The title of this post was not inspired by electoral politics directly; it was inspired by the passing of Mrs. Recy Taylor last week. As I read her story in a series of tweets by Danielle McGuire***, (author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance-A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power), I realized I had never heard her story before. Over the past few years, I’ve been learning that’s a problem common to/in my whiteness; with white supremacy; with centering whiteness in our history and our media. I can’t solve this problem, but I can shine a light on areas lost to me due to white-centering. I suspect that many of you do not share my ignorance; from you I ask your forbearance as I provide very basic overviews of things which should not be new. For the rest, I invite you to share with me in exploring the fullness of our history. This post is intended to pique your curiosity, not provide a comprehensive history. Today’s focus will be on the Combahee River Collective.
What is the Combahee River Collective?
The Combahee River Collective, founded by black feminists and lesbians in Boston, Massachusetts in 1974, was best known for its Combahee River Collective Statement. This document was one of the earliest explorations of the intersection of multiple oppressions, including racism and heterosexism. For the first time in history, black women openly and unapologetically communicated their sexual orientations in the midst of their social justice work, no longer trading their silence for permission to engage in political struggle…
The Collective sponsored seven black feminist retreats between 1977 and 1980. These retreats, held mainly along the east coast, drew thousands of women. The meetings promoted consciousness-raising but they also allowed the gathering of information and generated needed support for many women who, heretofore, had worked in isolation. One example of the impact of their work came in 1979, after the murder of 12 African American women in Boston. In response, the Collective organized and linked coalitions across the community in a bi-racial effort to address this tragedy.
The Combahee River Collective disbanded in 1980. Their greatest impact was in preparing the way for current-day community organizing among people of color who face both sexual and racial oppression. Source:
Combahee River Collective (1974-1980)
The Combahee River Collective Statement (excerpts)
1. The genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism
Before looking at the recent development of Black feminism we would like to affirm that we find our origins in the historical reality of Afro-American women’s continuous life-and-death struggle for survival and liberation. Black women’s extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes…
Black feminist politics also have an obvious connection to movements for Black liberation, particularly those of the 1960s and I970s. Many of us were active in those movements (Civil Rights, Black nationalism, the Black Panthers), and all of our lives Were greatly affected and changed by their ideologies, their goals, and the tactics used to achieve their goals. It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men.
2. What We Believe
Above all else, Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s may because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever consIdered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression…
This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. 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…
We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of Black women by white men as a weapon of political repression…
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation… (The entire statement can be found here: The Combahee River Collective Statement)
I have only included a portion of the statement, but the entire statement is worth reading (and is not so long as to be an unrealistic ask). And if you’re wondering why the Combahee River Collective Statement is still significant, I turn again to Twitter to explain:
“Identity Politics” was coined in the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 and had specific context (as does any theoretical term or phrase).
— Kevin Allred (@KevinAllred) December 11, 2017
In her interview, Barbara Smith argues the work of the Combahee River Collective & Black feminism was rooted in the need to work across differences and build coalitions. Sectarianism & desire to develop ‘one correct strategy’ usually came from white male leftists
— Charlottesville DSA (@CvilleDSA) December 26, 2017
Revealing that the intersectionality theory revered by the white establishment is not attentive to power relations, experiences and voices of the oppressed in different social locations as originally articulated by the Combahee River Collective Statement and Kimberly Crenshaw
— Johnny E. Williams (@jwillia2) December 20, 2017
And finally, if you’re interested in learning more about the past, combined with a contemporary perspective, I recommend this:
This is the book I’m starting 2018 off with! How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by @KeeangaYamahtta. #50booksbywoc Until very recently I didn’t know the reference to Harriet Tubman’s Combahee River raid. pic.twitter.com/mLdPcbs6Fz
— Rachel Corey (@CoreyRachel) January 2, 2018
***Ms. McGuire’s tweets which inspired this post:
Recy Taylor, civil rights heroine, is dead at 97.