Combahee River Collective

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The Combahee River Collective (/kəmˈb/ kəm-BEE)[1] was a Black feminist lesbian socialist organization active in Boston from 1974 to 1980.[2][3] The Collective argued that both the white feminist movement and the Civil Rights Movement were not addressing their particular needs as Black women and, more specifically, as Black lesbians.[4] Racism was present in the mainstream feminist movement, while Delaney and Manditch-Prottas argue that much of the Civil Rights Movement had a sexist and homophobic reputation.[5][6] The Collective are perhaps best known for developing the Combahee River Collective Statement,[7][8] a key document in the history of contemporary Black feminism and the development of the concepts of identity politics as used among political organizers and social theorists,[9][10] and for introducing the concept of interlocking systems of oppression, a key concept of intersectionality.[11] Gerald Izenberg credits the 1977 Combahee statement with the first usage of the phrase "identity politics".[12] Through writing their statement, the CRC connected themselves to the activist tradition of Black women in the 19th Century and to the struggles of Black liberation in the 1960s.[13]

National Black Feminist Organization[edit]

Author Barbara Smith and other delegates attending the first (1973) regional meeting of the National Black Feminist Organization in New York City provided the groundwork for the Combahee River Collective with their efforts to build an NBFO Chapter in Boston.[14][15] The NBFO was formed by Black feminists reacting to the failure of mainstream White feminist groups to respond to the racism that Black women faced in the United States.[11]

In her 2001 essay "From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective", historian and African American Studies professor Duchess Harris states that, in 1974 the Boston collective "observed that their vision for social change was more radical than the NBFO", and as a result, the group chose to strike out on their own as the Combahee River Collective.[16] Members of the CRC, notably Barbara Smith and Demita Frazier, felt it was critical that the organization address the needs of Black lesbians, in addition to organizing on behalf of Black feminists.[16]

Naming the collective[edit]

The Collective's name was suggested by Smith, who owned a book called: Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Earl Conrad.[2] She "wanted to name the collective after a historical event that was meaningful to African American women."[2] Smith noted: "It was a way of talking about ourselves being on a continuum of Black struggle, of Black women's struggle."[2] The name commemorated an action at the Combahee River planned and led by Harriet Tubman on June 2, 1863, in the Port Royal region of South Carolina. The action freed more than 750 slaves and is the only military campaign in American history planned and led by a woman.[17]

Developing the Statement[edit]

The Combahee River Collective Statement was developed by a "collective of Black feminists [...] involved in the process of defining and clarifying our politics, while...doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements...."[7][18]

Members of the collective describe having a feeling of creating something which had not existed previously. Demita Frazier described the CRC's beginnings as "not a mix cake", meaning that the women involved had to create the meaning and purpose of the group "from scratch."[19] In her 1995 essay "Doing it from Scratch: The Challenge of Black Lesbian Organizing", which borrows its title from Frazier's statement, Barbara Smith describes the early activities of the collective as "consciousness raising and political work on a multitude of issues", along with the building of "friendship networks, community and a rich Black women's culture where none had existed before."[19]

The CRC sought to address the failures of organizations like the NBFO and build a collective statement to enable the analysis of capitalism's oppression of Black women, while also calling for society to be reorganized based on the collective needs of those who it most oppresses.[11] This was not an academic exercise, rather the CRC sought to create a mechanism for Black women to engage in politics. The catalyst for this engagement were the failures of organizations like the NBFO to successfully address the oppression Black women faced on issues like sterilization, sexual assault, labor rights, and workplace rights. This alienation as well as the domination of the Black liberation movement by Black men, led members of the CRC to reimagine a politics that engaged these issues.[11]

Process of writing the Statement[edit]

Throughout the mid-1970s members of the Combahee River Collective met weekly at the Women's Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[20]

