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We are excited to announce the launch of our political education series! Each month we will offer 1 essay as an alternative to our monthly book picks. For #BlackAugust we will read “Until Black Women Are Free, None of Us Will Be Free”.

Join us on Saturday, August 8th at 4pm EST / 1pm PST. If you want to be included in the Zoom conversation, fill out the Google form here. Space is limited!!!

Want to print the articles? Download them as PDFs via our Google Drive folder.




Questions for the Homies



What is the origin of the name “Combahee River Collective?”

Why does the statement emphasize that none of us be free until Black Women are free?

What aspects of the Combahee River Collective Statement can we implement in our daily lives?

How does the Combahee River Collective Statement help us understand the Black Lives Matter Movement today?




Until Black Women Are Free, None of Us Will Be Free: Barbara Smith and the Black feminist visionaries of the Combahee River Collective



By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

I first encountered the Combahee River Collective Statement in a women’s-studies class, my second year of college at suny Buffalo. We had been reading about divisions within the feminist movement in the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies, and the emergence of a body of thought captured in the framework of “Black feminism.” The Combahee River Collective was a small organization, but it involved some of the luminaries of Black feminism: Barbara Smith and her twin sister, Beverly Smith, as well as Demita Frazier, Cheryl Clarke, Akasha Hull, Margo Okazawa-Rey, Chirlane McCray, and Audre Lorde. Equally dismayed by the direction of the feminist movement, which they believed to be dominated by middle-class white women, and the suffocating masculinity in Black-nationalist organizations, they set out to formulate their own politics and strategies in response to their distinct experiences as Black women. But they were not only reacting to the deficits they found in organizations led by white women and Black men. They were also inspired by the national liberation and anti-colonial movements, from the Algerian struggle against the French occupation to the Vietnamese resistance to the American war. The C.R.C. saw themselves as revolutionaries whose aspirations far exceeded women’s rights: they aspired to the overthrow of capitalism.

Barbara Smith. Illustration by Palesa Monareng; Source photograph by Vivien Killilea / MAKERS / Getty
The Black women of the C.R.C. were not the first to break with white feminist and Black-nationalist organizations. In many ways, they built on the work of the Third World Women’s Alliance, which was an outgrowth of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee—a caucus of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. What distinguished the C.R.C. from those groups was the explanatory power of their statement, which was first collected in Zillah Eisenstein’s anthology “Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism,” in 1978. Reading the statement for the first time, two things struck me. The first was its effort to combine socialist politics with feminism. I had been a socialist since I was fourteen, and, in the groups that I had become active with, feminism was always painted as hostile to socialism. As it was explained to me, feminists saw the world as divided between men and women and not between classes. The Combahee Statement obliterated that premise. Theoretically rich and strategically nimble, it imagined a course of politics that could take Black women from the margins of society to the center of a revolution. Because Black women were among the most marginalized people in this country, their political struggles brought them into direct conflict with the intertwined malignancies of capitalism—racism, sexism, and poverty. Thus, the women of the C.R.C believed that, if Black women were successful in their struggles and movements, they would have an impact far beyond their immediate demands. As they put it, “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.”

