important because she was willing to wear a hard hat, in revolutionary times.

Smith’s activist story begins in the 1970s, an era characterized by civil rights struggles that continued from the 1960s, and legislative advances that were hard-fought and not completely successful. In historic civil rights negotiations, black women often played supporting roles. As feminism was being formulated and advanced, black women’s issues were, in the main, excluded. Smith involved herself strategically, founding organizations and participating in actions designed to increase black women’s visibility and the viability of black women’s causes.

Probably her most well-known work was with the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist group active between 1974 and 1980, whose statement of principles is still widely read and taught in women’s studies courses as a foundational feminist document. The statement was written in 1977 and first published in Zillah Eisenstein’s Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, in 1979. It broke a trend of erasure and silence.

“We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression,” it explained, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. When people like black women (and men) face multiple oppressions, their struggles combine geometrically, not arithmetically. Multidimensionality creates struggles that are vaster and more complicated than a simple sum of their parts.

 Reflecting on the founding of the Combahee River Collective, Smith writes, We were very clear that we were building something really, really important. The Combahee River Collective was originally a chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization, so we knew we were part of something bigger than just what we were doing in Boston. We were networked with Black feminists in different parts of the country: up and down the East Coast, and also in Chicago and California. Wherever we could find each other by phone or by letter. … I always knew we were changing history with the work that we were involved in. Most of us had been involved in other Leftist movements, so we had a sense of historical meaning and how organizing develops and moves forward. We knew we were not operating in a vacuum.

She goes on to explain that

Understanding your own identity and making connections with others who don’t share that identity is part and parcel of the same work. We were much more able as Black women and Black lesbian feminists to connect to others because identity politics gave us that confidence, it gave us that grounding … . We were less easy to intimidate, and because we an an analysis, we understood how the isms and the oppressions connected to each other.

The Combahee River Collective promoted a mode of analysis that we would now call “intersectionality.” The statement also helped to popularize the notion of “identity politics.” Smith explains that together, these ways of thinking

assert that it is legitimate to look at the elements of a combined identity that included affiliation or connection to several marginalized groups in this society. There is meaning in being not solely a person of color, not solely Black, not solely female, not solely lesbian, not solely working class or poor. There is a new constellation of meanings when those identities were combined… Black politics at that time, as defined by males, did not completely or sufficiently address the actual circumstances of real, live Black women.

In 1977, when the statement was formulated, identity politics was new. It provided a platform for women of color to become part of the political dialogue. The statement astutely identifies the suspicion with which people viewed identity politics. In the 1970s, black women, long relegated to subservience and subjected to notions of inferiority, presented themselves more assertively and more collectively as whole human beings, defined by common characteristics and unquiet humanity. Barbara Smith was a voice in the cadre of black women who stood up and spoke up and eschewed subservient silence. The Combahee statement noted that feminism must create space for both white and black women to articulate their needs and advocate for their rights. That black women would demand to be seen, considered, named—this was revolutionary, even though from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the general confusion around this notion seems mildly, if not wholly, ridiculous. The statement explained the collective’s process:

We empowered ourselves by looking at our situation, making observations about it, drawing conclusions, and saying, We’re here, we deserve to be here, and understand that when we talk, we’re talking from all these different experiences.

In the winter of 1979, the active and energized Combahee Collective turned its attention to the murders of several young black women in Boston. Smith reports that the initial six murders—ultimately the total rose to thirteen—were reported in the back of the Boston Globe, along with the racing results. Smith reports that she was “steaming” with outrage that the murders happened, that the women’s bodies were found in garbage bags near a shoe factory, that the press did not handle the murders as urgent or significant. The question, Smith writes, was “bandied about”: Who is killing us? At first, Smith aptly and insightfully reports, the question was handled as if it was rhetorical. Then, the Combahee Collective joined with CRISIS, an organization led by Marlene Stephens, an activist from Boston’s South End neighborhood, to organize around the unsolved murders. Smith identifies the work the two organizations did together to publicize and demand a solution to the Boston murders as an active expression of solidarity, built through practice.

Smith presents a sad coda to the organizing—although it does, in a way, testify to the power of feminist activism. She points out that the coalition’s campaign against the murders is not generally remembered, and that “[t]he reason I think the analysis and the response diminishes or disappears is because we don’t have these organizations, these little cells of radical women of color, to keep that stirred up and to keep that consciousness uppermost and going.”

