A pioneer of black feminist and lesbian criticism. Despite the achievements of the women’s liberation movement and the civil rights movement during the politically vibrant 1960s, the feminist movement seemed to speak primarily from the perspective of white, middle-class, heterosexual women, and the civil rights movement for black men. In “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” she says “All segments of the literary world do not know that Black women writers and Black lesbian writers exist,” Smith assumed the task of establishing a tradition of black women’s writing and a specifically black feminist and lesbian criticism. The 1970s were a rich time for black women’s writing, with the beginning of the careers of a generation of writers like Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan; the formation of organizations which provided an alternative to mainstream feminism; and the recovery of early writers. This renaissance of black women’s literature inspired the black women’s liberation movement. Its members agreed that women of colour experience oppressions different from those of white women and black men, because of their race, sex, sexuality, and economic status. They were committed to the liberation of black women from racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classicism in culture as well as politics.

Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977)
She points out the absence of scholarship on black women’s writing, which she links to black women’s invisibility in the mainstream feminist movement. Feminist initially emphasized the universality of women’s experiences and the bond forged by their differences from men. To correct the limitations of this universalizing assumption, Smith calls for a redefinition of the goals of the women’s movement and for an autonomous black feminist movement. Smith shows evidence of black women’s invisibility. Both black and white male critics ignore or denigrate black women’s literary accomplishments, and even some feminists omitted women writers of color from the studies they published in the 1970s. Smith enumerates principles for a black feminist approach, a black feminist critic should:
· Explore both sexual and racial politics in black women’s writing;
· Assume that there is an identifiable literary tradition;
· Decipher the common themes, motifs, and concepts in black women’s literature that derive from writer’s political, social, and economic experiences;
· Examine the specific black female language in this literature;
· Demonstrate an existing tradition of Black women’s art”;
· Try to be innovative and daring, following the model of black women’s literature.
· Assert the political implications of a literary work and its connections to the situation of black women.
Smith devotes a substantial portion of the essay to a reading of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula (1973) from the perspective of black lesbian feminism, focusing on the relationships between women. It is a pioneering analysis of the novel, though some criticized what they saw as a fabrication of lesbian themes. Deborah McDowells faults her definition of lesbianism as vague and reductive, overlooking Sula’s “density and complexity.” However, Smith notes that Morrison did not intend to view the relationship between the two main characters, Sula and Nel, as lesbian, and that her reading of the lesbian connotations in their relationship exemplifies how a black lesbian feminist perspective might deepen our understanding of the nuances and political possibilities of a text.
She provided a model for later writers who stressed the differences among women. A key debate in feminism has concerned essentialism, with most feminists opposing the view that gender, ethnic, and racial identities are determined by biological essences rather than by cultural differences. Some have criticized Smith’s insistence on a separate literature and criticism for black women as “essentialist.” She has dismissed it as a narrow academic debate, arguing that she shares an objective political status with other Black females in this country not altered by economic or educational variables.” “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” is intended as a consciousness-raising piece to call attention to the common ground black women share.

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CASHMORE, ELLIS. Ed. Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations. London: Routledge, 1996.