“We really need to do something about publishing,” Audre Lorde said to fellow writer Barbara Smith in a 1980 phone conversation. It was that phone call that launched Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. As Smith wrote in a 1989 essay, “As feminist and lesbian of color writers, we knew that we had no options for getting published except at the mercy or whim of others—in either commercial or alternative publishing, since both are white dominated.”
After a meeting with Lorde and other interested women, the group left with a plan to publish voices that often went unheard. And though that first meeting was only attended by Black women, the cofounders prioritized publishing all women of color. As Smith writes, “as women, feminists, and lesbians of color we had experiences and work to do in common.”
The name was a nod to the historic and social roots of the kitchen as a central space—particularly for women. The founders also wanted to show, as Smith explained, that they were a small, grassroots organization, built by women who were doing this together, apart from the mainstream, not relying “on inheritances or other benefits of class privilege to do the work we need[ed] to do.”
They launched in 1981, announcing in feminist newspaper New Directions for Women the need for the company: “[Women of color] find ourselves in the position of having a completed manuscript and then facing the dilemma of having no real options as to where to submit it in order to get it produced.” If it sounds like the group had an activist as well as artistic mission, that was no accident. The New Directions article puts it plainly: “We only publish women of color with good (intentioned) hearts and strong minds. All retrogrades get back!”
Along with cofounders including Cherríe Moraga and Hattie Gosett, Smith and Lorde saw Kitchen Table as reaching people of color, not just women—a distinction Smith pointed out in a 1984 interview with Off Our Backs: “we really do want to shake up the total communities that we live in. We see ourselves as trying to create work that will get to our people wherever they are, all over the world.” By 1989, the press had released eight books—including the germinal anthology This Bridge Called My Back. They also released five pamphlets as part of their Freedom Organizing Pamphlet Series, which included works by Angela Davis and the Combahee River Collective.
Though the company was established to provide a solution for excluded writers, it still faced its own charges of discrimination. As Smith writes, “Although Kitchen Table is the only resource of its kind for women of color, some white women still do not comprehend our need to have at least one press of our own. […] Racism and traditional power dynamics die hard.”
After publishing a number of titles, and acting as distributor for other independent presses, Kitchen Table ended shortly after Lorde’s death in 1992. But as Smith writes, the press was fulfilling a larger mission as a “revolutionary tool because it is one means of empowering society’s most dispossessed people […] we have not been afraid to defy white male logic, which will always tell us ‘no,’ when our hearts and spirit tell us ‘YES!’”