‘Warrior’ alum delivers inaugural presidential lecture

Barbara Smith ’69 kicked off the inaugural lecture series bearing her namesake on her time shaping the Combahee River Collective and discussed the skills she developed at Mount Holyoke that helped her contribute to building Black feminism.

From the day that Barbara Smith was born, she says there was not the “slightest possibility” that she would ever enter the gates of Mount Holyoke College. In 1946 Smith and her twin sister, Beverly, were born dangerously premature in Ohio, at a time when legal racial segregation was actively enforced and elite private colleges throughout the U.S. were effectively closed to Black students. 

But the life that society had destined for her was not one that Smith or her family would settle for. Smith not only entered the gates of Mount Holyoke and proudly graduated in 1969, majoring in sociology and English, but she also went on to become an author, a lecturer, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a Black feminist trailblazer. 

As an icon for social change, Smith’s scholarly work has been celebrated all over the country and around the world. Most recently, she discussed “The Path to Combahee” on Wednesday, March 13, with a lecture series bearing her namesake: the Critical Race and Political Economy Barbara Smith Presidential Lecture.

“It is a rare honor to introduce someone who I have basically admired my entire adult life and have the inaugural lecture series actually be done by the person it is named after,” said President Danielle Holley. “She was among the first to define an African American woman’s literary tradition. She is central to the formation of the discipline of Black women’s studies. And of course, she is an iconic, Black, lesbian feminist.”

President Holley’s introduction of Smith was welcomed with a roar of applause, hoots and hollers, as well as a standing ovation from a crowd of more than 100. 

The Path to Combahee

Before co-founding the Combahee River Collective – a Black, feminist, socialist organization that reflected the particular needs of Black women and Black lesbians – in Boston in 1974 and co-authoring the Combahee River Collective Statement with her twin sister, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, Barbara Smith experienced “stark racial isolation” as one of 26 Black students attending Mount Holyoke. At the time, there was not a single Black senior.

“I don’t think that the College had any idea what to do with us as proven by the high dropout rate for Black students,” said Smith. 

One of the major challenges she and other Black students faced as part of the “desegregation generation” at the College was “invisibility” and “otherness.” The tactics and strategies she and others used to counter those challenges were not dissimilar from the efforts of Black feminists a few years later, who struggled to be seen within a predominantly white women’s movement and a male-dominated Black movement. 

“As much as I have come to value, indeed love Mount Holyoke, being a student here was one of the harshest challenges of my life,” said Smith.

Among some of the deep-seated challenges she cited were dealing with coldness from professors, being ranked in a “high-risk” category because of her race, having only one Black faculty member and experiencing the near-total lack of Black subject matter in the curriculum. 

When it came time to graduate in June 1969, 13 of the 15 Black students who were part of the original class graduated.

“This was the highest number of Black students to graduate at one time in the history of the College,” she said. “We were basically warriors. … The phrase that kept running through my head was ‘living relic.’ I felt like a living relic knowing there were so few Black women on earth who had never done what I did.” 

Following her time at Mount Holyoke, Smith went on to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971 with a master’s degree in literature and then to the University of Connecticut, where she completed all but the dissertation in her doctoral studies in 1981. She has taught classes on Black women’s literature at several colleges and universities. 

In 1980, Smith co-founded the first U.S. publisher of books for women of color, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press

In reflecting on her time at Mount Holyoke, Smith commended the work that the College has done in launching a department dedicated to critical race, especially when critical race theory is being attacked by former President Donald Trump. 

“It is incredible for me, as a graduate of the class of 1969, to not only hear that we’re talking about critical race but that there is an entire department dedicated to that work at Mount Holyoke,” said Smith. 

The creation of the College’s Critical Race and Political Economy Department has been nearly a decade in the making, aiming to introduce students to the intersectional and interdisciplinary study of race, colonialism, migration and political economy. Throughout myriad discussions, brainstorming sessions and seminars, one aspect presented by Elizabeth C. Small Professor of English and the Chair of the English Department Iyko Day remained constant: a Barbara Smith lecture. 

“Barbara, you’ve been a constant source of intellectual inspiration, helping each of us keep our eye on freedom and liberation,” said Vanessa Rosa, associate professor of Latinx Studies and Critical Race and Political Economy. “We’re so honored to have you with us this evening.”  

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