Barbara Smith uncovers African American LGBT history

by Melody R. Waller

An enthusiastic crowd welcomed Barbara Smith to Oberlin last night. Her speech on "African American Lesbian and Gay History: An Exploration," was well received, as evidenced by the lack of empty seats 10 minutes into her presentation.

Smith, an African-American Lesbian Feminist Scholar whose work has been frequently used in both African American Studies and Women's Studies classes, spoke Thursday about the relative newness of her field of expertise.

"It's particularly difficult to find information on lesbians in Cleveland," Smith, a Cleveland native who is presently doing research in her home community, said. "I have to be aware of not exposing people's lives that they may not want to be exposed. This is the effect that the closet has on people in the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community," Smith said.

According to Smith, there has been much work by African-American lesbians and gays of Color, but there hasn't been much historic research. She hopes to set a precedent with her forthcoming book, The Truth That Never Hurt: Writing on Black Women and Freedom: A History of African American Lesbians and Gays.

She is also the author of the book HomeGirls, and an essay, Towards A Black Feminist Criticism, and All the Women Were White, All the Blacks Were Men, But Some of Us Were Brave. She is the editor of The Readers Companion to U.S. Women's History.

Smith said there is significantly less information about lesbians of color available.

"History currently exists in fragments such as music, poetry and literature, but until now there hasn't been a document that gives a complete experience," said Smith.

Even with the growing number of African American lesbians and gays in academia, none have studied the complex scope and the contributions from their own community. Lesbian and gay history has more often than not been told from the point of view of white lesbians and gays, Smith said.

Smith's research is targeted towards the understanding of lesbian and gay life in the context of Black history. She pointed out specifically that the relationships of black lesbian women in sororities and black gay men in organizations is an issue that is often never addressed.

Smith researches both the lives of men and women because, she said, "It's impossible to understand the history of one biological gender without understanding the other. It's important to get accurate interpretations of this history."

Lesbian and gay life in black history is linked to the presence of visible lesbians and gays in Harlem, according to Smith. Because of the community's large showing in the Village, an affluent New York community, information can be found that documents the class competitions and racial oppression that African American lesbians and gays faced.

Smith also noted that there was a significant contribution to the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance from people who were not heterosexual.

Smith was inspired to begin her research by both Elizabeth Kennedy's book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, and from the discovery of C. Glen Carrington, a collector of African American life and culture, who was a significant figure in the gay community.

Carrington, a graduate of Howard University, was a primary source of her information. Smith said any other person in the gay community.

"Carrington made many trips to Europe. He also traveled to the Soviet Union, Mexico and the Caribbean. He was a well-known amateur photographer and had over 2000 photographs in his private collection, many of which I have looked at," said Smith. "I began my research by looking at his pictures. I had to draw conclusions from the images I saw. He had many prominent Black gay men in his friendship circles."

Carrington died in 1975 but left behind his collections to both Howard University and the Schaumburg Center for Black Culture in New York.

Smith said the most interesting part of his collection were the letters he received throughout his lifetime. "That's where the gay stuff is," she said.

Smith encouraged students interested in pursuing research in the field of African American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender history.

"The more we do it, the more it will be done," she said.

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Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 20, April 10, 1998

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