The Combahee River Collective was a group of Black feminists who met and organized in Boston, Massachusetts from 1974 to 1980. Throughout their six years of meetings, the collective took on multiple roles dependent on their particular political, personal, and interconnected needs as group members, community organizers, and nuclei in the development of theories and practices for the global liberation of all of humanity. The interconnected group feminisms of the Combahee River Collective is exemplified through both their statement,1 written by the last three remaining active members: Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith in April 1977, as well as the history of the publication and circulation of the aforementioned statement are a reflection of Black Feminism(s).
The feminism(s) of the Combahee River Collective centers on the idea 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 the systems of oppression.”2 Thus, because the liberation of people who are simultaneously Woman and Black and Lesbian means the liberation of everyone else, the Combahee River Collective organized around all causes including, but not limited to abortion rights, socialist feminism, and progressive Black men.3 Secondly, in relationship to Pauli Murray4 and Florynce “Flo” Kennedy5, their causes, theories, and methods transformed with time and space.
What the constant change between organization by Murray and the consistent efforts to create conversation between single cause organizations by Kennedy represents is their need and almost subconscious aching for an organization like the Combahee River Collective. The collective is a part of a long history of the struggles for Black women’s liberation to be legitimized. Ironically, its growth can date back to the National Organization for Women (NOW) that Murray co-founded in 1966, as well as the more recent National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) that was co-founded by Kennedy in 1973. What these two organizers (Murray and Kennedy) and one organization (The Combahee River Collective) sought were spaces of collective action for the liberation of women that resembled themselves. What may have kept Murray and Kennedy from the Combahee River Collective is the fact they were both Black female lawyers. In addition, much of the organizing work of the Combahee River Collective was done by non-elite Black women who lived in Boston. Despite neither Murray nor Kennedy being from Boston, Massachusetts, the theories, and implementations of theories by the Combahee River Collective is repetitive of what these two feminists sought through their inability to stay within one organization as well as their consistent push for having differing organizations be in conversation with one another, despite varying single end goals such as the destruction of patriarchy, white supremacy, or homophobia.
If we viewed these organizations and organizer, in a linear manner, the need for the specificity of who gets to be included in the movements is clear. For example, this is demonstrated through the broad language of “woman” and “negro.” The purpose statement of NOW discusses justice for women, but when it comes to discussing justice for “the negro,” the language does not include “negroes” who are also women. This nonspecificity in language leads the organization to then ascribe women to mean white women and negro to mean Black men, thus leaving out Black women, even those very Black women such as Murray who were at the forefront of founding the organization. In contrast, the NBFO is centered on the liberation of Black women, but what was missing, as mentioned by The Combahee River Collective Statement6 is that NBFO is an elitist organization that does not advocate for the needs of lesbian nor economically deprived Black women. When it comes to the economic deprivation, the Combahee River Collective believed in a critical socialist approach. As a group, they supported and collectively deconstructed Marxist theories while simultaneously critiqued Marx’s lack of connecting race alongside class struggles.
As demonstrated, the physical and intellectual labor of the Combahee River Collective is a testament to radical Black women’s activism. The history of the dissemination of the statement itself is a reflection of Black feminism(s). The statement, which was first published in April of 1977 within a collection of white women’s work travelled through many other collections of women of color anthologies such as This Bridge Called My Back7 and All the women are white, all the men are black, but some of us are brave.8 It was not until the 1985 U.N women’s conference in Nairobi, Kenya that the statement was made into its own pamphlet through the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.9 What the history of the publication of the pamphlet demonstrates is the ways in which Black Feminisms were and continue to be forced within the margins of white feminist movements.
This constraint placed on Black feminism(s) by white supremacy leads to the misconception that Black feminism(s) began because of white feminism. What the Combahee River Collective reminds us of, however, is that their political stance as Black feminists is part of a long history that derives from life experiences, emotions, theory, practice, and ancestors. The ancestral connection can be viewed even though the name of the collection which is named after the guerilla action by Harriet Tubman in 1863. At the Port Royal region of North Carolina, Tubman rescued 750 enslaved Africans. This militant act was the first in American history that had ever been planned and led by a woman. The Combahee River Collective’s strategic choice in naming demonstrates that they are part of a long history of Black feminism(s) and deconstruct the white imagination of Black women feminism as a side note to hegemonic feminism. Black feminism(s) have always existed, even before there was a word for it. The unfortunate reality, however, is that not every Black woman, from the very first time that Alice Walker coined Black feminism(s), claim it loud and proud.10 Black feminism(s) at the height of Combahee River Collective organizing was not a popular term, theory, or practice. It was, during the Black Nationalist movement, headed by patriarchal Black men, viewed as a threat to the very core of the Black family.
The Collective write that Black feminism is a threat to all Black people because it pushes us all to rethink the very core of the power structure that exist between Black men and Black women. These power structures, although seen as natural pieces of daily life, are revealed through lenses of Black feminism(s) as social constructions that demobilize all Black people. This cry of the collective was not popularized until the 1985 U.N women’s conference in Nairobi, Kenya, where there were Black organizers from all over the world.