My other revelation came out of their insistence that “Black feminism” was necessary to clearly articulate the experiences of Black women. It had never occurred to me that the framework of “race” was not nearly capacious enough to capture the particular ways that Black women experienced American society. I had seen the everyday variety of racism in the U.S. that left most Black people with a bitter edge, at least those in my family. I had seen my father harassed by police, in Cincinnati, Ohio, for jaywalking. When I was seven, I saw my father jump in to stop a group of white teen-agers from threatening my older brother, only to have the police blame him for the altercation. But my mother’s experiences were altogether different. She and my father met in high school, dated through college, and eventually landed in graduate school, at suny Buffalo, in the early nineteen-seventies. While my father believed that a revolution was within the grasp of those who fought hard enough to make it happen, my mother, who had studied English, French, and Spanish in college, was finishing her doctorate and raising me and my brother. My father left when I was two, and my mother took us to Dallas, where she worked as a reading specialist for the Dallas Independent School District. Three of her brothers followed her to Dallas, and one, a Vietnam veteran, lived in our garage for a time, as he tried to jump-start his life. When, in the early eighties, my mother got burned out from haggling with less qualified white male administrators and a fancy career that was going nowhere fast, she started a house-cleaning business. She didn’t know about the Volcker Shock and the recession that would follow. My mother’s advanced degrees could not protect her from bankruptcy in 1982. They could not stop our lights from being periodically turned off, or a steady stream of bill collectors from coming to our front door. They could not help her relax, work less, or be more present. My mother died at fifty-two, fifteen years after she filed for bankruptcy; the chronic exhaustion she felt from work was masking the symptoms of an untreated and ultimately deadly case of lupus. Doris Jeanne Taylor’s life was unceremoniously extinguished two weeks after she entered the hospital.

It was years before I pulled those different strands of my mother’s life together. I was still annoyed by her absence and neglect when I was younger. It was not until long after her death that I saw the composite portrait of a single Black mother, raising two kids with a bankruptcy scuttling her credit, a perpetually faulty car draining her bank account, and a broad network of family members to care for. Racism alone could not explain what killed my mother. Gender was also an incomplete answer. It was the overlap of race, gender, and the aspirations to the comfort of a class that she poked around the edges of but could not ultimately break into. Black feminism made sense of my mother’s life of work, her compulsory caretaking and debt. It made sense of her senseless death, just shy of the twenty-first century. Malcolm X made it plain: “The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

All of this stood in stark contradiction to what, as a young person, I had understood “feminism” to be. I had seen feminism as the domain of white women primarily concerned with glass ceilings and access to abortion. Those were fine things to act against and struggle for, but they felt like lightweight politics in contrast to the things that my nineteen-year-old self was concerned about: the U.S. presence in the Middle East, police brutality and racism, poverty and inequality. The women of the C.R.C. described how the myriad ways that Black women experienced oppression could translate into a radical rejection of the status quo. As they explained, “Black feminists and many more Black women who do not define themselves as feminists have all experienced sexual oppression as a constant factor in our day-to-day existence.” And they were doing even more than that: the Combahee Statement was also written to describe how race, gender, and sexual orientation were woven together in the lives of queer Black women. In describing the distinct experiences of Black women who were lesbians, they pioneered what would eventually become known as “intersectionality”—the idea that multiple identities can be constantly and simultaneously present within one person’s body. The experiences of Black lesbians could not be reduced to gender, race, class, or sexuality. The C.R.C. demanded politics that could account for all, and not just aspects of their identity.

Most important, the C.R.C. saw themselves as socialists and as part of the broader left, but they understood that no mass movement for socialism could be organized without responding to the particular forms of oppression experienced by Black women, Chicana women, lesbians, single mothers, and so many other groups. Their point was a simple one: you cannot expect people to join your movement by telling them to put their particular issues on hold for the sake of some ill-defined “unity” at a later date. Solidarity was the bridge by which different groups of people could connect on the basis of mutual understanding, respect, and the old socialist edict that an injury to one was an injury to all. It was mind-blowing!

To be honest, I didn’t know what to do with the Combahee Statement. It was so unlike anything I had ever read before in politics, and it clashed so violently with what I had come to believe about feminism and “identity politics” that I did not know how to integrate it into my activism. I had to put it away.

The members of the Combahee River Collective march down Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, at a 1979 memorial for murdered women of color.Photograph by Ellen Shub / Courtesy the Estate of Ellen Shub
The Combahee River Collective formed in Boston, in 1974, during a period that regularly produced organizations that claimed the mantle of radical or revolutionary struggle. The group broke from the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization, and named themselves after a daring Union Army raid, led by Harriet Tubman, to liberate seven hundred and fifty enslaved people in South Carolina. A few years ago, Barbara Smith told me that she and her comrades believed that, by naming the group after the Combahee River Raid, they were both honoring Harriet Tubman and indicating that liberation required political action.

