“If Black Women Were Free”: An Oral History of the Combahee River CollectiveHistorians in the News
tags: feminism, African American history, oral history, womens history, Combahee River Collective, Black Feminism
Last year, fierce protests erupted across the US out of rage against austerity, a botched Covid-19 response, and the brutal murder of George Floyd. Demonstrators blocked traffic, occupied public spaces, and destroyed police property. At the same time, there was an upswell in mutual aid, rent strikes, and labor organizing.
This surge of activism and organizing built upon the history and analysis of radical Black feminism, especially the Boston-based Combahee River Collective, who in 1977 authored the landmark Combahee River Collective Statement. The collective recognized the necessity of working across race, gender, sexual orientation, and class while emphasizing the contributions of queer Black feminists to Black liberation and feminism.
The group’s political strategy was to form coalitions with other activist groups while retaining their independence as Black women. They were socialists who rejected capitalism and imperialism, but wrote in their declaration that they were not convinced that “a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.”
They coined the term “identity politics” to describe their unique position as Black women facing a variety of oppressions. The statement emphasized economic, gender, and racial repression and made fighting on all fronts key to its emancipatory politics. The group introduces “identity politics” with a powerful explanation of its liberatory potential:
We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women, this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.
To this day, activists hold this statement in high regard, and it continues to serve as a primer on socialist organizing that recognizes the importance of holistic organizing against multiple oppressions. Activist groups recognize, or at least pay lip service to, the need to organize people in multiple ways; justice can never be about just class, race, gender, or homophobia. These beliefs and aspirations have found new expressions in Black Lives Matter as well as socialist organizations such as the revived Democratic Socialists of America—particularly in its diverse working groups and caucuses.
I spoke individually with the collective’s founders—Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith—as well as Combahee member Margo Okazawa-Rey. We discussed the collective’s history, the true meaning of identity politics, youth organizing, and what they would change about their influential statement.
THE ORIGIN STORY, 1971–74
The collective got its start when Beverly Smith told her twin sister, Barbara, about an organization called the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). Barbara and Demita Frazier established the Boston chapter of the NBFO, which brought together members of the future Combahee River Collective.
Beverly Smith: I was the one who told Barbara about the first Eastern Regional Conference of the National Black Feminist Organization in the fall of 1973. I knew about it because one of the people who was heavily involved in the organization’s formation was a woman named Margaret Sloan [a cofounder of the National Black Feminist Organization]. And I met her since I was working at Ms. [the magazine, where Sloan rented an office].
Barbara Smith: Those of us who attended the Eastern Regional Conference, which drew several hundred people, were asked to start chapters of the National Black Feminist Organization in our respective cities. So, in January 1974, the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization was formed.
But the women soon realized that their vision for social change was more radical than the NBFO’s, and they broke off to form their own collective.
Demita Frazier: We were feeling very different from how NBFO was organizing itself. We were also interested in forming ourselves as a collective, rather than in a hierarchical structure, with a president, vice president, or whatever sort of schema that NBFO was proposing at the time. We believed socialist theory was important as we considered the material situations of Black women under capitalism. That did not appear to be a conversation taking place in the NBFO.
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