Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” for February 24, 2009


Smith’s main point in this essay lays a foundation for the explosion of both Black feminist critical theory and the creative writings of Black women in the 1970s and 1980s.  Her argument exposes the flaws of considering literature through either the exclusive lens of race, as Black literary criticism tends to do, or the exclusive lens of gender, as predominantly White feminist criticism tends to do.  She suggests that it is  Black women who are in the best position to create an effective criticism that provides an integrated consideration of the roles played by race, gender, class, and sexuality in literature.  She argues that this critical move is necessary not only for the impact it will have on literary criticism generally, but also to offer a deeper understanding of the literature of Black women specifically.

When black women’s books are dealt with at all, it is usually in the context of black literature which largely ignores the implications of sexual politics. When white women look at black women’s works they are of course ill-equipped to deal with the subtleties of racial politics.  A black feminist approach to literature that embodies the realization that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of black women writers is an absolute necessity.  

She wraps up her essay by doing a “Black feminist” reading of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula.  Her application of Black feminist criticism in this instance, while relatively interesting, seems like a confusing way to demonstrate the efficacy of Black feminist criticism, especially when she states “What I have tried to do here is not to prove that Morrison wrote something that she did not, but to point out how a black feminist critical perspective at least allows consideration of this level of the novel’s meaning.”  In the end, is it the opportunity for consideration that Smith finds important, or the meaning?

How do you think that Barbara Christian’s argument against “the race for theory” might respond to Smith’s proposition?


Barbara Smith

Barbara Smith




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26 responses to “Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” for February 24, 2009

  1. Resa I.

    I’m still lost with why it is important to point out who the writer is. I understand that it’s important to progress in society, but I don’t see why it’s important to the reader. As a fiction writer I know that characteristics of me come out in my writing. But why is it important for readers to need to know who and what I am without the hints in my writing? For example, I’ve written stories about homosexuality. Why would the reader feel the need to figure out if I’m gay/bi? Why can’t they criticize the writing, not the writer?

  2. Katie Joseph

    Barbra Smith states, ” I want to make in this essay some connections between the politics of black women’s lives… and try to understand what the existence or nonexistence of black lesbian writing reveals about the state of black women’s culture and the or ALL black womens oppression.” My question is, how much of a role does someone’s sexuality play in their writing?

  3. Whitney Harmon

    Smith makes a good point when she talks about how women do not even notice that they are missing from literature. Why is it that women do not realize this? Is it because they have been excluded for so long that it seems like the norm? Does this still occur today?

  4. Jason Sikma

    Barbara Smith discusses her desire for a book based in black feminist and black lesbian experience, fiction or nonfiction. This narrative is one that is rarely seen or discussed in literature or popular media. What institutional forms of oppression have influenced this absence? What would a new feminist movement to combat this look like? How has masculinity reinforced the ignorance of black women writers and black lesbian writers compared to black men writers?

  5. Katie Myers

    Barbara Smith points out in her essay about the importance of black feminism in writing and that experience, what kind of combination of black feminist movement and the black arts movement in general have on the arts in the future and what would that look like for the reader?

  6. Tyler Nakatsu

    My belief in regards to feminism is that as much as feminist ideals are about equality for women, feminist ideas also work to characterize the man. My question then is how would Smith describe the importance of the black power movement as a movement that seems to be majorly ran by men in regards to the black feminist crititism?

  7. Brad Pearce

    Is Barbara Smith making a large leap by assuming that certain political ideas are “lesbian” in nature? Is she suggesting that the physical nature of heterosexual intercourse is oppressive to women? Does Smith view lesbianism as a form of protest against “patriarchy” and “heterosexism,” as opposed to a general sexual orientation?

  8. Jenna Currie

    On page 412, Smith states: “There is no political movement to give power or support to those who want to examine black women’s experience through studying our history, literature and culture. There is no political presence that demands a minimal level of consciousness and respect from those who write or talk about our lives. Finally, there is not a developed body of black feminist political theory whose assumptions could be used in the study of black women’s art.”