The women of the C.R.C. drew on their experiences in Black, male-dominated organizations. Demita Frazier had been a member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, right up until the Chicago police helped to assassinate the Panther leader Fred Hampton, in 1969. More generally, Black men dominated the leadership of the organized Black left. As a result, many Black women felt shut out of directing those organizations, just as they felt that their experiences as Black women were ignored.

They fared no better in organizations led by white women, who, for the most part, could not understand how racism compounded the experiences of Black women, creating a new dimension of oppression. The overwhelming majority of Black women were working-class and were forced to labor both outside and inside their homes. But Black women who tried to utilize public welfare so that they could spend more time caring for their children were demonized as freeloaders, even as white women who chose to work at home were celebrated for prioritizing their families over personal ambition. In the reality of organizing, these tensions manifested themselves in white women’s desire to focus their organizing on abortion rights, while Black feminists argued for the broader framework of reproductive justice, which included the struggle against forced sterilizations of Black and brown women. These were hardly doctrinaire disputes. The eugenics programs of the early twentieth century continued into the nineteen-seventies, as tens of thousands of women in the United States were subjected to sterilization procedures without their informed consent.

The class and race tensions within feminism lasted far beyond the seventies. When I reached college, in the nineties, these same debates could be found animating women’s-studies classes. In my Intro to Women’s Studies class, one white woman, who said she was from Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, chafed at what she described as the “divisiveness” of Black feminism. After all, weren’t we all women? To clarify, the woman said she was as much in solidarity with the women who cleaned her home as she was with white middle-class women like herself, who had also been trained to lower their horizons and expect less out of life. Apparently, the sisterhood was powerful.

The Combahee Statement was anything but divisive. It celebrated the possibilities of a political coalition born out of solidarity among groups who recognized the need to be engaged in struggle. In this way, the C.R.C. pioneered the notion of “identity politics,” perhaps one of the most controversial and misunderstood terms in all of U.S. politics. In the statement, the authors described “the concept of identity politics” in the following way: “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.”

I recently spoke with Barbara Smith, who made clear that “identity politics” was not intended to be exclusionary or to contend that only those who suffered a particular oppression could fight against it or even comment on it. “We were not being reductive, we were not being separatists,” she said. “Combahee was never separatist.” This would, of course, have been a rejection of the solidarity at the heart of the C.R.C.’s politics. Instead, they argued that Black women—and all oppressed people—had the right to form their own political agendas, because no one else would. Smith told me, “By ‘identity politics,’ we meant simply this: we have a right as Black women in the nineteen-seventies to formulate our own political agendas.” She went on, “We don’t have to leave out the fact that we are women, we do not have to leave out the fact that we are Black. We don’t have to do white feminism, we don’t have to do patriarchal Black nationalism—we don’t have to do those things. We can obviously create a politics that is absolutely aligned with our own experiences as Black women—in other words, with our identities. That’s what we meant by ‘identity politics,’ that we have a right. And, trust me, very few people agreed that we did have that right in the nineteen-seventies. So we asserted it anyway.”

Any concept, once it is released into the world, can take on new meanings when confronted with new problems. Identity politics has become so untethered from its original usage that it has lost much of its original explanatory power. In its earliest iteration, Black feminism was assumed to be radical because the class position of Black women, overwhelmingly, was at the bottom of society. But the civil-rights revolution and concerted efforts by the political establishment created a different reality for a small number of African-Americans. Today, there is a small but influential Black political class—a Black élite and what could be described as the aspirational Black middle class—whose members continue to be constrained by racial discrimination and inequality but who hold the promise that a better life is possible in the United States. They stand in contrast to the Black poor and working class, who live in veritable police states, with low-wage work, poor health care, substandard and expensive housing, and an acute sense of insecurity.

