Combahee River Collective

What colour is your skin, and what is your gender identity? How much do you think your answers to these questions affect how you experience the world and how other people relate to you? Would the answers to these questions be different if you were asked fifty years ago?

Combahee River Collective Combahee River Collective

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    In this article, we will explore the Combahee River Collective. They were instrumental in shaping our understanding of identity politics and how our social and political identities shape how we experience our society. So let's look at who they were, their history, theories, statements, and legacy.

    The Combahee River Collective – History

    The Combahee River Collective emerged from the Boston branch of the National Black Feminist Organisation (NBFO). The Founder of the Boston NBFO, Barbara Smith, and another member, Demita Frazier, felt their organisation should go further: they wanted to address the needs of black lesbians. They also had a strong socialist core belief:

    • they believed in the restructuring of society to benefit all people equally,
    • and in overthrowing capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy as the causes of oppression.

    The National Black Feminist Organisation was founded in 1973 to address the specific issues faced by black women. They felt their specific struggles weren't represented by the, mainly white, feminist organisations or by civil rights organisations.

    For more details on socialist ideology, see Socialism.

    With this in mind, the Combahee River Collective was founded. Their name is key to their mission as it symbolises an important event in the history of the emancipation of black women.

    The Combahee River Collective started its activities in 1974 and was committed to a non-hierarchical structure. They disbanded in 1980 due to internal disagreements.

    The Combahee River Ferry, also called the Combahee River Raid, was a military operation that took place over the River Combahee, South Carolina, in 1863. Harriet Tubman planned and headed the raid, becoming the first woman to do so. It resulted in the freeing of over 750 formerly enslaved people.

    The Combahee River Collective – Theory

    “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.”1

    This statement summarises one of the core beliefs of the Combahee River Collective. It's based on the assumption that black women are one of the most oppressed groups in society. The liberation of black women can, therefore, only happen once all the systems of subjugation are removed. This would, by default, lead to the absence of oppression for all other marginalised people.

    Because of this belief, their mission and scope were broader than that of any other radical movement.

    While white feminists fought for abortion rights, black feminists argued for the broader issue of reproductive rights, including, for example, the fight against forced sterilisation which continued until the 1970s.

    Their ideological thinking was truly innovative. They were the first to use the term "identity politics" in their writings about the struggle of black women.

    Identity politics is a political view that emerges from a person's lived experience. In this context, it includes the experiences brought about by one's ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class.

    Because of their lived, personal experiences, the members of the Collective also revolutionised the understanding of marginalisation and privilege. They had lived experiences of both discrimination based on gender and discrimination on based ethnicity. This combination of prejudices exemplified the concept of intersectionality as a cumulative impact of different sources of inequality and injustice.

    Intersectionality: is an analytical framework that highlights how the multiple identities born out of a person's social and political background (ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality etc.) .can combine to create different levels of privilege or discrimination. Intersectionality highlights how a black man, a white woman and a gay white man will individually be subjected to less prejudice and discrimination than a black lesbian.

    Combahee River Collective statement – Summary

    The Combahee River Collective Statement was written in an attempt to analyse the social and political context from which it emerged and to draw a way forward for the movement. The statement was based on the Combahee River Collective members' shared conversations during their meetings and retreats.

    In the statement, the concept of identity politics was, above all, inclusive. Identity politics is the right for each individual to set their own political agenda, including people who, in the 1970s, didn't have such a right.

    One of the statement's greatest achievements was to provide the basis for the political organisation of oppressed minorities then, and now.

    The statement was divided into the four following chapters:

    The Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism

    Here they set the historical context of their mission on the back of the (often forgotten) black feminist activists, abolitionists, suffragists, civil rights leaders, and writers who came before them. This chapter also mentions the political activism the members of the Collective had been involved in, how it shaped them, and why they chose to create a different political agenda that was both anti-racist and anti-sexist. It was in this chapter that the concept of intersectionality was first presented as "interlocking oppressions".

    What We Believe

    This chapter sets the scene for the Collective's understanding of identity politics based on "a healthy love for ourselves". It also expresses its socialist beliefs alongside Marx's conviction in the need to re-organise society for the benefit of people rather than profit.

    Lastly, it reiterated the impossibility of separating ethnicity, gender, and class as they are all components of the identity of black women. The Combahee River Collective did not stand for lesbian separatism.

    Separatism means separating a minority group from a larger group based on gender, sexuality, religion, class, ethnicity or politics.

    Problems in Organising Black Feminists

    In this chapter, they identify three main sources of difficulty met while trying to organise black feminists:

    • the psychological toll black women suffer from living under multiple forms of oppression;

    • the fact they were trying to dismantle all those different forms of oppression at the same time;

    • the fact that the members of the collective, and black women in general, cannot rely on the privileges of other demographic groups.