Just as the needs of Black women transform through space and time, so to do the feminisms of the Combahee River Collective. The collective began as a conscious-raising organization that later politicized itself through its involvement with the National Socialist Feminist conference, abortion rights organizations, and progressive Black men’s efforts. The involvement of the Combahee River Collective is complicated because feminism(s), when we include the needs of all people, is complicated. As such, there were points in history of the collective in which they transformed into a study group where they can theorize on the best methods for their respective communities.11 One of these methods that is highlighted in theCombahee River Collective Statement is continuous self-criticism. The theory behind the practice is illustrated through this statement in which Combahee writes: “we believe in the collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice”12 The significance of this statement is that it addresses the fact that the way in which we organize reflects the communities in which such organizing creates.
As such, the Combahee River Collective is not only critical of the actions of the forces they view as oppressive, but also their own internal structures. Another important element of self-criticism for Combahee River Collective is that they recognize the limitations that come with multiple issue organizing. They claim that because Black women are literally at the lowest point of society when it comes to any form of structural power, they cannot use “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.”13 This struggle, along with the inability of Black women to partake in single issue struggles, is part of the reasoning behind why Murray and Kennedy struggled to find a place within even the organizations that they themselves created.
As an organization and statement, the Combahee River Collective is a necessary part of 20th century feminism(s) and beyond. The written statement can be used in conjunction on both our conversations regarding Murray and Kennedy. This is because the statement creates a framework of Black feminism that I believe many people who choose to take this class may not be familiar to. This is because there is often a misconception that Black feminism is simply white hegemonic feminism in Black face. The statement by the Combahee River Collective challenges this notion by pointing to the specific needs of Black women that makes it so that they cannot follow the same methods or theories as white women nor Black men.
For the Combahee River Collective, separatism is also not an option. This is because their liberation is linked to the liberation of everyone, including Black men. They recognize the patriarchal nature of progressive Black men, but also understand that they cannot have liberation unless Black men are included. In outlining their reasoning for not completely siding with white lesbians, the Combahee River Collective stated, “as Black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic.”14 This is because the focus of white lesbian organizing ignores class and race. These distinctions will help to create a more realistic understanding of Black feminism(s) from the perspective of the Combahee River Collective. As demonstrated through both their statement and six years of work, the Combahee River Collective add the importance of organizations to evolve with the conditions of the specific needs of their organizations, the importance of feminism as a collective process in not only the identities of people but also their interconnected struggles, and finally that the liberation of Black lesbian women will result in the liberation of everyone.
In attempting to find information regarding how other scholars remember and speak on the work of the Combahee River Collective, I’ve found that access is very limiting. When using traditional academic search engine such as university library databases, the only sources that could be found are copies of the original “Combahee River Collective Statement” within anthologies and other collections about feminisms. Other useful sources that could be found on the library search engine were works by Barbara Smith, who is one of the last remaining members of the collective. When searching on more publicly accessible engines such as google scholar, I found very similar work. Whenever it was an article on the Combahee River Collective by someone other than Barbara Smith, there was no access to it. Much of the sources that google scholar provided were citations, rather than actual articles of interpretations of the work of the Combahee River Collective.
When using the most basic method of gathering information, Google.com, I found the most access to current analyses of the Combahee River Collective through predominantly Black spaces such as Ebony.com and theradicalnotion.com. What this experience shows about the Combahee River Collective and Black feminism(s) as a whole is that at the end of the day, the only people that care deeply enough about the liberation of Black women are other Black women. The Combahee River Collective began as a space for Black women to connect with one another. It was a space for sharing experiences and untangling the meanings of such experiences. This reality of the Combahee River Collective reflects the accessibility of the analyses of their work within former academic arenas. The work of the Combahee River Collective is legitimately intellectual, but because the labor of the collective does not always fit within the boundaries of what is academic, there is limited access to interpretations of the work outside of other spaces created for and by Black women.
In one book found through the Google Scholar Search engine titled, Women in Culture: An Intersectional Anthology for Gender and Women’s Studies, the authors describe the contribution of the Combahee River Collective to the history of feminism as a group of Black women who introduced the term heterosexism into ongoing conversations on class, sex, and gender taking place.15 The authors place the river collective within these conversations to show that they were neither the first nor the last, but that they were a part of the development process of what we know today as Black feminism. Their contribution through the addition of heterosexism opened up spaces within feminist circles on the experiences of economically looted women who are Black and lesbian. Strategically, by naming heterosexism, the collective named the structure that caused women who are Lesbian and Woman and Black to experience feminism and life itself in the way(s) that they do. While the statement that the Combahee River Collective contributed to the history of feminism is true, the authors completely ignore the importance of naming heterosexism while Black. By highlighting hetero-sexism in an unracialized manner, the authors do an injustice to the intersectional labor of the Combahee River Collective.