In 1980, Smith and other black feminist activists founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, whose mission, unique at the time, was to publish and preserve stories by women of color. It was, Smith wrote in her essay “A Press of Our Own” (in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies [1989]), “to be both an activist and a literary publisher.” Probably the press’s most significant titles were This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (second edition, 1983); and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Smith (1983). The press published poetry and short stories by women of color such as Cheryl Clarke, Mitsuye Yamada, and Gloria T. Hull, as well as the Freedom Organizing Pamphlet series, which included works such as Barbara Omolade’s The Real Lives of Black Single Mothers (1985). Through Kitchen Table, Smith and her colleagues promoted discussion of the issues facing black women, across the spectrum of marital status, standing as a mother, and sexual preference.

In 1982, Smith, together with co-editors Patricia Bell Scott and Gloria (Akasha) T. Hull, published the anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. With its eye-popping green cover, it enlivened and invigorated black women’s studies in a way that cannot be overstated, as it helped to “create, validate and institutionalize black women’s studies,” writes Smith. The book practically shook the shelves of women’s bookstores—institutions that were beacons and havens in those days.

Smith’s work on intersecting oppressions has inspired and influenced new generations of activists. One such organization, the Black Feminist Working Group, created a twelve-point plan based on the examples of the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panther Party. Smith explains that the Crunk Feminist Collective—founded in 2010, as “a women-and-men-of-color scholar activist group,” according to Crunk’s Facebook page—is “in the historical continuum” of the kind of feminist work she has devoted much of her energy to. Crunk’s mission says that it aims to “create a space of support and camaraderie for the Hip Hop generation.” According to Smith, the women in Crunk are individually involved in political work, but unlike Combahee, the Crunk collective as a whole is not politically involved. Nonetheless, the Crunk Feminist Collective’s “Letter to Patriarchy” is well-known and influential among women’s studies scholars.

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around is full of primary documents, with minimal interpretative language and maximum historical presentation of fact: it’s an amazing web of Smith’s connections and involvements and alliances and innovations and essays and speeches and activist outcomes. This is why the documentary format suits. The moments need capturing, with the same kind of functionality as photographs. The interviews here function something like still images: they reveal voices and contributors to the work, much as portraits recall the people who stood in the trenches, who fought the good fight. Smith’s commentary in interviews and notes on the primary sources provides insight into her progressive and activist work, developed during a time when feminism was evolving, when progressive causes were sprouting and becoming critical and urgent, and when the contributions of black women were definitely needed to augment the feminist argument. Jones and Eubanks’s editorial transitions bridge two eras: a past that was devoid of black women’s concerns, and a future that—thanks in part to Smith’s energy, intellect, and commitment—contains both woman-centered ideas and strategies for black women’s involvement in emergent feminism.

Smith performed her work in good company. Many feminists and scholars were involved in the groups she founded and in which she participated. One of the real benefits of Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around is encountering the voices of so many black feminists. Cited throughout are Smith’s partners and co-activists, including editors Eubanks and Jones; scholars Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Alexis Pauline Gumbs; and progressive activists Elsa Brown, Deborah King, Barbara Ransby, Vera Michelson, and Jooh-Hyan Kang. The book’s inclusive format expresses Smith’s collectivist and inclusive politics and approach to organizing.

Activism requires work and insight and effort, and plain dogged persistence. It requires timing, acumen, and charisma. An effective activist must possess the communication skill and drive to see the need for change and to advocate for transformation, revolution, adjustment, forward motion. She must have the charm and the wherewithal to convince others to join the effort. She can’t quit. Activists who make widely observable change are rare—but Smith is one of them. She has worked consistently over decades to acknowledge the struggles of black women and to establish a black feminist critique, insisting that progressive and feminist conversations include black women’s realities and that black power is not only about black men. As an elected official in Albany, New York, Smith worked in multiple communities, beyond those of identity.

The offerings in Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around will attract eye-witnesses: women who were directly or tangentially involved in the organizing the book documents and who want to see how history has registered their activities. The documentary form will also engage students, the studied, and the curious—those who want to learn how a historical transition evolved. And the book contextualizes, explicates, and answers basic, urgent questions: who did what, when, and why? How were ideas developed, how did they become interconnected, and how did black feminists like Smith make change happen? Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around ensures that Smith will be rightfully embedded in the history of the causes she worked for so diligently and unceasingly. The work continues, a reality to which the building and release of this book attests.

A.J. Verdelle writes novels, essays, and reviews books. She teaches creative writing to undergraduates at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Maryland, and in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

 

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