    Black Feminists Issues and Projects

    In this last chapter, they mention how the Collective might become involved in many issues affecting black women as well as all other oppressed people. They also point out how the wide variety of issues proves the pervasiveness of the oppression.

    They end by stating that their mission is clear, albeit broad and long-term, and they are prepared to fight for it for as long as it takes.

    Combahee River Collective – Members

    The retreats organised by the Combahee river collective attracted thousands of women.

    Among the early members of the Collective were a number of influential black feminists, writers, academics, activists and poets. Let's briefly look a little bit closer at three of the founding members.

    Barbara Smith

    Barbara Smith is an American lesbian feminist and socialist born in 1946.

    Combahee River Collective Barbara Smith StudySmarterFig. 2 Barbara Smith

    She was one of the founding members of the Combahee River Collective and played a key role in drafting their statement. Barbara Smith is credited with creating the term "identity politics". Growing up in a deeply segregated society, she became involved in civil rights activism early in life.

    After the Combahee River Collective was disbanded, Barbara Smith went on to work and teach in universities' women's studies departments, founded the Kitchen Table: Women of Colour Press, and worked in local politics.

    Demita Frazier

    Demita Frazier is a black feminist writer, lecturer and activist. She had been a member of the Black Panther movement before being a founding member of the Collective. She was vital in drafting the statement and formulating the concept of interlocking oppressions. She continues lecturing, and activism work to this day.

    Beverly Smith

    Beverly Smith is the twin sister of Barbara Smith. She is also a black lesbian feminist, health advocate, writer, and academic. She credited her work as a women's health worker for being the reason she became interested in feminist politics.

    She was on a work placement in the Boston City Hospital when, together with her sister and Demita Frazier, they founded the Combahee River Collective. Other than the Combahee River Collective statement, her legacy includes multiple articles and essays on women's issues, identity politics, feminism, and racism.

    Combahee River Collective – Books

    The Combahee River Collective Statement leaves the concepts of identity politics and intersectionality as its legacy. These concepts are held up as defining in the struggle against oppression in several publications about politics, feminism and racism. To name a few, these are:

    • The Columbia Documentary History of American Women since 19412;
    • The Encyclopedia of Government and Politics3;
    • From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960–19804.

    However, with its deeply inclusive sentiment, the Statement is also cited as key in defining the beginning of coalition politics in Aberrations in Black, the Combahee River Collective Statement5 and Lesbian Histories and Cultures6.

    Coalition politics is when different groups, factions or parties agree to work together to achieve a shared goal.

    If you're interested in learning more about intersectional feminism or the Combahee River Collective, check out How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective7 edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. This book won the 2018 Lambda Literary award for LGBTQ Nonfiction and proved the contemporary importance and relevance of the Combahee River Collective Statement up to this day.

    Combahee River Collective - Key takeaways

    • The Combahee River Collective emerged in 1974 from the Boston branch of the National Black Feminist Organisation (NBFO).
    • The Combahee River Collective wanted to go further than the NBFO by addressing the need of black lesbians.
    • They believed that the liberation of black women would result in the liberation of all other oppressed people.
    • The Combahee River Collective introduced the concepts of identity politics and interlocking oppressions or intersectionality.
    • Their famous statement was an attempt to contextualise the Combahee River Collective's politics and shape their future work.
    • Arguably, the most important and founding members of the Combahee River Collective were Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier, and Beverly Smith.

    References

    1. Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier and Beverly Smith, Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977
    2. Harriet Sigerman, The Columbia Documentary History of American Women since 1941, 2003
    3. M. E. Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan, The Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, 2004
    4. Duchess Harris, From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960–1980, 2001
    5. Roderick Ferguson, Aberrations in Black, the Combahee River Collective Statement, 2004
    6. Jamie M Grant, Lesbian Histories and Cultures, edited by Bonnie Zimmerman, 2000
    7. Fig. 2 Barbara Smith (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barbara_Smith_Makers.jpg) by Makers (http://www.makers.com/barbara-smith) licenced by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://spdx.org/licenses/CC-BY-SA-4.0.html) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Combahee River Collective

    What are the objectives of the Combahee River Collective?

    To represent the needs of Black lesbians and oppressed people everywhere.

    What is the Combahee River Collective theory?

    The theory of the Combahee River Collective is that once black women are no longer oppressed, neither will all other marginalised groups be.

    What is the origin of the Combahee River Collective?

    The Combahee River Collective originated from the Boston branch of the National Black Feminist Organisation.

    When was the Combahee River Collective statement published?

    It was published in 1977.

    What is the Combahee River Collective named after?

    It was named after the Combahee River Raid led by Harriet Tubman.

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    Where does the Combahee River Collective get its name?

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