How Kitchen Table Press became the voice of feminist and lesbian writers of color in the 1980s
Chicanas Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga were part of the project to bring women authors of color out of the margins of literature.
It all started with a phone call.
Writer Barbara Smith had been teaching courses on black literature written by women since the early 1970s at Emerson College and was always running into problems because most of the books were out of print.
So Smith decided to phone her friend the poet Audre Lorde with an idea to end the marginalization and invisibility of black women authors and create an imprint that would assert itself as an alternative to white-dominated publishing. "We really need to do something about publishing," she told Lorde.
The first meeting, held in 1980, was attended only by black women, but its founders wanted to open the spectrum to all women of color, as Smith wrote: "As women, feminists and lesbians of color we had common experiences and work."
The name they chose, "Kitchen Table," was a reference to the kitchen as the heart of every home and also a space traditionally assigned to women. With this they intended to show that although their publishing project was small and grassroots, it had been built by women working together and without relying on "inheritances or other benefits of class privilege."
Uniting activism and literature, the group announced the creation of Kitchen Table in the feminist journal New Directions for Women in 1981:
"[Women of color] found ourselves in the situation of having a finished manuscript and then facing the dilemma of having no real options of where to submit it to get it produced," they wrote in a truly bold statement of intent. "We only publish women of color with good hearts and strong minds."
The team was joined by writers like Hattie Gosett and Chicana poet, essayist and playwright Cherríe Moraga, understanding that the problem of lack of visibility for women authors was as personal as it was political and also cross-border. "We see ourselves as trying to create work that reaches our people wherever they are, all over the world," Barbara Smith told Off Our Backs in 1984.
Five years later, the publisher had already published nearly a dozen titles, including the anthology coordinated by Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa The Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1984), and also Lorde's I am Your Sister (1986). Or Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (1983), again by Moraga with Alma Gomez.
The publisher, which went on to distribute more than a hundred titles written by women of color to other independent houses, also published pamphlets that were part of the Freedom Organizing Pamphet series and included works by the Combahee River Colletive and Angela Davis.
Kitchen Table was not without controversy, however. Although it was born to give a voice to marginalized women writers in the publishing system, it was also accused of discrimination for publishing only works by women of color. Smith had to come out swinging, writing that "some white women still don't understand our need to at least have a press of our own."
After Audre Lorde's death in 1992, Kitchen Table went out of business. But, as Smith recalled, the publishing house fulfilled its mission as a "revolutionary tool," serving to "empower the most disenfranchised people in society" without fear of challenging "white male logic, which will always say 'no' to us.
But they proved that neither words nor will can be muzzled.