More than a fifth of Black women live below the poverty line, but their lives are largely invisible. Instead, popular culture and mainstream media outlets are fixated on Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé Knowles, and Michelle Obama, to whom they turn for insights into the experiences of Black women. Much of what is meant by identity politics in its contemporary idiom is simply representation—the presence of Black, queer, gendered, and classed bodies with almost no attention paid to their political commitments. But the radicality of Black women’s politics was based on their position at the bottom. The view is decidedly different from the top. The C.R.C. gave us the political tools to understand the difference between bottom-up and top-down politics, and their distorted manifestation in the identity politics of today.

When I came back to the Combahee Statement, in the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising, I saw that its politics had the potential to make a way out of what felt like no way. But then I understood it differently, not just as a critical document in the canon of feminist literature or as a much-needed exposition of the origins of Black feminism. Instead, I read it as a powerful intervention for the left as a whole. In a political moment when futile arguments claimed to pit race against class, and identity politics against mass movements, the C.R.C. showed how to understand the relationship between race, class, and gender through the actual experiences of Black women. As the statement read:

We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.

Black women were at the helm of the growing Black Lives Matter movement, and they, too, were gravitating to the politics of the C.R.C. Smith told me, “Many of the people in the Movement for Black Lives absolutely acknowledge that they are inspired by the politics of the Combahee River Collective and by the feminism of women of color, not just Black women.” She was thinking of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Cheryl Clarke, and of the pioneering Chicana activists Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. As Smith put it, “These people were looking at the situation and saying, ‘What we have here is not working. We need to think about things in a different way.’ And who better to do that than feminists of color who are queer and on the left?” She added, “One of the signs to me that feminist-of-color politics are influencing this moment is the multiracial, multiethnic diversity—and not just racial and ethnic, but every kind of diversity—of the people who are in the streets now. That’s right out of the Black feminist playbook.”

In 2016, as the fortieth anniversary of the Combahee Statement approached, I realized that it would be an opportunity to draw attention back to the document and its astounding prescience and analysis, and to complicate a stilted and unsatisfying national discussion about who the real inheritors were of socialist politics in the United States. At that time, when I first thought of collecting an oral history of the Combahee River Collective, which became the book “How We Get Free,” Senator Bernie Sanders was in the thick of a contentious Democratic Presidential primary. A good portion of the tension was generated by wild and unfounded assertions that socialism and the spoils of social democracy were only of interest to white people. I kept coming back to the C.R.C.’s basic claim:

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. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.

No one had the right to strip socialism and its rootedness in collectivity, democracy, and human fulfillment from Black women, or the Black radical tradition. The claims that socialism was for white people were an affront to a long lineage of Black communists and socialists here in the United States. Black Americans have always been drawn to radical and revolutionary politics as a salve for the diseased wound of racial oppression and the poverty and misery it creates. If lynchings, police brutality, and rat-infested housing were the best that American democracy could offer Black Americans, then how bad could communism or socialism really be?

Today, in the midst of the greatest wave of protest and social upheaval in more than a generation, books about racism, policing, and the Black Lives Matter movement top best-seller lists. Instinctively, many of us turn to history as a way to grasp some frame of reference. I myself have found the Combahee Statement more compelling than ever. The C.R.C. connected the exploitative tendency of capitalism to a range of oppressions that kept apart those with the most interest in coming together. They envisioned coalition politics on the basis of mutual solidarity, including a commitment to the struggles against sexism, heterosexism, racism, class oppression, exploitation, and imperialism. These were, in their view, the preconditions for a mass movement in which no one’s issues were left behind.

After the C.R.C. disbanded, in 1980, Barbara Smith went on to play a critical role in the establishment of women’s studies in colleges and universities, as well as in publishing. She founded the legendary Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, with Audre Lorde, in 1980. Smith served on the Albany city council from 2006 to 2013, and later worked in the Albany mayor’s office on issues related to inequality. During the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary, she served as a surrogate for Bernie Sanders. Smith is skeptical about the longevity of this particular moment, as she has earned the right to be. Will it turn into something more lasting than a frustrated outburst from those at the bottom? But her caution also betrays the hope and deep desire for radical change that all revolutionaries harbor. Smith told me, “I’m not convinced that, despite the millions of people who are out in the streets expressing that they are done with things as they are—I’m not convinced that that translates into a movement. We now have language, we have an analysis of what’s going on with the prison-industrial complex, with mass incarceration, with police brutality, with extrajudicial murders—we have that, and we have bases of operation, because there are definitely Black Lives Matter organizations in various cities around the country.” She continued, “But the question for me is: What’s next? How do we mobilize all of this energy and actually bring about fundamental political, social, and economic change?”

