Barbara Smith and her twin sister Beverly are the products of a powerful upbringing. As young girls growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, they were surrounded by an extended family made up entirely of intellectually and politically-oriented women. A librarian aunt brought books home and made the house a center for discussion and pointed political awareness. ""I'm kind of a natural activist,"" she later told Ms. Magazine. ""By the time I was eight I noticed that things were not fair.""
Barbara joined Mount Holyoke’s class of 1969 and was quickly among a wave of scholars and critics leading in the definition of a distinctive African-American women’s literary tradition and establishing Black women’s studies in college and university curricula. The new critical approach in turn informed political action and in 1974, Smith co-founded the Combahee River Collective, an early and influential Black feminist group. Her leadership made the group a conscience for different movements by calling attention to the ways racism, classism, homophobia and sexism intersect.
When feminists were ignoring issues of race, Smith was there. And when African Americans were indulging in homophobia, she was there, too. ""We understood that dealing with sexual politics didn't mean you weren't a race woman, and that speaking out about homophobia didn't mean that you didn't want to end poverty.""
Smith’s political activism — recognized in a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nomination — has continued to be interwoven with writing and criticism. She co-founded, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first US publisher of women of color, in 1980. She served two terms as a member of the Albany Common Council.