Feminist Hero Friday: The Combahee River Collective

By Michelle Kiang

The Combahee River Collective was founded by black feminists and lesbians in Boston in 1974 and is best known for the Combahee River Collective Statement, one of the first documents exploring the intersection of multiple oppressions. The founding members include Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, and other activists.  

In an interview with Ebony, Barbara Smith, one of the founding members of the collective speaks on failure of second-wave feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement to include women of color’s experiences as one of the driving forces to create the Combahee River Collective, "It [the movement's message] was hard for me to grasp from my perspective, because White women were so privileged." Similarly, the founders experienced disillusionment with the civil rights movement, black nationalism, and Black Panther movements. Barbara Smith states, “We [Black feminists] were definitely marginalized. Anything that didn't look like it wasn't in support of the central politics of the male-defined Black Power movement was considered disloyal."

Named after Harriet Tubman’s incredibly heroic/totally badass Combahee River Raid in 1863, the Combahee River Collective came together after its founders attended a 1973 National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) conference and decided to form a separate black feminist group. The collective focused on consciousness-raising among black feminists and black women and dedicated their time to developing the concept of multiple oppressions – gender-based oppression from the black community and movements and racism from the women’s liberation movements.  Historian, Tisa Anders writes, “They sought to destroy what they felt were the related evils of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy while rejecting the belief in Lesbian separatism.” 

In 1977, they wrote Combahee River Collective Statement, which is introduced as:

“The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that 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.”

 Below, I've listed some of the most striking parts of the Statement, but make sure to read the whole thing if you are able. 

 

1.     The genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism

“Contemporary Black feminism is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters.”

“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.”

“We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.”

“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.”

 

3.     Problems in Organizing Black Feminists

“The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated. There is a very low value placed upon Black women's psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist.”

“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.”

 

4.     Black Feminist Issues and Projects

“Issues and projects that collective members have actually worked on are sterilization abuse, abortion rights, battered women, rape and health care.”

“One issue that is of major concern to us and that we have begun to publicly address is racism in the white women's movement. As Black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women's movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue.”

Although the collective disbanded in 1980, it is cited as one of the first groups to begin to address the intersection of different forms of oppression as a working theory (which Kimberle Crenshaw then coined “intersectionality” in this very important paper), and their activism and intellectual efforts continue to shape contemporary Black feminism and intersectional feminism. 



Abaki Beck