Forty years ago, the Combahee River Collective left their mark on black feminism when its members issued a statement that not only centered the contributions of queer black feminists to black liberation struggles but also emphasized the importance of intersectional organizing across race, gender, sexual orientation, and class.
“We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task 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,” the Combahee River Collective stated.
It further declared, “As black women, we see black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.”
The collective came out of the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization. It was inspired by the South Carolina river, where Harriet Tubman freed 750 slaves.
Two of the original authors of the statement, Barbara Smith and Demita Frazier, spoke at a meeting during “Socialism 2017,” a conference organized by the International Socialist Organization in the United States. Their talk celebrated the statement, reflected on its impact, and contemplated what lessons it might hold for those organizing against the current regime in power—President Donald Trump’s administration.
When the collective was established in 1974 in Boston, Frazier recalled, “We were all intelligent probative minds with a base foundation of we really know we have to speak truth to power and address it, and we’re going to actively do it. We’re not waiting for anyone. We’re not looking for a road map. We were making a map.”
They adopted a model which brought black women together in a venue, where they could talk to each other about subjects which were ignored by left organizations primarily led by men, such as violence against women.
The collective pledged to confront homophobia and how it affected organizers. They also focused on the difficult work of coalition-building, even with groups that weren’t terribly open to black feminism. They were not sectarian, and they were socialists.
“We cannot underestimate the impact of homophobia, specifically anti-lesbian homophobia on the history of our organizing. We were not just dismissed because we were black feminists. We were dismissed because we were traitors to the race. We were outcasts. We were out black lesbians a few years after Stonewall,” Smith said.
Several of the women, who Frazier and Smith organized with, had prior involvement in the movement to end the war in Vietnam.
“To be a woman that was involved in the antiwar movement at that time, that was not anything that was easy,” Smith recalled. “You faced the racism of the dominant antiwar movement but you also experienced the complete censure from the black community and from black activists, who by that time had been moved into black nationalism and black power.”
The collective embraced internationalism. They saw themselves as “third world women,” as Smith said. They were organizing “in solidarity and in struggle with all third world people around the globe. We also saw ourselves as being internally colonized.”
“In Boston, in the mid-1970s,” according to Smith, “There was a race war going on around the desegregation of public schools and busing. The city was under federal court order to desegregate, and the kind of congregations, the atmosphere of the city, the kinds of things that were happening—I mean, it [was] racial warfare.”
“They almost beat a black man to death at the government center, where the city hall is in Boston, using the staff of a flagpole to do it.”
Smith was referring to the assault by Joseph Rakes, a white teenager, who swung a flagpole with the American flag at lawyer and civil rights activist Ted Landsmark during a protest against desegregation.
Barbara Ransby, a historian, writer, and activist who is a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Sharon Smith, a writer and activist, also appeared on the panel with Frazier and Barbara Smith.
“Sometimes we talk about these empowering political moments, and we’re looking for blueprints for our world now. And history doesn’t offer us that. We’ve got our own work to do in our own time. But looking at Combahee River Collective does situate us in a certain trajectory of history that many writers on the left have ignored,” Ransby contended.
Highlighting the statement’s core principles, Ransby called attention to its materialism—how it was developed out of the “lived experiences of black women, of poor and working class black women.
She emphasized it was built around self-determination. If black women did not love themselves and work for their own liberation, who would liberate them?
In addition to intersectionality, they embraced “radically democratic practices,” a structure where there was non-hierarchical power in the group because it fit within their vision for a revolutionary society.
The impact of the Combahee River Collective, Ransby noted, can be found in the Black Lives Matter movement, which has radical black feminism as its “ideological bedrock.” It is in the protests against the G20 in Hamburg or the Resist, Reimagine, Rebuild Coalition in Chicago, where the politics of sanctuary and reparations are found.
Intersectional analysis in response to the acquittal of the officer that killed Philando Castile considered race, class, and state violence in the same ways that the collective did. And black feminist delegations, like the Dream Defenders, which have connected black struggles in the U.S. to struggles in Palestine, promote the same kind of internationalism that the collective upheld.
Yet, as Ransby articulated when addressing the present-day tension over identity politics, “We all come to movements with identities. So that’s real. But intersectionality in particular is about intersecting and interlocking systems of oppression.”
“It’s about understanding racial capitalism and its relationship to patriarchy. Those are systems. Individuals exist within those systems, but it’s certainly not a kind of essentialism notion that your body determines your politics.”
Sharon Smith called attention to the following passage in the collective’s statement:
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.
“The crucial lesson in that passage is that there can be no such thing as a simple women’s issue in a capitalism founded on the enslavement of Africans and in which racism has since then remained and to this day remains embedded,” Sharon Smith argued.
She went on to highlight the racial component of “women’s issues” like rape and reproductive freedom. White feminists neglected problems of sterilization abuse against black women, or they adopted a racist analysis of rape, as Susan Brownmiller did in her book, “Against Our Will,” when describing the lynching of Emmett Till.
“Sometimes we talk about these empowering political moments, and we’re looking for blueprints for our world now. And history doesn’t offer us that,” Ransby said. “We’ve got our own work to do in our own time. But looking at the Combahee River Collective does situate us in a certain trajectory of history that many writers on the left have ignored.”
Frazier warned, “Organizing at the margins is dangerous in late-stage capitalism because there is a desperateness on the part of the dominant paradigm right now.” So, it is important to recognize that members of the collective found ways to laugh.
Even when there were firebombings and threatened assaults against organizers, they made personal connections with each other to improve their ability to struggle and survive. They were able to feel joy and happiness, despite the harrowing events of the 1970s.
Groups and organizations within movements need that capacity to be vulnerable with each other, Frazier added, and to “admit that we abuse each other with our dialectalism, with our talking, and recognize there are times when that’s not appropriate.” It is sometimes necessary to be present with “one another in deeper ways.”
“You have to find that joy in struggle,” Barbara Smith advised. “You cannot continue to be miserable in the context of struggle. Because if you are, then you are not being able to accomplish and function.”
She also reminded everyone that the black feminists of the 1970s had proximity with those who had directly experienced enslavement. They knew people who survived the terror of U.S. chattel slavery, which meant if they could endure then certainly black feminists of the era could endure.
To activists and organizers, Frazier insisted, “You don’t need to be perfect. You do not have to be adept or on top of it all the time,” when it comes to responding to each horrific development in the world. “But you do need to make a decision: are you in or out?”