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Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2016) and the editor of How We Get Free—Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Haymarket Books, 2017). The Combahee River Collective, a trailblazing group of radical Black feminists, was one of the most important organizations to develop out of the antiracist and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s.

This piece is adapted from the introduction to How We Get Free—Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.

In the days after the disastrous 2016 presidential election, a popular meme showing that 94 percent of Black women voters had cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton was circulated as proof that Black women had done their part to keep Donald J. Trump out of the White House. The meme, though, was misleading. It was true that 94 percent of Black women who voted cast their ballot for Clinton, but those voters represented 64 percent of all eligible Black women. Even though this was a large voter turnout, it represented a 6 percent drop in Black women’s historically high turnout in 2012, when Barack Obama was on the ballot. Indeed, the overall turnout for Black voters declined for the first time in a presidential election in twenty years, falling to 59 percent from its historic high of 66 percent in 2012.1

The search for answers to how the loathsome Trump could become president of the United States tended to focus on who did and did not vote. Of course that was part of the explanation, but what was often missing was closer scrutiny of what kept tens of millions of people from participating in the election. To that point, given Trump’s repeated appeals to racism, why would fewer, not more, African Americans, including Black women, have participated in that critical election?

Any cursory investigation into the lives of African Americans would have revealed deep dissatisfaction with their conditions—even after the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008. After all, the last few years of the Obama presidency had seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and an eruption of Black social protest. Indeed, a 2017 “Power of the Sister Vote” poll, conducted by the Black Women’s Roundtable and Essence magazine, found an 11 percent drop between 2016 and 2017 in the support of Black women for the Democratic Party. The poll also reported that the percentage of Black women who feel that neither party supports them had jumped from 13 percent to 21 percent in the same time period.

To anyone who bothered to investigate the conditions in Black communities, these numbers should not be surprising. Looking at Black communities through the specific experiences of Black women would have revealed the depths of economic and social crisis unfolding in Black America. Black women had led the way in electoral support for Obama, and with those votes came the expectation that life would improve. Instead of getting better, wages stagnated, poverty increased, and policing was an added burden.2 These very conditions explain why Black women have led the latest iteration in Black social protest.

In other words, Black women’s experiences cannot be reduced to either race or gender but have to be understood on their own terms. For example, wage differentials between men and women are often used to demonstrate the persistence of sexism in the workforce. The main statistic cited is that women generally make 80 percent of what men make.3 Of course, that disparity unto itself demonstrates the injustice of sex discrimination in the American workplace, but it fails to capture the enormous injustice experienced by Black women. African-American women make, on average, sixty-four cents on every dollar made by white men. In real dollars it meant that Black women were making, on average, $34,000 a year compared to $53,000 for white men.4 If we looked even closer, we could see that in Louisiana, Black women were making 43 percent of what white men in that state make. And when you consider that in 80 percent of Black families, Black women are either the sole provider or the main provider, it brings into focus the economic hardship experienced by most Black families in this country. The same could be said of poverty. Black women make up 25 percent of the poor, compared to Black men, who are 18 percent; and to white women, who make up 10 percent of poor people. Thus, the inclusion of Black women on their own terms is not a concession to “political correctness” or “identity politics”; it is necessary to validate the particular experiences of Black women in our society while also measuring exactly the levels of oppression, inequality, and exploitation experienced in African-American communities. More important, looking at the condition of Black women reveals the utter inadequacy of what qualifies as social welfare in the United States today.

~

The year 2017 marked the fortieth anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement, which introduced to the world terms such as interlocking oppression and identity politics. The Combahee River Collective (CRC) was a radical Black feminist organization formed in 1974 and named after Harriet Tubman’s 1863 raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina that freed 750 enslaved people.

The CRC formed as a radical alternative to the National Black Feminist Organization, which itself formed in response to what Black feminists believed was the failure of white feminist organizations to adequately respond to racism in the United States. But the identification of racism alone as a phenomenon in the lives of Black women was politically insufficient as an analysis or as a plan of action.

It is difficult to quantify the enormity of the political contribution made by the women of the CRC, including Barbara Smith, her sister Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, because so much of their analysis is taken for granted in feminist politics today. Take, for example, the ubiquity of the term intersectionality in mainstream political discourse. The Combahee women did not coin intersectionality—Kimberlé Crenshaw did so in 1989—but the CRC did articulate the analysis that animates the meaning of intersectionality, the idea that multiple oppressions reinforce each other to create new categories of suffering.

