Reclaiming the tradition
of Black socialist feminism

How We Get Free:

Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective

Two thousand and seventeen marked the fortieth anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement, one of the most powerful, influential, and enduring documents of Black feminism.* The political anniversary brought the founders of the Combahee River Collective (CRC) and the authors of the 1977 statement to conferences and events nationally to commemorate their political legacy and introduce a new generation of activists to an important tradition of radical Black feminism. One of the most important political contributions to the commemoration of this anniversary is the publication of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, a book that promises to connect this radical tradition of Black feminism to the politicization and activism of a new generation of radicals, feminists, and socialists. That the fortieth anniversary of the CRC statement coincided with Trump’s first year in office, the eruption of the largest protests of women since the 1970s (perhaps the largest protest in US history), and resurgent interest in socialist politics, reminds us how necessary and relevant the vision articulated in the CRC’s 1977 statement remains.

One of the most anthologized historical documents of the women’s liberation movement, and a foundational text in Black feminist thought, the anniversary edition also serves as a reminder that it was an explicitly socialist text, rooted in an anticapitalist framework and Marxism. Indeed, the statement was initially published in Zillah Eisenstein’s Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism by Monthly Review Press in 1978. It is thus fitting that it is reprinted today in a new edition from Haymarket Books with an introduction by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and includes interviews by Taylor with authors of the original statement—Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier—as well as with #BlackLivesMatter cocreator and activist Alicia Garza. Concluding comments are provided by historian Barbara Ransby.

How We Get Free places the CRC statement in its historical context, giving contemporary readers a window into the social movements and political conditions that contributed to the radicalization of its authors. We learn, for example, that Barbara Smith, a founding member of the CRC and coauthor of the statement, was involved in the antiwar movement, was a fellow traveler of the socialist Left and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), participated in the 1968 Columbia University strike, and protested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. She also taught one of the first courses in Black women writers in 1973 (and is often credited with founding Black women’s studies) and was involved in the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) before the CRC’s founding in 1974. Beverly Smith (Barbara’s sister) was active in the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in Cleveland where she met (and was deeply inspired by) civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer and was involved in school boycotts and freedom schools. She also describes watching the 1968 protests at the Miss America pageant from afar before moving to New York City and working at Ms. magazine. Demita Frazier was active in the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Chicago. She also helped organize student walkouts in protest of the Vietnam War, was involved with the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in 1969, and was part of the Jane Collective, an underground movement organized to help women get access to safe abortion. In telling these stories, the book revitalizes the history behind the words that became the CRC statement, showing us the interlocking histories of the women who drew on their experiences within (and without) movements to develop the theoretical understanding of oppression expressed in the 1977 CRC statement which continues to electrify radicals today.

Taylor’s astute introduction situates this historical legacy of the Combahee River Collective in relation to the current political moment, drawing on its political lessons to elucidate the task of socialists today and remind us of the political urgency to look beneath the superficial media punditry that too often poses as common political sense. Taylor notes that the media’s focus on “who did and did not vote” in 2016 to explain the election’s horrifying outcome fails to provide “closer scrutiny of what kept tens of millions of people from participating in the election.” Even the most “cursory investigation into the lives of African Americans,” Taylor argues, “would have revealed the deep dissatisfaction with their conditions.” While the #MeToo movement has raised anew questions about workplace harassment and the entrenched pay gap between men and women, this gap is compounded for Black women who make “on average, sixty-four cents on every dollar made by white men.” (This gap is even larger in Louisiana, where “Black women make only 43 percent of what white men in that state make.”) Considering “that in 80 percent of Black families, Black women are the sole provider or the main provider, it brings into focus the economic hardship experienced by most Black families in this country.” Taylor concludes,

Thus, the inclusion of Black women on their own terms is not a concession to “political correctness” or “identity politics’’; it is necessary to validate the particular experiences of Black women in our society while also measuring exactly the levels of oppression, inequality, and exploitation experienced in African American communities. More important, looking at the condition of Black women reveals the utter inadequacy of what qualifies as social welfare in the United States today.

This analysis of the inequality faced by Black women today provides an apt reminder of the importance of the Combahee River Collective’s theoretical contribution to understanding the specific oppression of Black women; while also emphasizing the continuity between the activism initiated by the CRC in the 1970s and “the latest iteration in Black social protest,” also led by Black women. In a similar vein, the interview with Alicia Garza draws vital connections between the Black Lives Matter movement and its political antecedents in the CRC; while Barbara Ransby’s speech at the end of the book bridges these two historical periods with a poignant reflection on the significance of the CRC’s statement, historically and in the present.

