It was 1976 when Barbara Smith asked a meeting of scholars, “Is it possible to be a Black lesbian writer and live to tell about it?” An original member of the Combahee River Collective whose “A Black Feminist Statement” gave life and meaning to the naming of Black Feminism, Smith’s advocacy spans nearly five decades of activism and scholarship. This manifesto offered the proto-queer precursor to our contemporary understanding of intersectionality, marking one of the most significant modern shifts in black radical organizing. She went on to lead the co-founding of Kitchen Table Press in 1980, alongside her peers: Audre Lorde, Hattie Gossett, Cherrie Moraga, and others. Working with a variety of anti-oppression coalitions, publications and presses, international conferences, and both academic and community advocacy organizations, Smith has provided a salient example of what it means to remain committed to this work.
I read Smith’s speech to the Modern Language Association in a Women’s Studies class in the early 2000’s. And now I must return to her question and affirm that not only is it possible to be a Black lesbian writer and live to tell about it, but Smith herself has been instrumental in making this possible.
For so many queer black femmes, the answer to Smith’s query is a resounding “No”: either we do not live, or we cannot tell about it, and neither option in-between promises this thing called a future. I don’t know when her question began to crystallize in my mind and demand an answer. But I distinctly remember the feeling of both waking up and falling. It was that moment from a dream when you are not sure what is real between time, place, living, or something else even more ambiguous. It was a feeling that made me sharply aware of this deep insecurity about the fact of growing old, under these conditions, at this time and place of encroaching uncertainty.
Fear roiled through me when I realized: I am already exhausted and there is so much work left to do. I have neither plan nor resource for surviving beyond the week. I have never known the hopefulness of imagining myself an elder. Such optimism betrays the reality I know and experience. It wants so badly to reject the notion that this struggle for freedom will last forever. To reject the fear of aging under the heaviness of this exhaustion. Every version of myself stripped of humanity by ever-present anti-Blackness, queerantagonism, and misogyny of this world. At the end, having given everything for liberation – I worry it will remain out of reach, a sight unseen.
When you grow accustomed to loss in every magnitude, the future becomes an abstract concept that belongs to everyone — except, perhaps, to you. I could not grasp it. Control it. Aim for it. See it. Breathe it. Taste it. It simply escaped possibility.
But a funny thing happened. Smith’s writing entered my life in a different way, about a decade after that initial encounter. I’ve since been granted time, and with that, the opportunity to revisit her work when I could more fully grasp what being black and queer and femme means to shaping the world I want to inhabit. When I read Barbara Smith’s writing for the first time, I was reading through a sense of totalizing fatalism. It was an effect of not knowing enough about the fullness of my own being. But this was in part, a failure of imagination. Because I could not see myself as living through processes of aging, I could not see that the question presents a challenge – not a death sentence.
I never expected to actually meet Barbara Smith, and I wasn’t certain if I could walk away from an encounter with my few bits of hopefulness intact. Let’s just suffice it to say, meeting one’s heroes rarely inspires further adoration. Her words have loomed so large in my mind for so long, giving my world shape as I waded into the dark waters of my own becoming. Even knowing better, it was hard not to iconize her as a tower of unwavering thought and spirit. A saint of sorts. After more than 15 years studying her writing and being shaped in wake of activist-scholars of her generation, I had built a monument and made it akin to a life.
It is that thing we do when we are afraid of grieving. We sometimes forget to remember the living.
At the November 2017 meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association, at the urging of my beloved homegirl, I took a chance at growth and walked up to the Smith Caring Circle booth in the exhibit hall to learn more about the initiative to fund her well-earned retirement.
“Would you like a picture too? Come on now, I’m standing, but I’m ready to have a seat. Once I get over there, I’m not getting back up!” she chuckled exasperatedly, waving me over to the table. I jumped at the opportunity, but then I stayed to chat for a while. After she got comfortable in her seat, of course.
There she was, sitting and laughing with me. Discussing her favorite show (currently, How to Get Away With Murder). Smith dropped lesson after lesson in a brief but lively discussion about everything and nothing in particular. She spoke of establishing boundaries and being unapologetic in feeling the fullness of whatever joys we managed. She let us know that survival did not have to be a singular, lonely option for our lives as we inch closer to getting free. There was so much love and fondness in the ways she spoke of the lives she encountered on her journey. She was not hardened in ivory or stone or steel. She was not encased in self-righteousness.
She was full, flawed, and she remained optimistic, even after a lifetime of fighting for black queer liberation. She spoke endearingly of the work of young black queer activists and scholars who envision a future so expansive it cannot be contained in one lifetime.
Though I walked away with all the starry-eyedness of a fan, I took away a much-needed lesson. Barbara Smith reminded me of how selfish it is to focus so thoroughly on “the legacies left” by our thought leaders and activists with no attention to lives lived. I have been thinking more about how often we isolate their lives as a series of accomplishments. We mark moments of importance by the labors we provide. And when those labors cease to capture public attention, scrutiny, or sympathy? We dispose of them.
The people we exalt as icons fade from memory until we need their image again. Sanitized and deployed as weapons against structural oppression. In many ways, we mourn their deaths before they die simply because they stop serving us in the ways we demand. We refer to their pasts as their present. We forget that they age, in part, because we cannot imagine escaping oppression without our youth intact. For many of us, it is dangerous to live as if tomorrow is promised. But we must not only plan for our futures, we must consider how to take care of our elders for as long as we have them with us today.
Of course, we will continue to fight the long, difficult fight against all oppressions. We, I hope, will continue to dream. Most of all, I want us to live not just to survive another day, but to experience the fullness of ways we can move through the worlds we create together. To grow into our boldest selves, grey haired and wrinkled at the corners of our mouths, signs of all the laughter that rolled deep from the warm places where our joys thrive.
In the case of Barbara Smith, it is the opportunity of lifetime for me to be able to give back to and help support someone whose work has shaped today’s movements for Black liberation. She is someone who worked without compensation, long before activism could be made profitable. Contributing to the Smith Caring Circle is an honor, and I hope at least a few of you will consider donating too.
Follow Niq on Twitter @MxNiq2.
You've been part of the work so far, and you can be part of so much more in the coming year. So, let's build.