The Collective held retreats throughout the Northeast between 1977 and 1979 to discuss issues of concern to Black feminists. Author Alexis De Veaux, biographer of poet Audre Lorde, describes a goal of the retreats as to "institutionalize Black feminism" and develop "an ideological separation from white feminism", as well as to discuss "the limitations of white feminists' fixation 'on the primacy of gender as an oppression.'"[21]

The first "Black feminist retreat" was held July 1977 in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Its purpose was to assess the state of the movement, to share information about the participants' political work, and to talk about possibilities and issues for organizing Black women."[2] "Twenty Black feminists ...were invited (and) were asked to bring copies of any written materials relevant to Black feminism—articles, pamphlets, papers, their own creative work – to share with the group. Frazier, Smith, and Smith, who organized the retreats, hoped that they would foster political stimulation and spiritual rejuvenation."[2]

The second retreat was held in November 1977 in Franklin Township, New Jersey, and the third and fourth were scheduled for March and July 1978.[2] "After these retreats occurred, the participants were encouraged to write articles for the Third World women's issue of Conditions, a journal edited by Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith."[2] The importance of publishing was also emphasized in the fifth retreat, held July 1979, and the collective discussed contributing articles for a lesbian herstory issue of two journals, Heresies and Frontiers.[2]

"Participants at the sixth retreat [...] discussed articles in the May/June 1979 issue of The Black Scholar collectively titled, The Black Sexism Debate. [....] They also discussed the importance of writing to Essence to support an article in the September 1979 issue entitled I am a Lesbian, by Chirlane McCray, who was a Combahee member. [...] The seventh retreat was held in Washington, D.C., in Feb. 1980."[2]

The final Statement was based on this collective discussion, and drafted by African-American activists Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier and Beverly Smith.[3]

Political, social and cultural impact of the Statement[edit]

The Combahee River Collective Statement is referred to as "among the most compelling documents produced by Black feminists",[10] and Harriet Sigerman, author of The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941 calls the solutions which the statement proposes to societal problems such as racial and sexual discrimination, homophobia and classist politics "multifaceted and interconnected."[22]

In their Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, M. E. Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan refer to the CRCS as "what is often seen as the definitive statement regarding the importance of identity politics, particularly for people whose identity is marked by multiple interlocking oppressions".[9]

So much of what the CRC contributed politically has been taken for granted by feminist politics.[11] Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term identity politics, which they defined as "a politics that grew out of our objective material experiences as Black women."[23] In her essay "From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960–1980", Duchess Harris credits the "polyvocal political expressions of the Black feminists in the Combahee River Collective (with) defin(ing) the nature of identity politics in the 1980s and 1990s, and challeng(ing) earlier 'essentialist' appeals and doctrines..."[23]

While the CRC did not coin the term intersectionality, it was the first to acknowledge interlocking systems of oppression which work together reinforcing each other.[11] The Collective developed a multidimensional analysis recognizing a "simultaneity of oppressions"; refusing to rank oppressions based on race, class and gender.[24] According to author and academic Angela Davis, this analysis drew on earlier Black Marxist and Black Nationalist movements, and was anti-racist and anti-capitalist in nature.[25]

In Roderick Ferguson's book Aberrations in Black, the Combahee River Collective Statement is cited as "rearticulating coalition to address gender, racial, and sexual dominance as part of capitalist expansion globally."[26] Ferguson uses the articulation of simultaneity of oppressions to describe coalition building that exists outside of the organizations of the nation-state.

Combahee River Collective Statement[edit]

The Combahee River Collective Statement was separated into four separate chapters: The Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism; What We Believe; Problems in Organizing Black Feminist; and Black Feminist Issues and Projects.

Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism[edit]

The Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism chapter of the CRC statement traces the origin and trajectory of Black feminism. This chapter serves to situate the CRC within the larger Black feminist movement. The CRC presented themselves as rooted in the historical activism of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, as well as many unknown activists "who have a shared awareness of how their sexual identity combined with their racial identity to make their whole life situation and the focus of their political struggles unique."[27] The CRC framed contemporary Black feminism as a genesis built upon the work of these activists. The Black feminist presence in the larger second wave American feminist movement resulted in the formation of separate Black feminist groups such as the National Black Feminist Organization as the needs of Black feminists were not being met by mainstream organizations. The CRC also stated that it was the involvement of Black feminists in the Black Liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s which impacted CRC members' ideologies and led to disillusionment with those movements.

This chapter also introduced the CRC's belief that the oppression that Black women endured was rooted in interlocking oppressions. As Black women, the Collective argued that they experience oppression based on race, gender, and class. Further, because many of the women were lesbians, they also acknowledged oppression based on sexuality as well. The Collective states its basis and active goals as "committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression" and describe their particular task as the "development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives."[7][18]

What We Believe[edit]

The What We Believe chapter of the CRC statement detailed their definition of Identity Politics and how it functions. What the CRC believed by the term Identity Politics, is that Black women had a right to formulate their own agenda based upon the material conditions they faced as a result of race, class, gender, and sexuality.[28]

We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.

This chapter also details the CRC's belief that the destruction of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy is necessary for the liberation of oppressed peoples.[28] The CRC identified as socialists and believed that work must be organized for the collective benefit of all people, not for the benefit of profit.[28] To this end, the CRC was in agreement with Marx's theory as it was applied to the material economic relationships he analyzed.[28] The CRC did not advocate for lesbian separatism as they felt it left out others who were valuable to the movement.[28]

Problems in Organizing Black Feminists[edit]

The Problems in Organizing Black Feminists chapter traced the problems and failures surrounding organizing around Black feminism. The CRC believed that the fact that they were fighting to end multiple forms of oppression simultaneously rather than just one form of oppression was a major source of difficulty.[28] The CRC also believed that because of their position as Black lesbian women, they did not have access to racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely on.[28]

The CRC also believed that they experienced the psychological toll of their fight differently because of the "low value placed upon Black women's psyches in this society."[28] In this view, the members of the CRC saw themselves as being at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Because of this positioning, the CRC wrote that, "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 the systems of oppression."[28] Their belief in this statement also relies on their previous contention that the liberation of all peoples will be delivered with the destruction of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy.[28]

The CRC's focus on the liberation of Black women also led to negative reactions of Black men. The CRC believed that because of this focus, Black men felt that "they might also be forced to change their habitually sexist ways of interacting with and oppressing Black women."[28] This reaction of Black men also proved problematic in organizing Black feminists.

Black Feminist Projects and Issues[edit]

The final chapter of the CRC statement, Black Feminist Projects and Issues demonstrated that they were committed to making the lives of all women, third world, and working people better.[28] The CRC stated, "We are of course particularly committed to working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression."[28] The chapter details how this may look in many types of application around the world.

This chapter also detailed how the CRC had started to publicly address the racism inherent in the white women's movement. The CRC believed that white women involved in the feminist movement had made little effort to combat or understand their own racism. Moreover, the CRC believed that these women must have "a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture.[28] While the CRC acknowledged that this work was the responsibility of white women, they would work by demanding accountability of these white women toward this end.

Other political work[edit]

In the encyclopedia Lesbian Histories and Cultures, contributing editor Jaime M. Grant contextualizes the CRC's work in the political trends of the time.

The collective came together at a time when many of its members were struggling to define a liberating feminist practice alongside the ascendence of a predominantly white feminist movement, and a Black nationalist vision of women deferring to Black male leadership.[29]

Grant believes the CRC was most important in the "emergence of coalition politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s [...] which demonstrated the key roles that progressive feminists of color can play" in bridging gaps "between diverse constituencies, while also creating new possibilities for change within deeply divided communities..."[29] She notes that, in addition to penning the statement, "collective members were active in the struggle for desegregation of the Boston public schools, in community campaigns against police brutality in Black neighborhoods and on picket lines demanding construction jobs for Black workers."[29]