    My questions is, what relationship is Smith trying to show,make or stress between black women’s literary criticsm, the black femisist movement and the political situtation?

  9. Jennifer Kurz

    Barbara Smith writes “The conditions that coalesce into the impossibilities of this essay have as much to do with politics as with the practice of literature.” In previous essays read for class, there have been some negative outlooks on African-American works considered largely political in nature. Is Smith’s proposal of a rise in black lesbian criticism and works more in support of a political stance, or an aesthetic? Or are these one and the same?

  10. Tom C

    Smith does a good job in pointing out the importance in feminism but my question is how does that tie into or even matter in relation to sexual preference?

  11. David Hagen

    While I understand Smith’s argument that black women are best suited to produce criticism of literature written by black women authors in that they are knowledgeable of both the sexual and racial perspective that black women hold, I wonder why it is that the opinions of all other critics should be automatically deemed to be less worthy of consideration. Basing one’s opinion of a piece of literature solely upon the demographic to which that critic belongs seems to be somewhat combative. While there are those critics who are neither black nor women who fail to assess the situation black women writers face daily, why should all the rest of the non-women or non-black critics be ignored in the discussion of African American women’s literature?

  12. Arie Henry

    Barbara Smith opens her essay claiming she does “not know where to begin,” referring to trying to explain and analyaze the unique oppressive experiences of black women. In bringing to light this different kind of “invisible” facet of literature, it made me wonder if FEMALE AFRICAN-AMERICAN literature, like other possible forms of writing, could be defined by a certain type of “formula.” Is this or is this not a plausible notion and if so, what is the formula? What makes that “formula” so unique and significant that Smith makes the stand she does?

  13. Barbara Smith discusses Sara Blackburn’s take on Toni Morrison, and how she is “‘going to have to address a riskier contemporary reality than this beautiful but nevertheless distanced novel.'” According to Smith, “Blackburn unashamedly asserts that Morriosn is “too talented” to deal with mere black fold, particularly those double nonentities, blak women. In order to be accepted as ‘serious,’ she must obviously focus her efforts upon chronicling the doings of white men.” Can Morrrison keep her representation of the black, female writer as well as “take her place among (what Blackburn calls) the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working?”

  14. Leslie Lambert

    Is it fair to let only members of the same race or class to critique their colleagues work? Literature is supposed to be universal! Though, the members of the same race and class may be in a better position to judge the quality of work, excluding someone’s opinion based on their skin color or class is just perpetuating the conflict of racisms. It seems a tad counterintuitive.

  15. Lana C

    Why would knowing the orientation of an author matter? Shouldn’t literature be able to stand on its own? If writing and literature can stand on its own two feet then what would be the purpose or need for defining that piece of literature by the authors orientation?

  16. Eric Irvin

    How does knowing the history/background of the writer affect the bias in reading and analyzing an article?

  17. Jeff Gugliotto

    It seems to me that the author would like to gain political movement for, essentially, the furthest thing away from the privileged white male ideal. She claims that she will finally be able to rest easily if she knew there was an book written with that narrative being the focus. My question is: when said book that includes black feminism/lesbian is published, is/will there any obligation to reach even further into the depths of individuals who are oppressed and publish stories about them?

  18. Troy Alapit

    On page 423 Smith writes, “The near nonexistence of black lesbian literature which other black lesbians and I so deeply feel has everything to do with the politics of our lives, the suppression of identity that all black women, lesbian or not, must face. This literary silence is again intensified by the unavailability of an autonomous black feminist movement through which we could fight our oppression and also begin to name ourselves.”

    Throughout this piece, Smith talks about the hostility and suppression towards black women writers and those who are black lesbian writers, but she never distinguishes the two apart and rather leaves them as one entity. Therefore, how can Smith say this about “ALL” female Black writers, when not all writers share the same sexual orientation? In addition, does Smith only write in this way because she feels as though she is being oppressed due to her sexual orientation as a lesbian regardless of skin color?

