Combahee River Collective
|African American topics|
The Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist lesbian organization active in Boston from 1974 to 1980. The Collective was instrumental in highlighting that the white feminist movement was not addressing their particular needs. They are perhaps best known for developing the Combahee River Collective Statement, a key document in the history of contemporary Black feminism and the development of the concepts of identity as used among political organizers and social theorists.
Beginnings in the NBFO
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 a NBFO Chapter in Boston.
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. 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.
Naming the Collective
The Collective's name was suggested by Smith, who owned a book called: Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Earl Conrad. She "wanted to name the collective after a historical event that was meaningful to African American women." Smith noted: "It was a way of talking about ourselves being on a continuum of Black struggle, of Black women's struggle." 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.
Developing the Statement
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...."
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." 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."
Process of writing the Statement
Throughout the mid-1970s members of the Combahee River Collective met weekly at the Cambridge, Massachusetts Women's Center.
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.'"
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." "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."
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. "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." 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.
"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."
Political, social and cultural impact of the Statement
The Combahee River Collective Statement is referred to as "among the most compelling documents produced by black feminists", 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."
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".
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." 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..."
The Collective developed a multidimensional analysis recognizing a "simultaneity of oppressions"; refusing to rank oppressions based on race, class and gender. 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.
Combahee River Collective Statement
The Combahee River Collective Statement was separate into four separate chapters:The Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism; What We Believe; Problems in Organizing Black Feminist; and Black Feminist Issues and Projects.
1. Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism
The Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism, as submitted by the Combahee River Collective, is very much rooted in the interlocking oppressions they endure. As Black Women, the Collective argued that they experience oppression based on race, gender, and class. Further, because many of the women were queer, they also acknowledged oppression based on sexuality as well. The following statement most adequately describes the Collective's basis, and active goals:"we are actively 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." They then conclude that "the synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives."
Importance of Black women's liberation
The CRC also emphasized that they held the 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...." and expressed a particularly commitment to "working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression...."
2. What We (CRC) Believe
The Importance of Black feminism
The group saw "Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face...." and believed that "[T]he most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identit(ies)."
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)." The work of these women has been obscured "by outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the (feminist) movement."
3. Problems in organizing Black feminists
Issues surrounding organizing around Black feminism are very much rooted in the lack power and privilege black females have. CRC even notes that they don't have the privilege of their white heterosexual male and female counterparts. For them, this presented a clear impediment.
But beyond their lack of privilege of marginalized people, CRC knew they were more at stake organizing for their freedom. The collective theorized that the "liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political and economic systems of Capitalism and Imperialism as well as Patriarchy." Meaning 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 systems of oppression."
The Combahee Statement also notes that "Feminism is...very threatening to the majority of Black people because it calls into question some of the most basic assumptions about our existence, i.e., that sex should be a determinant of power relationships...The material conditions of most Black people would hardly lead them to upset both economic and sexual arrangements that seem to represent some stability in their lives. Many Black women have a good understanding of both sexism and racism in their lives, but because of the everyday constrictions on their lives cannot risk struggling against them both."
4. Black Feminist Projects and Issues
In this final section of the CRC statement, they argued that black feminism should not only address their concerns as black females, but should also address policy issues in the lives of other women, the Third World, and working people. They state, " We are particularly committed to working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression." This type of politic might include organizing around inadequate hospital care in Third World communities, or even for a rape crisis center in Black communities.
The Combahee Collective also expressed a concern and a desire to publicly address issues of racism in the white women's movement. The Statement is clear that: "Eliminating racism in the white women's movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak out and to demand accountability on this issue."
Other political work
In the encyclopedia Lesbian Histories and Cultures, contributing editor Jaime M. Grant contextualizes the CRC's work in the political trends of the time thus:
"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."
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..." 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."
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. According to Becky Thompson, associate professor at Simmons College 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."
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.
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."
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."
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..."
Collective members and participants
The Combahee Collective was large and fluid throughout its history. Collective members and contributors include:
- African-American literature
- Critical social theory
- Identity politics
- Lesbian feminism
- Strategic essentialism
- The Combahee River Collective (1997), "A Black feminist statement", in Nicholson, Linda, The second wave: a reader in feminist theory, New York: Routledge, pp. 63–70, ISBN 9780415917612.
- Duchess Harris. Interview with Barbara Smith.
- 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.
- Women's Realities, Women's Choices: An Introduction to Women's and Gender Studies. , 2005.
- The full text of the Combahee River Collective Statement is available here.
- Hawkesworth, M. E.; Maurice Kogan. Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, 2nd edn Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-27623-3, p. 577.
- Sigerman, Harriet. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-231-11698-5, p. 316.
- Bowen, Angela. Combahee River Collective, Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America, October 2005 issue.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Combahee River Collective, "A Black Feminist Statement," in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein.
- 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.
- Grant, Jaime M. (ed. Bonnie Zimmerman), Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, p. 184.
- De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, ISBN 0-393-01954-3, p. 237.
- Sigerman, Harriet. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-231-11698-5, pp. 316–317.
- 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.
- Thompson, Becky. A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism, University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 978-0-8166-3634-1, p. 148.
- Davis, Angela. The Angela Y. Davis Reader, John Wiley, ISBN 978-0-631-20361-2, 1998, p. 313.
- Schneir, Miriam (ed.), Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
- Grant, Jaime M. (ed: Bonnie Zimmerman), Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, pp. 184–185.
- Grant, Jamie. "Who Is Killing Us?" accessed in "All of Who I am in the Same Place": The Combahee River Collective, by Duchess Harris
- Thompson, Becky. A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism, University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 978-0-8166-3634-1, p. 147.
- Smith, Barbara. "The Boston Murders", in Patricia Bell-Scott (ed.), Life Notes: Personal Writing by Contemporary Black Women, Norton, 1993, p. 315.
- Smith, Barbara. Interview with Susan Goodwillie. 1994.
- Black, Allida Mae. Modern American Queer History, Temple University Press, 2001, ISBN 1-56639-872-X, p. 194.