How We Get Free emphasizes the CRC’s contribution to the development of Black feminist thought but also to the revolutionary Left more broadly. As Taylor writes, the authors of the CRC statement “had come to revolutionary conclusions that their, and indeed all Black people’s, oppression was rooted deeply in capitalism.” Thus, Taylor argues, “They were not acting or writing against Marxism, but, in their own words, they looked to ‘extend’ Marxist analysis to incorporate an understanding of the oppression of Black women. In doing so, they have sharpened Marxist analysis by recognizing the plight of Black women as an oppressed group that has particular political needs.” This point is emphasized in several interviews, particularly by Barbara Smith who states unequivocally: “We were socialists. We were part of the organized Left.” Demita Frazier underscores this point: “We had an economic analysis. Because we were all either nascent or just fully blown out-and-about socialists.” This rootedness as Black feminists in the revolutionary Left contributed immensely to the statement’s power. As Barbara Smith concludes, “Anticapitalism is what give it this sharpness, the edge, the thoroughness, the revolutionary potential.”

The CRC statement is notable for being the earliest known articulation of the concept of “identity politics,” a legacy explored in How We Get Free. Taylor differentiates between identity politics as the CRC understood the concept, and later iterations in which “the term has been used, abused, and reconfigured into something foreign to its creators.” For the CRC, identity politics meant recognizing that “oppression on the basis of identity . . . was a source of radicalization,” and that “Black women’s oppression made them more open to the possibilities of radical politics and activism.” This focus on activism and collective struggle was critical to their understanding of identity politics; informing work around reproductive justice, violence against women, and a broad range of activism in coalition with other groups. Central to the CRC’s analysis was a political praxis based on solidarity and working in coalitions, as Barbara Smith emphasizes in How We Get Free. This understanding of the necessity of struggle against the particular oppression experienced by Black women as integral to the fight for the liberation of all is one of the most important lessons from the CRC statement. As they 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 the systems of oppression.”

The CRC statement is also an early articulation of “intersectionality” before K. W. Crenshaw coined the term in 1989. In the 1977 statement, the authors argued for the necessity of an “integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.” As Black women, many of whom were lesbians, this meant an understanding of the ways in which multiple oppressions intersected in their lives and political activism, including oppression based on race, gender, sexuality, and class. The immense contribution of this theorization is hard to overstate. As Taylor notes, “The Combahee women did not coin the phrase ‘intersectionality’ . . .  but the CRC did articulate the analysis that animates the meaning of intersectionality, the idea that multiple oppressions reinforce each other to create new categories of suffering.” Demita Frazier comments that she had herself thought of the metaphor of the intersection to describe this political understanding of oppression, saying, “We stand at the intersection where our identities are indivisible.” Recovering the radical history of activism from which the idea of intersectionality emerges helps to demystify and revitalize a concept which is ubiquitous today but whose meaning is often contested. Here, too, this understanding of intersectionality is rooted in solidarity—one that extends beyond national borders and is explicitly internationalist. Thus, for example, the women of the CRC consciously identified as “Third World women” to emphasize their solidarity with oppressed women internationally.

The political ideas and practice put forward in the 1977 CRC statement and in the interviews and political commentary in How We Get Free are of paramount importance to activists, radicals, and socialists today. For students reading the statement possibly for the first time, educators teaching the statement to a new generation of radicals, and activists looking to its history to inform the struggles of the present, there is a political urgency to distill these lessons and embody these ideas in our work. Revisiting the history of the Combahee River Collective is essential, Demita Frazier reminds us, not out of nostalgia, but “because Black women are still not free.” Taylor eloquently imparts the power of the CRC’s 1977 statement, writing, “the CRC Statement offers an analysis and a plan for ‘revolutionary action’ that is not limited by time and distance from the circumstances in which the members wrote it. Their anticapitalism, calls for solidarity, and commitment to the radical idea that another world is possible and, indeed, necessary remain relevant.” For anyone committed to that vision and struggle, How We Get Free is essential reading. The immense popularity of the book in its first few months of publication is a testament to its power, and a hopeful sign for the future of struggle.

*    The collective took its name from the 1863 Raid at Combahee Ferry, in which abolitionist Harriet Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story