The CRC described oppressions as “interlocking” or happening “simultaneously,” thus creating new measures of oppression and inequality. In other words, Black women could not quantify their oppression only in terms of sexism or racism, or of homophobia experienced by Black lesbians. They were not ever a single category, but it was the merging or enmeshment of those identities that compounded how Black women experienced oppression.

The women of the CRC were not the first Black women to recognize their position in U.S. society. This historic insight was captured, perhaps most succinctly, by Black writer and public intellectual Anna Julia Cooper in 1892: “The colored woman of to-day occupies…a unique position in this country.… She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or an unacknowledged factor in both.”5 In the 1960s, Black feminist activists like Frances Beal described the oppression of Black women as “double jeopardy,” which also recognized the specificity of their compounded oppressions.

The CRC built on those observations by continuing to analyze the roots of Black women’s oppression under capitalism and arguing for the reorganization of society based on the collective needs of the most oppressed. That is to say, if you could free the most oppressed people in society, then you would have to free everyone. For the CRC, this was not an academic exercise. Not only was it crucial to understanding the particular experience of Black women as compared to white women and Black men, but it also created entry points for Black women to engage in politics. This was a critical aspect of the CRC’s political intervention in the women’s movement. One could not expect Black women to be wholly active in political movements that neither represented nor advanced their interests. The inability or unwillingness of most white feminist organizations to fully engage with antiracist issues affecting Black women, like campaigning against sterilization and sexual assault or for low-wage labor and workplace rights, alienated Black women and other women of color from becoming active in those organizations. The same was true within the Black liberation movement that was overwhelmingly dominated by Black men. Indeed, it was not unusual for Black male organizers to oppose abortion rights for Black women on the basis that abortion was genocide for Black people. Thus, the narrow agendas of white, liberal feminist organizations and some purported Black radical organizations cut them off from a cadre of radical Black women who had been politically trained through their participation in the civil rights movement and the urban-based Black insurgency during most of the 1960s. The inattention to Black women’s issues also cut them off from newly radicalizing Black women looking to become involved in political activism. In this context, the women of Combahee were not only making a political intervention into the feminist movement, but by doing so, they were also creating new entry points into activism for Black and Brown women who would have otherwise been ignored. This was borne out in Boston, for example, where the CRC was centrally involved in campaigns against the sterilization of Black and Brown women, the abortion rights movement, and the emergent struggle against domestic violence. Of course, all of these women newly activated into the feminist movement did not join the CRC, yet the influence of that organization and the generalization of their analysis opened up the world of organizing and radical politics to new Black feminists.

Demita Frazier, for example, had been active in the Black Panther Party in Chicago long before she was involved in the CRC. Barbara Smith cut her political teeth in the antiwar movement and as a fellow traveler of the socialist left and Students for a Democratic Society. Beverly Smith had been active in the Congress on Racial Equality in Cleveland. In all of their cases and perhaps thousands of others, these women had come to revolutionary conclusions that their, and indeed all Black people’s, oppression was rooted deeply in capitalism. This meant that the narrow goals of simply reaching “equality” with men or with white people were not enough. It also meant that many Black feminists rejected the calls for women to completely separate from men, as lesbian separatists advocated. Black men and women may experience racism differently in the world, but they had common interests in overcoming it—interests that could not be realized in struggles separated along the lines of gender. The point was to convince Black men that their interests were also tied to the liberation of Black women and that they should play an active role in that struggle.

The radicalization of African Americans over the course of the 1960s brought many of them to revolutionary conclusions. They came to believe that Black liberation could not actually be achieved within the confines of capitalist society. While predominantly Black male-led and -dominated organizations have historically been presented as the vessels for these kinds of politics, radical and revolutionary Black feminist organizations took up these politics well into the 1970s.

The Combahee River Collective Statement stands tall among the many statements, manifestos, and other public declarations of the period for its clarity, rigor, and political reach. It is an important document, not only as a statement of radical Black feminism but also in its contribution to the revolutionary left in the United States. The main reason is that the women of Combahee not only saw themselves as “radicals” but also considered themselves socialists. They were not acting or writing against Marxism, but, in their own words, they looked to “extend” Marxist analysis to incorporate an understanding of the oppression of Black women. In doing so, they have sharpened Marxist analysis by recognizing the plight of Black women as an oppressed group that has particular political needs. As they wrote, “We are not convinced…that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and antiracist revolution will guarantee our liberation.”

