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"How We Get Free:" Archiving the Combahee River Collective in U.S. History

Kate Baker

Published in December of 2017, “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective” is a collection of interviews conducted, edited and introduced by Princeton University professor, Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the author of “Rats, Riots and Revolution: Black Housing in the 1960s” (2015), “The Anti-Inauguration: Building Resistance in the Trump Era” (2016), and “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation” (2016).

Through conversations with some key members of the historic Combahee River Collective, Demita Frazier, Barbara Smith and Beverly Smith, and contemporary activist cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Alicia Garza, Taylor reflects on the pivotal role of the Columbia River Collective’s (CRC) activism and contextualizes the historic Combahee River Collective Statement within the current state of U.S. affairs. The book concludes with comments written by historian and activist Barbara Ransby, who is also the author of “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement” (2003). The result of this collaboration is a personal and illuminating look at the lives and perspectives of the radical black feminist movement emerging in the 60’s and 70’s, as well as a timely reflection on work left to do. As an interviewer, Taylor shines as each of the conversations shared draws on a new angle of the feminist mantra “the personal is political.” This collection of interviews is as appropriate for the career organizer as it is for the freshly minted feminist looking for a deeper understanding of where the third wave found its start.

The book's introduction unapologetically calls attention to the state of black feminism in the U.S. An opening analysis of the decline in black female voters during the 2016 presidential election positions Taylor to look closer at the quality of life for Americans of color in the last decade. She recounts the founding principles of the Combahee River Collective in 1974, including their enduring contributions to feminist theory and praxis including the concepts of “interlocking oppression” and “identity politics.” Interlocking oppression, is “the idea that multiple oppressions reinforce each other to create new categories of suffering.” This formulation predated the term “intersectionality” coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Identity politics are central to the CRC’s mission because “oppression on the basis of identity…was a source of political radicalization.” The CRC acknowledged that the social position of black women leaves them disproportionately vulnerable, and thus black women’s oppression opened them up to the possibilities of radical politics and activism. Thus identity politics are predicated on the idea that members of an oppressed identity category, in this case black women, are best equipped to articulate and advocate against their own suffering. This is noteworthy given how common the term “identity politics” is in today’s divisive and partisan political discourse. In these beginning pages, Taylor sets the stage for the conversations to follow. We see the goal that Taylor has set for the work: “to reconnect the radical roots of black feminism analysis and practice to contemporary organizing efforts.” The CRC established a new and vital discourse around feminist theory and organizing in its day, and this book is a call to recognize and reignite the radical roots of the movement for present and future struggles.

Following the introduction, the historic Combahee River Collective Statement is printed in full. This serves to fully immerse readers inexperienced in the subject matter and to refresh and refocus those who already know it well. The statement has four sections: (1) the genesis of contemporary black feminism, (2) what we believe, the specific province of our politics, (3) the problems in organizing black feminists, and (4) black feminist issues and practice. Through these sections, the reader becomes firmly rooted in the context of the creation of the CRC and its relationship to contemporary movements. Prepared with this knowledge, we enter into the interviews.

The first interview is with Barbara Smith, a notable black lesbian feminist, independent scholar and activist. She played a crucial role in the establishment and development of black feminism from the Combahee River Collective and beyond. Barbara shares about this experience in her interview, walking us through her early engagement with civil rights movements, Black Nationalism, Socialism, and the National Black Female Organization (NBFO). She also shares with us how the CRC got its name and why it stepped out from the NBFO. To me, an especially valuable piece of her interview is the focus on women, especially women of color led publications and their role in movement building. Barbara started Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press at the suggestion of her friend Audre Lorde. It is powerful to hear from Smith her experience of emerging as a dissident youth and building community with like minds from across the nation.

Her sister, Beverly’s interview provides more details of their young lives and coming of age at a nexus of American civil rights movements. This section provides a generous amount of personal recollection and reflection, offering the reader the chance to root the CRC’s politics within the lives of its members from an early age, and through to the present. Beverly also speaks a bit more directly about the role gender and sexuality played in forming the CRC as it was. In her commentary on what the collective intended by “identity politics” and how they played out in the organizing activities of the CRC, Smith navigates Taylor’s inquiries with sincerity and candor. Taylor pulls together the threads of this section with a comparison between the radical Black Feminist principles of the CRC and present day women of color organizing, such as that seen within the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Demita Frazier’s interview begins with a look at how she came to identify as a feminist. She describes coming across a text, flipping through, and experiencing a revelation - a falling into place of values previously felt but not understood. It is a relatable experience for me, and I would imagine for a number of other readers. Frazier juxtaposes her investigation into feminism, and development into a radical black feminist, against her history and familial experience in time and place. She shares details of her life and the questions she came to ask like, “Why does sexism always impede my ability to manifest my own power?” Her recognition and growing understanding of intersectional identities and the oppressions they enact take us far deeper than finding feminism. This sections dives into a rich perspective on racial and class segregation, sexual abuse and violence against women, gender in community, educational discrimination, peace movements, and more. Frazier’s interview is certainly one of my favorites - her voice is clear and her message energizing. The lived experiences she shares are revelatory, and put the reader in a perfect state of mind to enter into the next interview.

