1970s - When feminism ignored the needs of black women, a mighty force was born
Founded in the early 1970s, the Combahee River Collective spoke to the unique position of being black and female
In 1969, Barbara Smith decided she wanted to see the world. She was about to graduate from college and didn’t have much money, so she decided to get the kind of job that required her to travel. After acing the test to become an airline reservationist, she asked the white man interviewing her about opportunities for career advancement. There weren’t any, he said, because she was a woman.
In some ways, it was the best thing that could have happened to Smith. She wasn’t just a woman; she was also black and a lesbian, and she knew that these facts created a unique web of oppression that was different from the experiences of a straight white woman or a black man. She was involved in the anti-war movement and the socialist politics at Mount Holyoke College, but the Pan-Am interview was the true, real-world awakening. In response, she would channel her full attention to organizing and activism, focusing particularly on the complex nexus of issues that women of color face. Barbara and her twin sister, Beverley, who had gotten involved in the racial equality movement in Ohio, joined the National Black Feminist
Organization in the early seventies, where they met Demita Frazier, who’d been a Black Panther in Chicago. Before long, the trio grew frustrated with the NBFO’s lack of funds and resistance to radical politics, and in 1974 they decided to start their own group, the Combahee River Collective.
A black feminist lesbian activist organization, the CRC would coin now ubiquitous terms like “identity politics” and overhaul the discussion on the intersection of race, gender, and class.
The collective was founded on the idea that, as Princeton Professor Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor explained in How We Get Free, “Black women’s experiences cannot be reduced to either race or gender but have to be understood on their own terms.” As the Combahee River Collective Statement read, “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us.”
The Combahee River Collective was named after Harriet Tubman’s 1853 raid on the Combahee River, in South Carolina, that freed 750 slaves. The group formed out of frustration with white feminist activists’ unwillingness to champion issues that particularly affected black women: sterilization, sexual assault, and low-wage labor. Meanwhile, many black women felt alienated from the black liberation movement, as it was male-dominated and prone to sexism. A black nationalist pamphlet from the early seventies read, “We understand that it is and has been traditional that the man is the head of the house … his knowledge of the world is broader, his awareness is greater, his understanding is fuller and his application of this information is wiser.”
The women were united by a firm belief that black oppression was rooted in American capital; they didn’t bother to seek equality with white men and women but to dismantle the system of capitalism itself. Though the collective wasn’t always philosophically aligned with other black, socialist, and feminist groups, they sought to join forces anyway, since dismantling behemoth oppressors like patriarchy, capitalism, and racism required a vast coalition. In the late seventies, members of the collective would write, “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.”
When it first started meeting in 1974, it conceived of itself as a consciousness-raising group. In this nascent state, internal disagreements about what the group should be fell along sexual identity, class, and political lines. Some thought it should be an activist group, some did not. Some women left the group. Others joined, including the activist and feminist writer Audre Lorde and the poet and activist Akasha Gloria Hull. The collective got involved in anti-sterilization and anti-domestic violence campaigns, abortion rights activism, and International Women’s Day activities. It was a global movement, a part of a larger anti-colonial, anti-war struggle, undergirded by a belief, as Yamahtta Taylor writes, “that another world is possible.”
In 1977, the collective released its manifesto and began holding retreats across the Northeast, to plan actions and discuss issues of intersectionality — the idea that overlapping identities, such as being black and female and gay, create unique oppressions and challenges. It was also a way to unite a network of women who, as Barbara Smith explained, needed a way to combat “the isolation we faced as Black feminists.” In her organizing work, Smith traveled all over the Northeast and was enriched by meeting so many like-minded thinkers. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get together?” she wondered. Thousands of women joined.
The retreats were also meant to be fun and affirming. The three original founders loved to cook, and as Smith said, “we would just absolutely throw down.” They would share the things they were reading, photocopying documents for one another. “The overwhelming feeling that we had,” Smith said, “is that after years and years we had finally found each other.”
In1979, when 12 black women were murdered within a two-mile radius of each other in the Boston area, the Combahee River Collective took to the streets to protest. The media hardly covered the killings at all. When the death toll was still at six, the collective distributed a pamphlet entitled “Six Black Women: Why Did They Die?” arguing that the killings were both racialized and sexualized — not merely one or the other. One collective member said, “We don’t have to fight this battle in ones and tens, but in thousands and tens of thousands. We will fight back!”
Though the group stopped meeting in 1980, their organizing strategies are still used by black activists today. After the Clarence Thomas hearings and Anita Hill’s revelations of Thomas’s sexual harassment, a group of black feminists who were frustrated by their exclusion from public discourse cited Combahee as their inspiration when they paid $10,000 to place an advertisement in the New York Times, announcing themselves as “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.”
In June of 2017, the collective released a statement to commemorate their 40th anniversary. They celebrated the idea that black feminism has become central to the black freedom movement but also noted that “we see a steady and growing backlash against the current Black freedom movement just as the Combahee River Collective experienced in its own time.” As Demita Frazier would later say, “The point of talking about Combahee is not to be nostalgic; rather, we talk about it because Black women are still not free.”