Of course, what comes next will depend on what those who constitute the movement do. There are no maps or predetermined paths that guarantee the success or failure of a movement. It is a living thing. But we can take inspiration from the imaginative optimism of the Combahee Statement. Many things have changed since the publication of the document, but many have not, and therein lies the problem that continues to pull people into the streets. The women of the C.R.C. believed that another world was possible, one in which Black women, and thus all of humanity, were freed from systems of oppression and exploitation, as the result of a collective struggle that reached down to the roots of the problems we face.




Originally published in the New Yorker, July 20, 2020.




The Combahee River Collective Statement



By The Combahee River Collective

We are a collective of Black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974. [1] During that time we have been involved in the process of defining and clarifying our politics, while at the same time doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements. 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. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. 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.

We will discuss four major topics in the paper that follows: (1) the genesis of contemporary Black feminism; (2) what we believe, i.e., the specific province of our politics; (3) the problems in organizing Black feminists, including a brief herstory of our collective; and (4) Black feminist issues and practice.

1. The genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism

Before looking at the recent development of Black feminism we would like to affirm that we find our origins in the historical reality of Afro-American women's continuous life-and-death struggle for survival and liberation. Black women's extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes. As Angela Davis points out in "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves," Black women have always embodied, if only in their physical manifestation, an adversary stance to white male rule and have actively resisted its inroads upon them and their communities in both dramatic and subtle ways. There have always been Black women activists—some known, like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, and thousands upon thousands unknown—who have had 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. Contemporary Black feminism is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters.

A Black feminist presence has evolved most obviously in connection with the second wave of the American women's movement beginning in the late 1960s. Black, other Third World, and working women have been involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation. In 1973, Black feminists, primarily located in New York, felt the necessity of forming a separate Black feminist group. This became the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO).

Black feminist politics also have an obvious connection to movements for Black liberation, particularly those of the 1960s and I970s. Many of us were active in those movements (Civil Rights, Black nationalism, the Black Panthers), and all of our lives were greatly affected and changed by their ideologies, their goals, and the tactics used to achieve their goals. 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.

There is also undeniably a personal genesis for Black Feminism, that is, the political realization that comes from the seemingly personal experiences of individual Black women's lives. Black feminists and many more Black women who do not define themselves as feminists have all experienced sexual oppression as a constant factor in our day-to-day existence. As children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated differently. For example, we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being "ladylike" and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. As we grew older we became aware of the threat of physical and sexual abuse by men. However, we had no way of conceptualizing what was so apparent to us, what we knew was really happening.

Black feminists often talk about their feelings of craziness before becoming conscious of the concepts of sexual politics, patriarchal rule, and most importantly, feminism, the political analysis and practice that we women use to struggle against our oppression. The fact that racial politics and indeed racism are pervasive factors in our lives did not allow us, and still does not allow most Black women, to look more deeply into our own experiences and, from that sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression. Our development must also be tied to the contemporary economic and political position of Black people. The post World War II generation of Black youth was the first to be able to minimally partake of certain educational and employment options, previously closed completely to Black people. Although our economic position is still at the very bottom of the American capitalistic economy, a handful of us have been able to gain certain tools as a result of tokenism in education and employment which potentially enable us to more effectively fight our oppression.

A combined anti-racist and anti-sexist position drew us together initially, and as we developed politically we addressed ourselves to heterosexism and economic oppression under capitalism.