Similarly, Catherine Harnois and Mosi Ifatunji also use the intersectional theories of the Combahee River Collective in a non-intersectional manner through their study in “Gendered measures, gendered models: Towards an intersectional analysis of interpersonal racial discrimination.”16 Harnois and Ifatunji open their article with a few quotes from the “Combahee River Collective Statement.” One of them, from A Bridge Called My Back reads:
We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression that 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. Combahee River Collective ( 1981, p. 213).17
Proceeding the quote, the two authors talk about the importance of having gender be a component when doing survey research on race. They do so by place the Combahee River Collective as part of a history of foundation thinkers. Harnois and Ifatunji further argue that earlier scholarship on feminisms viewed race, class, and gender as unrelated entities of one another.18 This statement is arguably true because Black women and other women of color did not have the same amount of access to legitimized academic arenas where they can talk about their interconnected struggles. What is missing from the statement, however, is that it does not make clear enough that the intersectional approach of the “Combahee River Collective Statement,” Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and A Bridge Called My Back are not new ideas and methods of thinking about feminisms, but they are new to legitimized academic audiences who have not had access to the work of Black women because of racism, sexism, and capitalism.
Overall, Harnoi & Ifatunji’s critique of survey research ignoring gender when analyzing race is important, but throughout the rest of the article, there remains undertones of binary genders. While Harnois and Ifatunji do, the important work of assuring that gender is talked about, they do so in a counterproductive way that is not representative of what the Combahee River Collective meant when talking about intersectionality. As previously mentioned, the authors of the book titled, Women in Culture: An Intersectional Anthology for Gender and Women’s Studies, mentioned that one of the biggest contributions of the Combahee River Collective to the study of feminism(s) is the critique of hetero-sexism. With this knowledge, which is also outlined throughout the “Combahee River Collective Statement,” Harnois and Ifatunji could have easily avoided the mistake of perpetuating heteronormativity through their self-named intersectional approach towards survey research. What the work of these two authors reveals is the importance of being intersectional even in how we use it to critique work such survey research that has ignored intersectionality.
Alternatively, to the aforementioned uses of the “Combahee River Collective Statement,” the more accessible sources found through google searches had much more concrete analyses of the role of the collective to the histories of feminism(s). For example, the Ebony Magazine and The Radical Notion both talked about the multilayered work that the collective did. They also did justice to the work of the collective by placing them alongside conversations with other Black feminists in a way that neither altered nor minimized the importance of the collective’s work.
What the “Combahee River Collective Statement,” the circulation, and interpretations of the statement on formal academic and Black magazines reveal is that the intellectual labor of Black feminism(s) is often delegitimized, unrecognized on its own terms, and at best misinterpreted by non-Black women. The circulation of the statement was not legitimized on its own terms until the 1985 U.N Women’s conference in Nairobi, Kenya. When it comes to interpretations of the statement, it is often only selectively used to validate statements. Often, these statements, because they don’t fully recognize the work on its own terms use intersectional methods to argue for intersectionalism. On more accessible interpretations written by Black women, however, the statement is legitimized on its own terms and the meanings of it to current conversations are explored. What has been revealed about Black feminism(s) and Black women, in general, is that they are misunderstood and often, people only want to take the parts and pieces of their lived realities they can appropriate for their end goals. This reality exists for the Combahee River Collective, even though they wrote out an entire four-part manual on their history, politics, challenges, and achievements.
1 Smith, Barbara. The Combahee River Collective statement: black feminist organizing in the seventies and eighties. Vol. 1. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1986.
2 Smith, Black Feminist Organizing, pg. 18.
3 Refer to footnote number two.
4 Bell-Scott, Patricia. The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice. Knopf, 2016.
5 Randolph, Sherie M. Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The life of a black feminist radical. UNC Press Books, 2015.
6 Refer to footnote number one.
7 Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, Eds. This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color. Suny Press, 2015.
8 Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith. All the women are white, all the men are black, but some of us are brave. New York: Feminist (1982).
9 Smith, Black Feminist Organizing, pg. 3.
10 Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. London: Women’s Press, 1983
11 Hull, Bell Scott, Smith, but some of us are brave, pg. 21.
12 Hull, Bell Scott, Smith, but some of us are brave, pg. 21-22
13 Refer to footnote 3.
14 Hull, Bell Scott, Smith, but some of us are brave, pg. 17.
15 Scott, Bonnie Kime, et al., eds. Women in Culture: An Intersectional Anthology for Gender and Women’s Studies. John Wiley & Sons, 2016, pg. 115.
16 Harnois, Catherine E., and Mosi Ifatunji. “Gendered measures, gendered models: Toward an intersectional analysis of interpersonal racial discrimination.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 34.6 (2011): 1006-1028.
17 Harnois and Ifatunji, “Gendered Measures,” pg. 1006.18 Harnoi & Ifatunji. “Gendered Measures,” pg. 1007.
By Atini Lok