The collective was also politically active around issues of violence against women, in particular the murder of twelve Black women and one white woman in Boston in 1979.[30] According to Becky Thompson, associate professor at Simmons University in Boston and author of A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism, the Boston Police Department and the media "attempted to dismiss the murders [...] based on the notion that (the women) were alleged to be prostitutes and therefore not worthy of protection or investigation."[31]

In a 1979 journal entry, Barbara Smith wrote:

That winter and spring were a time of great demoralization, anger, sadness and fear for many Black women in Boston, including myself. It was also for me a time of some of the most intensive and meaningful political organizing I have ever done. The Black feminist political analysis and practice the Combahee River Collective had developed since 1974 enabled us to grasp both the sexual-political and racial-political implications of the murders and positioned us to be the link between the various communities that were outraged: Black people, especially Black women; other women of color; and white feminists, many of whom were also lesbians.[32]

Smith developed these ideas into a pamphlet on the topic, articulating the need "to look at these murders as both racist and sexist crimes" and emphasizing the need to "talk about violence against women in the Black community."[30]

In a 1994 interview with Susan Goodwillie, Smith noted that this action moved the group out into the wider Boston community. She commented that "the pamphlet had the statement, the analysis, the political analysis, and it said that it had been prepared by the Combahee River Collective. That was a big risk for us, a big leap to identify ourselves in something that we knew was going to be widely distributed."[33]

Historian Duchess Harris believes that "the Collective was most cohesive and active when the murders in Boston were occurring. Having an event to respond to and to collectively organize around gave them a cause to focus on..."[33]

Importance of Black women's liberation[edit]

The CRC emphasized a fundamental and shared belief that "Black women are inherently valuable, that...(their) liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else's but because of (their own) need as human persons for autonomy...."[18] and expressed a particularly commitment to "working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression...."[7][18] The CRC sought to "build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression."[34]

The Importance of Black feminism[edit]

The group saw "Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face...."[18] and believed that "the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity."[7][18]

The statement describes "Contemporary Black feminism (as) the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters" such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, (as well as thousands upon thousands of unknown women)."[18] The work of these women has been obscured "by outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the (feminist) movement."[7][18]

Endings[edit]

The Collective held their last network retreat in February 1980,[35] and disbanded some time that year.[3]

Collective members and participants[edit]

The Combahee Collective was large and fluid throughout its history. Collective members and contributors include:

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • The Combahee River Collective (1997), "A Black feminist statement", in Nicholson, Linda (ed.), The second wave: a reader in feminist theory, New York: Routledge, pp. 63–70, ISBN 9780415917612.
  • Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta (Ed.) (2017), How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, Haymarket Books, ISBN 9781608468553[37]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary, Third Edition (Merriam-Webster, 1997; ISBN 0877795460, p. 272.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Duchess Harris. Interview with Barbara Smith". Archived from the original on 2008-03-15. Retrieved 2008-03-26.
  3. ^ a b c Marable, Manning; Leith Mullings (eds), Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, Combahee River Collective Statement, Rowman and Littlefield, 2000, ISBN 0-8476-8346-X, p. 524.
  4. ^ ""The Combahee River Collective Statement" (1977)", Available Means, University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 292–300, 2001, doi:10.2307/j.ctt5hjqnj.50, ISBN 9780822979753
  5. ^ Delaney, Paul (12 May 2010). "Dorothy Height and the Sexism of the Civil Rights Movement". The Root.
  6. ^ Manditch-Prottas, Zachary (2019). "Meeting at the Watchtower: Eldridge Cleaver, James Baldwin's No Name in the Street, and Racializing Homophobic Vernacular". African American Review. 52 (2): 179–195. doi:10.1353/afa.2019.0027. ISSN 1945-6182.
  7. ^ a b c d e f The full text of the Combahee River Collective Statement is available here.
  8. ^ Smith, Barbara, ed. (1983). Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New York, NY: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. pp. 272–282. ISBN 0-913175-02-1.
  9. ^ a b Hawkesworth, M. E.; Maurice Kogan. Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, 2nd edn Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-27623-3, p. 577.
  10. ^ a b Sigerman, Harriet. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-231-11698-5, p. 316.
  11. ^ a b c d e f How we get free : Black feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. Chicago, Illinois. ISBN 1-60846-855-0. OCLC 975027867.CS1 maint: others (link)
  12. ^ Izenberg, Gerald (2016). Identity; The Necessity of a Modern Idea. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 144.
  13. ^ Sheftall, Beverly (1995). Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist. New York: The New Press. pp. 1–22. ISBN 978-1565842564.
  14. ^ Bowen, Angela. Combahee River Collective, Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America, October 2005 issue.
  15. ^ Collier-Thomas, Bettye; Vincent P. Franklin, Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, NYU Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8147-1603-2, p. 292.
  16. ^ a b Harris, Duchess. "From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective", in Sisters in the Struggle, Collier-Thomas et al. (eds), New York University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8147-1602-4, p. 294.
  17. ^ Herrmann, Anne C.; Abigail J. Stewart, Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Westview Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8133-6788-3, p. 29.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h Combahee River Collective, "A Black Feminist Statement," in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein.
  19. ^ a b Smith, Barbara. "Doing it from Scratch: The Challenge of Black Lesbian Organizing", in Barbara Smith (ed.), The Truth that Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0-8135-2761-9, p. 172.
  20. ^ Grant, Jaime M. (ed. Bonnie Zimmerman), Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, p. 184.
  21. ^ De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, ISBN 0-393-01954-3, p. 237.
  22. ^ Sigerman, Harriet. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-231-11698-5, pp. 316–317.
  23. ^ a b Harris, Duchess. "From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960–1980", in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (2001), p. 300.
  24. ^ Thompson, Becky. A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism, University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 978-0-8166-3634-1, p. 148.
  25. ^ Davis, Angela. The Angela Y. Davis Reader, John Wiley, ISBN 978-0-631-20361-2, 1998, p. 313.
  26. ^ Ferguson, Roderick (2004). Aberrations in Black. University of Minnesota Press. p. 134.
  27. ^ How we get free : Black feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. Chicago, Illinois. ISBN 978-1-64259-104-0. OCLC 975027867.CS1 maint: others (link)
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n ""The Combahee River Collective Statement" (1977)", Available Means, University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 292–300, 2001, doi:10.2307/j.ctt5hjqnj.50, ISBN 9780822979753
  29. ^ a b c Grant, Jaime M. (ed: Bonnie Zimmerman), Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, pp. 184–185.
  30. ^ a b Grant, Jamie. "Who Is Killing Us?" accessed in "All of Who I am in the Same Place": The Combahee River Collective, by Duchess Harris [1] Archived 2008-03-15 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ Thompson, Becky. A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism, University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 978-0-8166-3634-1, p. 147.
  32. ^ Smith, Barbara. "The Boston Murders", in Patricia Bell-Scott (ed.), Life Notes: Personal Writing by Contemporary Black Women, Norton, 1993, p. 315.
  33. ^ a b Smith, Barbara. Interview with Susan Goodwillie Archived 2008-03-15 at the Wayback Machine. 1994.
  34. ^ ""The Combahee River Collective Statement" (1977)", Available Means, University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 292–300, 2001, doi:10.2307/j.ctt5hjqnj.50, ISBN 9780822979753
  35. ^ Black, Allida Mae. Modern American Queer History, Temple University Press, 2001, ISBN 1-56639-872-X, p. 194.
  36. ^ Harris, Duchess, 2001. From Kennedy to Combahee: Black Feminist Activism from 1960 to 1980.
  37. ^ Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta (2017). How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Haymarket Books. ISBN 9781608468553.

External links[edit]