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 because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever consIdered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. Merely naming the pejorative stereotypes attributed to Black women (e.g. mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloguing the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere. 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 focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

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.

Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. 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. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation. We have arrived at the necessity for developing an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labor force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily viewed as doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional levels. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx's theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.

A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political. In our consciousness-raising sessions, for example, we have in many ways gone beyond white women's revelations because we are dealing with the implications of race and class as well as sex. Even our Black women's style of talking/testifying in Black language about what we have experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political. We have spent a great deal of energy delving into the cultural and experiential nature of our oppression out of necessity because none of these matters has ever been looked at before. No one before has ever examined the multilayered texture of Black women's lives. An example of this kind of revelation/conceptualization occurred at a meeting as we discussed the ways in which our early intellectual interests had been attacked by our peers, particularly Black males. We discovered that all of us, because we were "smart" had also been considered "ugly," i.e., "smart-ugly." "Smart-ugly" crystallized the way in which most of us had been forced to develop our intellects at great cost to our "social" lives. The sanctions In the Black and white communities against Black women thinkers is comparatively much higher than for white women, particularly ones from the educated middle and upper classes.

As we have already stated, we reject the stance of Lesbian separatism because it is not a viable political analysis or strategy for us. It leaves out far too much and far too many people, particularly Black men, women, and children. We have a great deal of criticism and loathing for what men have been socialized to be in this society: what they support, how they act, and how they oppress. But we do not have the misguided notion that it is their maleness, per se—i.e., their biological maleness—that makes them what they are. As BIack women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic. We must also question whether Lesbian separatism is an adequate and progressive political analysis and strategy, even for those who practice it, since it so completely denies any but the sexual sources of women's oppression, negating the facts of class and race.

3. Problems in Organizing Black Feminists

During our years together as a Black feminist collective we have experienced success and defeat, joy and pain, victory and failure. We have found that it is very difficult to organize around Black feminist issues, difficult even to announce in certain contexts that we are Black feminists. We have tried to think about the reasons for our difficulties, particularly since the white women's movement continues to be strong and to grow in many directions. In this section we will discuss some of the general reasons for the organizing problems we face and also talk specifically about the stages in organizing our own collective.

The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess anyone of these types of privilege have.

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. As an early group member once said, "We are all damaged people merely by virtue of being Black women." We are dispossessed psychologically and on every other level, and yet we feel the necessity to struggle to change the condition of all Black women. In "A Black Feminist's Search for Sisterhood," Michele Wallace arrives at this conclusion:

We exists as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world. [2]

Wallace is pessimistic but realistic in her assessment of Black feminists' position, particularly in her allusion to the nearly classic isolation most of us face. We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. 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.

Feminism is, nevertheless, 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. Here is the way male and female roles were defined in a Black nationalist pamphlet from the early 1970s:

We understand that it is and has been traditional that the man is the head of the house. He is the leader of the house/nation because his knowledge of the world is broader, his awareness is greater, his understanding is fuller and his application of this information is wiser... After all, it is only reasonable that the man be the head of the house because he is able to defend and protect the development of his home... Women cannot do the same things as men—they are made by nature to function differently. Equality of men and women is something that cannot happen even in the abstract world. Men are not equal to other men, i.e. ability, experience or even understanding. The value of men and women can be seen as in the value of gold and silver—they are not equal but both have great value. We must realize that men and women are a complement to each other because there is no house/family without a man and his wife. Both are essential to the development of any life. [3]

The material conditions of most Black women 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, but because of the everyday constrictions of their lives, cannot risk struggling against them both.

The reaction of Black men to feminism has been notoriously negative. They are, of course, even more threatened than Black women by the possibility that Black feminists might organize around our own needs. They realize that they might not only lose valuable and hardworking allies in their struggles but that they might also be forced to change their habitually sexist ways of interacting with and oppressing Black women. Accusations that Black feminism divides the Black struggle are powerful deterrents to the growth of an autonomous Black women's movement.