Alicia Garza’s interview begins with a direct exposition of how black feminism infused and continues to guide the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is accomplished through yet another set of personal recollections. We begin at Alicia’s experiences in reproductive rights organizing during her college years. Her description of becoming at odds with her group of activist and organization like Planned Parenthood, juxtaposing white feminism and black feminism illustrates an introduction and induction into black feminism through lived experience. Garza’s path of becoming a black feminist led her to readings from thinkers like Bell Hooks and Patricia Hill Collins - these new voices instigated a shift in her students of color organizing. Her work became fueled by individual histories, intersectional racial and sexual identities, multicultural considerations, and anti-institutional action. From this point, she shares how this framework asserted that black women, especially black queer women deserve space. A casual yet poignant dissection of patriarchy in a black home shapes an understanding of all the ways that “black women’s bodies are objectified...stereotyped...[and lack protection].” This becomes a thread that ties her history to her present, the personal platform that has become a foundation for the Black Lives Matter movement.

As the focus shifts to #BLM organizing, Garza shares a candid criticism of the cooptation, white washing, appropriation, and erasure that surrounded the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This leads to a discussion about anti-blackness and the possibility or complication of multiracial and multicultural coalition building. This section moves quickly through Alicia’s personal perspectives; it seems to me that more synthesis and discussion from Taylor in this segment would greatly benefit the reader. The section concludes with Alicia’s take on what CRC infused organizing has to embark on today. She articulates the need for movements to focus on where power is located, and the importance of ensuring that movements are not anti-black, but also do not resort to black dogmatism. The final paragraphs of Alicia’s interview are remarkably convincing, challenging readers of all identities to critically evaluate how we engage and what we foster. By shifting from the very personal to a broader lens, Garza and Taylor discuss how perspectives of anti capitalism, socialism, and anti imperialism surface in contemporary black American organizing. This all comes to a head in the call for black feminism to infuse new perspectives, to build new alternatives for social, political, and economic structures. Alicia believes that not only is this reimagining of power possible, but that it is necessary to demonstrably improve the lives of black Americans.

The final section, comments by Barbara Ransby from the Socialism 2017 conference panel, brings the interviews together through her own synthesis. Ransby was not in the CRC, but center’s their perspectives in her own work. As a historian, her knowledge on the context from which the Combahee River Collective emerged is immense and she communicates this in her commentary with great effect. She draws connections from the black feminism of the CRC to that of the early black movements that emerged after the 1967 Detroit rebellion, 10 years before the Statement was written. She describes how the CRC’s perspectives were born of a history of events, and the collective is now a part of the history which emerging black feminist initiatives are forged from. By utilizing the CRC as a historical foundation and lineage, Barbara believes that the principles can have important impacts in contemporary organizing. Ransby goes on to string together the intricate historical connections, weaving a patchwork of events and coalitions that together form Radical Black Feminist organizing. She recalls the moments when black feminism gained recognition among other radical black movements in 1998. Each piece in the legacy story deepens and broadens the reader’s understanding of CRC brand feminism—one that is anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-heteropatriarchal.

Ransby then moves to dissect five critical principles found within the Combahee River Collective Statement, and subsequently trace the paths of these principles to present day movements. By recognizing the CRC’s values in present day organizations, Ransby attempts to locate the Combahee River Collective activist legacy and position it’s statement as a “roadmap to liberation.” The Movement for Black Lives, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the Resist-Reimagine-Rebuild Coalition, Black Youth Project 100, Florida’s Dream Defenders, the Jewish Voice for Peace and more are identified as groups targeting a number of social justice issues through intersecting radical black, feminist, and queer lenses laid out by the CRC. This exemplifies how identity politics of the Combahee River Collective grows, enhances, and expands the possibilities for feminism, rather than segmenting it off into sections as is often understood today. Ransby cautions against this segregated version of feminist politics where only one cause is championed - class rights at the cost of race, gender, sexuality, or peace causes. She describes the “false unity” that results from this type of engagement with crisp attention.

Her final message, parting words of wisdom ring in my ears still - she urges us to be bold, firm, loving, and inclusive in our struggles. The Combahee River Collective Statement comes through in each word. One question I would raise in how Ransby views the use of the CRC as a “roadmap” for our own initiatives. Within her section, she both describes it as such and states that history does not provide us roadmaps. The contradiction is small but curious. Generally, I found Ransby’s section to be powerful, and I would have only wished her comments continued as I turned the page. It is clear her knowledge and understanding infuses her understanding of radical black feminism—it motivates the reader to search more, read more, and learn more about the histories of radical American movements.

This small, bold text is at once unexpected and fulfilling. What I anticipated to be a synthesis of Combahee River Collective writings and their role in liberation movement building—along the lines of what is found in Taylor’s introduction and Ransby’s comments—turned out to be remarkably personal and deeply historical. At some points, the imprecision and candor of recollections in the interviews does seem to get in the way of the impact, and one could argue for a more heavy-handed edit of the transcripts. However, I found that the authenticity and lack of structured pacing in the interview allowed for a freedom in the messaging. Instead of scanning for packaged information, the reader comes to sit alongside these remarkable women, as if at the kitchen table, soaking up their experience, their challenges, their victories and wisdom. It occurs to me that the nature of this text might be well received as an oral history. I can imagine the natural cadence of each women calling their histories to the front of their mind and Taylor engaging with them in small “right, right” and “Oh yes!” moments would be captured well in real-time.

I would encourage anyone, everyone to read this book. Not only is the Combahee River Collective Statement invaluable on its own, but in this package you receive so much more context, history, imagery, beauty, personality, and understanding which elevates the reception of the CRC’s manifesto.

Photo: https://www.democracynow.org/2018/1/19/keeanga_yamahtta_taylor_on_how_we