The CRC identified their recognition of this political tension as identity politics. The Combahee River Collective Statement is believed to be the first text where the term identity politics is used. Since 1977, that term has been used, abused, and reconfigured into something foreign to its creators. The CRC made two key observations in their use of identity politics. The first was that oppression on the basis of identity—whether it was racial, gender, class, or sexual orientation identity—was a source of political radicalization. Black women were not radicalizing over abstract issues of doctrine; they were radicalizing because of the ways that their multiple identities opened them up to overlapping oppression and exploitation. Black women’s social positions made them disproportionately susceptible to the ravages of capitalism, including poverty, illness, violence, sexual assault, and inadequate health care and housing, to name only the most obvious. These vulnerabilities also made Black women more skeptical of the political status quo and, in many cases, of capitalism itself. In other words, Black women’s oppression made them more open to the possibilities of radical politics and activism.

The Marxist tradition had also recognized this dynamic when Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin identified the “special oppression” of national minorities as an added burden they faced. Lenin used this framework of “special oppression” to call upon the Communist Party in the 1920s to become more active in the struggles of Black people against racism.6 Lenin also recognized that the layers of oppression faced by Black people made them, potentially, more curious about and open to the arguments of the Communists.

But identity politics was not just about who you were; it was also about what you could do to confront the oppression you were facing. Or, as Black women had argued within the broader feminist movement: “the personal is political.” This slogan was not just about “lifestyle” issues, as it came to be popularly understood, rather it was initially about how the experiences within the lives of Black women shaped their political outlook. The experiences of oppression, humiliations, and the indignities created by poverty, racism, and sexism opened Black women up to the possibility of radical and revolutionary politics. This is, perhaps, why Black feminists identified reproductive justice as a priority, from abortion rights to ending the sterilization practices that were common in gynecological medicine when it came to treating working-class Black and Puerto Rican women in the United States, including Puerto Rico. Identity politics became a way that those suffering that oppression could become politically active to confront it. This meant taking up political campaigns not just to ensure the liberation of other people but also to guarantee your own freedom. It was also of critical importance that the Combahee River Collective Statement identified “class oppression” as central to the experience of Black women, as in doing so they helped to distinguish radical Black feminist politics from a developing middle-class orientation in Black politics that was on the ascent in the 1970s. Indeed, the intersecting factors of race, gender, and class meant that Black women were overrepresented in the ranks of the poor and the working class.

Combahee’s grasp of the centrality of class in Black women’s lives was not only based in history but was also in anticipation of its growing potential as a key divide even among Black women. Today that could not be clearer. The number of Black women who are wealthy and elite is small, but they are extremely visible and influential. From Michelle Obama to Oprah Winfrey to U.S. senator Kamala Harris, they, as so many other Black wealthy and influential people, are held up as examples of U.S. capitalism as just and democratic. They are represented as the hope that the United States can still deliver the American Dream. For example, in the summer of 2016 Michelle Obama delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention that electrified her audience, as she outlined what she believed to be evidence of U.S. progress. She described how “the generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation…kept striving…kept hoping so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”7 She ended her speech declaring triumphantly—in a clear rebuke to Trump—”Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth.” But the actual state of the country has never been measured or determined by the wealthiest and most powerful—even in those few instances when those people are Black or Brown. A more accurate view of the United States comes from the ground, not the perch of the White House. When we judge this country by the life of Charleena Lyles, a thirty-year-old, single Black mother, who was shot seven times and killed by Seattle police officers in June 2017, the picture comes into sharper focus.8 The ability to distinguish between the ideology of the American Dream and the experience of the American nightmare requires political analysis, history, and often struggle. The CRC employed this dynamic approach to politics, not a reductive analysis that implied identity alone was enough to overcome the sharp differences imposed by social class in our society.9

The women of the CRC did not define identity politics as exclusionary, whereby only those experiencing a particular oppression could fight against it. Nor did they envision identity politics as a tool to claim the mantle of “most oppressed.” They saw it as an analysis that would validate Black women’s experiences while simultaneously creating an opportunity for them to become politically active to fight for the issues most important to them.