Still, hundreds of women have been active at different times during the three-year existence of our group. And every Black woman who came, came out of a strongly-felt need for some level of possibility that did not previously exist in her life.

When we first started meeting early in 1974 after the NBFO first eastern regional conference, we did not have a strategy for organizing, or even a focus. We just wanted to see what we had. After a period of months of not meeting, we began to meet again late in the year and started doing an intense variety of consciousness-raising. The overwhelming feeling that we had is that after years and years we had finally found each other. Although we were not doing political work as a group, individuals continued their involvement in Lesbian politics, sterilization abuse and abortion rights work, Third World Women's International Women's Day activities, and support activity for the trials of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, Joan Little, and Inéz García. During our first summer when membership had dropped off considerably, those of us remaining devoted serious discussion to the possibility of opening a refuge for battered women in a Black community. (There was no refuge in Boston at that time.) We also decided around that time to become an independent collective since we had serious disagreements with NBFO's bourgeois-feminist stance and their lack of a clear politIcal focus.

We also were contacted at that time by socialist feminists, with whom we had worked on abortion rights activities, who wanted to encourage us to attend the National Socialist Feminist Conference in Yellow Springs. One of our members did attend and despite the narrowness of the ideology that was promoted at that particular conference, we became more aware of the need for us to understand our own economic situation and to make our own economic analysis.

In the fall, when some members returned, we experienced several months of comparative inactivity and internal disagreements which were first conceptualized as a Lesbian-straight split but which were also the result of class and political differences. During the summer those of us who were still meeting had determined the need to do political work and to move beyond consciousness-raising and serving exclusively as an emotional support group. At the beginning of 1976, when some of the women who had not wanted to do political work and who also had voiced disagreements stopped attending of their own accord, we again looked for a focus. We decided at that time, with the addition of new members, to become a study group. We had always shared our reading with each other, and some of us had written papers on Black feminism for group discussion a few months before this decision was made. We began functioning as a study group and also began discussing the possibility of starting a Black feminist publication. We had a retreat in the late spring which provided a time for both political discussion and working out interpersonal issues. Currently we are planning to gather together a collectIon of Black feminist writing. We feel that it is absolutely essential to demonstrate the reality of our politics to other Black women and believe that we can do this through writing and distributing our work. The fact that individual Black feminists are living in isolation all over the country, that our own numbers are small, and that we have some skills in writing, printing, and publishing makes us want to carry out these kinds of projects as a means of organizing Black feminists as we continue to do political work in coalition with other groups.

4. Black Feminist Issues and Projects

During our time together we have identified and worked on many issues of particular relevance to Black women. The inclusiveness of our politics makes us concerned with any situation that impinges upon the lives of women, Third World and working people. We are of course particularly committed to working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression. We might, for example, become involved in workplace organizing at a factory that employs Third World women or picket a hospital that is cutting back on already inadequate heath care to a Third World community, or set up a rape crisis center in a Black neighborhood. Organizing around welfare and daycare concerns might also be a focus. The work to be done and the countless issues that this work represents merely reflect the pervasiveness of our oppression.

Issues and projects that collective members have actually worked on are sterilization abuse, abortion rights, battered women, rape and health care. We have also done many workshops and educationals on Black feminism on college campuses, at women's conferences, and most recently for high school women.

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.

In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving "correct" political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice. In her introduction to Sisterhood is Powerful Robin Morgan writes:

I haven't the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest-power.

As Black feminists and Lesbians we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.




[1] This statement is dated April 1977.
[2] Wallace, Michele. "A Black Feminist's Search for Sisterhood," The Village Voice, 28 July 1975, pp. 6-7.
[3] Mumininas of Committee for Unified Newark, Mwanamke Mwananchi (The Nationalist Woman), Newark, N.J., ©1971, pp. 4-5.

THE COMBAHEE RIVER COLLECTIVE: "The Combahee River Collective Statement," copyright © 1978 by Zillah Eisenstein.



Reprinted from http://circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html from the book Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, ©1983, published by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Inc., New York, New York.