Forty years ago, a group of radical Black feminists who named themselves the Combahee River Collective released a statement defining their politics and describing their political work. The Combahee River Collective Statement has endured as a powerful document that clearly named the multiple oppressions that Black women faced due to their race, sex, class and sexual orientation; developed the idea of identity politics; and provided a key roadmap of the political work and organizing necessary to uproot all oppression.
Professor and author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has provided us with a moving commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement in How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. In this work, edited by Taylor, we learn about the founding of the Combahee River Collective from three of its members, Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier and Beverly Smith. Coming out of the National Black Feminist Organization, they and the other members wanted to create an organization with a more radical vision for liberation that addressed the multiple oppressions Black women faced, including racism, sexism, classism and homophobia. Readers also learn the impact that the Combahee River Collective Statement has had on this generation of organizers and activists through a conversation with Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) network.
Taylor states in the book’s introduction, “the experiences of oppression, humiliations, and the indignities created by poverty, racism, and sexism opened Black women up to the possibility of radical and revolutionary politics.” This holds true today, as a new generation of Black women activists and organizers are continuing in the Combahee River Collective tradition of centering the most marginalized communities in liberation work, so that we all can get free.
Tasasha Henderson: In the “Problems in Organizing Black Feminists” section of the Combahee River Collective Statement, the authors discuss the opposition they experienced from Black men in the 1970s, in regards to feminism. They talk about how that opposition was rooted in Black men’s fear of losing allies for their struggles and having to change their behavior. In both on-the-ground and online activism spaces today, have you seen a shift in the acceptance of Black feminist principles and praxis among Black men and other people who were traditionally opposed to Black feminism?
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: In some ways, it’s difficult to compare the two very distinct periods: the period of Black insurgency and rebellion that was the context to the development of Black feminism and the era of Black Lives Matter we are in today. What I mean is that in the 1960s, there was a pervasive view — from the state down to the level of organizers — that Black men were being emasculated by Black women and that was blamed for unraveling Black families, and therein blamed for the disproportionate levels of inequality experienced in Black communities. It was also an era that had not experienced the full impact of the women’s liberation movement, though it did overlap as the struggle crossed into the 1970s. This, of course, is all in addition to the fact that the US was a deeply sexist society with very little regard for the contributions of women. It would seem unlikely in the context of all of this that sexism would not have pervaded the social movements of the day, including the Black liberation movement, which it most certainly did.
What is different today? The context is, of course, completely different. The absurdity of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s assertions about the Black family [have] been discredited even as they continue to hold resonance for others. On the other hand, we still live in a deeply sexist society that continues to devalue the contributions of women. To the extent that the women’s liberation movement impacted US society, those gains have been uneven and have tended to benefit mostly white middle-class women. The impact of the #MeToo campaign has revealed to the world what most women have always understood: the depths of sexual harassment and sexual assault in American culture [that contribute] to the diminution of respect and regard for the experiences, insights and leadership of women. All of these issues are then amplified when overlaid with race, sexual orientation and class position. All of this is to say that people in the movement do not live in bubbles, and so sexism, harassment and beyond have also impacted the BLM movement. At the same time, I think most women in the movement could probably point to many men who have been comrades and collaborators in the struggle, in addition to the episodes where this has fallen short. I don’t think the abject hostility to feminism exists within movement circles the way that it did 50 years ago, but women still struggle to be heard and respected.