  19. Lindsey Bratonia

    Smith refers to white males and females as being “ill-equipped” to understand black feminist writers. Is this because of issues about race, feminism, or is it simply the social construction of not being able to be open minded toward female writers, especially black female writers? Does Smith believe this can change, that they will finally be equipped to understand black female writers, possibly through the black feminist movement, or will this be an on going struggle to achieve respectable recognition?

  20. Lynette M

    I cannot think of a book in High School, or any other literature class, that has featured a “lesbian” book. At the same time, I cannot think of a book featuring a man on the topic either. Is the issue of Homosexual literature’s exclusion from mainstream literature specific to African American women, or is it broader than that?

  21. dmesick

    Why do the writers of the works that we have read in particular, feel the need to be justified in every other aspect of their life by their writing? What does sexuality have to do with intelligence? What does race have to do with your ability to put words on paper? What does gender have to do with it all?

  22. Nikki Lane

    There are a lot of questions on this post and no is answering them… Is that normal/healthy? It doesn’t seem like anyone is talking to each other… At any rate, there are a couple of questions I thought interesting enough to answer:

    Troy, you may have read Smith wrong if you don’t think she distinguishes between Black women and Black lesbians. She absolutely does and recognizes that while there are a few Black women’s voices that make it through, there are less Black lesbian voices that make it through. Smith makes no claim that the silencing of women of non-heterosexual orientations is only symptomatic of those who are Black, but her bringing it up should absolutely make us question other forms of silencing like Lynette was able to to.

    A lot have asked questions of why the identity of the writer matters in the criticism of the work and why issues of the writers sexuality come to play in the appreciation of their work. Lana C. asks,

    “Why would knowing the orientation of an author matter? Shouldn’t literature be able to stand on its own? If writing and literature can stand on its own two feet then what would be the purpose or need for defining that piece of literature by the authors orientation?”

    Well Lana, it matters because there is nothing that truly stands alone. Your question reminds me of the arguments constructed around the authenticity, the purity of the scientific method as if research does not inherently carry the lived experience and predispositions of the researcher.

    Further, I want to know who writes the books I read because I want to make sure that I am listening to the voices of women, of non-heterosexual people, of transgender people, or non-white people.

    Those who argue that the artists identity does not matter, or that their own does not matter, your arguments remind me of arguments of “color blindness” as if ignoring color and difference is how you get rid of it. That is a huge flaw.

    Nikki Lane
    The George Washington University
    B.A. Women’s Studies, ’09

  23. Pingback: Literary Birthdays December 13 – 19 « Literary Birthdays Blog

  24. Lots of folks write about this matter but you wrote down really true words!

  25. Nicolas P

    When Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes: “The black writer is the point of consciousness of his language” it can be interpreted as a tool of guidance – and a piece of information – to black writers, reminding them that as a black male writer in our society, it is difficult not to be depicted by critics based on historical norms. Hence, comparing the black writer to his peers and older writers, from the same culture, and therefore making it more difficult for them to be truly criticized for “just” their literary work without being overanalyzed. I feel that he is trying to point out that a black man is being examined more thoroughly than his fellow white writers which makes white critics more biased towards the black writer; over-examining every detail from choice of words to real life experiences and history.
    Barbara Smith writes “A black feminist approach to literature that embodies the realization that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of black women writers is an absolute necessity.” I feel that Smith has a point. One might ask the question, why is it that black lesbian feminist women’s literature is such a taboo-based subject in the literary world? I cannot see that their opinions or fictional works would hurt our society in any way. I think she is trying to point out that women in general are not taken seriously enough by critics and that black women are especially subject to this “discrimination”. Her personal craving for a book that involves black feminist politics is also pointed out.
    While comparing these two to each other and their opinions I came to the conclusion that both are stressing that black writers are being analyzed differently – compared to white writer’s literary works. They are both trying to tell the reader, us, that the critics should not be so conservative and instead be more open-minded and embrace all types of fictional/nonfictional works.

  26. Anjeel Manhas Bhalessa ......

    It is obvious , that some decade past in the European and non- countries there was a system of difference as; racial, political , cultural and many more. During that time negroes were treated as inhuman by the capalist class . Furthermore in US there was established Notorious fugitive law against slaves as those was negroes …………

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