To that end, the CRC Statement was clear in its calls for solidarity as the only way for Black women to win their struggles. Solidarity did not mean subsuming your struggles to help someone else; it was intended to strengthen the political commitments from other groups by getting them to recognize how the different struggles were related to each other and connected under capitalism. It called for greater awareness and understanding, not less. The CRC referred to this kind of approach to activism as coalition building, and they saw it as key to winning their struggles. Their analysis, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression,” captures the dialectic connecting the struggle for Black liberation to the struggle for a liberated United States and, ultimately, the world.

Finally, the CRC was important because of its internationalism. Before the multicultural moniker “women of color,” there were “third world women.” The distinction was important historically as well as politically. It was a way of demonstrating solidarity with women in countries that were often suffering because of the policies and military actions of the U.S. government. It was also a way of identifying with various anticolonial struggles and national liberation movements around the world. But of even more importance was the way that Black women saw themselves not as isolated within the United States but as part of a global movement of Black and Brown people united in struggles against the colonial, imperialist, and capitalist domination of the West, led by the United States. One can see the importance of international solidarity and identification especially today, when the United States so readily uses the abuse of women in other countries, such as Afghanistan, as a pretext for military intervention.

The women of Combahee tied their sophisticated political analysis to a “Clear leap into revolutionary action.” For them, the recognition of oppression was not enough; analysis was a guide to action and political activity. This is why this forty-year-old document remains so important. The plight and exploitation of Black women has continued into the twenty-first century, and it is paralleled by growing misery across the Untied States. The concentration of wealth and power among the “1 percent” is matched only by the growing poverty and deprivation of the bottom 99 percent. Of course, those experiences are not shared equally, as Black women and men are overrepresented in the most dismal categories used to measure quality of life in the United States. But it does mean that those whom capitalism materially benefits are decidedly small in number, while those with mutual interest in creating a society based on human need are broad and expansive. There are, of course, many obstacles to achieving the kind of consciousness combined with political action necessary to make such a society a possibility. But the Combahee River Collective Statement offers an analysis and a plan for “revolutionary action” that is not limited by time and distance from the circumstances in which the members wrote it. Their anticapitalism, calls for solidarity, and commitment to the radical idea that another would is possible and, indeed, necessary remain relevant.

In the same ways that Marxism became a tool for critical analysis in the academy of the 1980s and ’90s, so too did Black feminism find a home in academic circles as the political movements that engendered its rise began to recede from the streets. CRC coauthor Barbara Smith is credited as a founder of Black women’s studies. This was critical in opening up spaces for intellectual inquiry and deeper investigation into the lives of the oppressed within the academy more generally. But Black feminism is a guide to political action and liberation. Political analysis outside of political movements and struggles becomes abstract, discourse driven, and disconnected from the radicalism that made it powerful in the first place.

In the last several years, Black feminism has reemerged as the analytical framework for the activist response to the oppression of trans women of color, the fight for reproductive rights, and, of course, the movement against police abuse and violence. The most visible organizations and activists connected to the Black Lives Matter movement speak openly about how Black feminism shapes their politics and strategies today. These politics remain historically vibrant and relevant to the struggles of today. As Demita Frazier says, the point of talking about Combahee is not to be nostalgic; rather, we talk about it because Black women are still not free.

Notes

  1. Jens Manuel Krogstad and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Black Voter Turnout Fell in 2016, Even as Record Number of Americans Cast Ballots,” Pew Research Center, Fact Task blog, May 12, 2017, http://pewresearch.org.
  2. Andrea J. Ritchie, Invisible No More (Boston: Beacon, 2017).
  3. Anna Brown and Eileen Patten, “The Narrowing, but Persistent, Gender Gap in Pay,” Pew Research Center, Fact Task blog, April 3, 2017, http://pewresearch.org.
  4. Asha DuMonthier, Chandra Childers, PhD, and Jessica Milli, PhD, “The Status of Black Women in the United States,” National Domestic Workers Alliance (Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2017), 19, http://domesticworkers.org.
  5. Anna Julia Cooper, “The Status of Woman in America,” in A Voice from the South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 134; Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017).
  6. Jacob Zumoff, The Communist International and US Communism, 1919–1929 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014), 292–93.
  7. . “Transcript: Read Michelle Obama’s Full Speech from the 2016 DNC,” Washington Post, July 26, 2016, http://washingtonpost.com.
  8. Christine Clarridge, “Autopsy Shows Charleena Lyles Was Shot Seven Times by Police,” Seattle Times, August 30, 2017, http://seattletimes.com.
  9. Joy James, “Radicalizing Feminism,” in The Black Feminist Reader, eds. Joy James and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2000).
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