The Combahee River Collective (CRC) was a Black feminist lesbian organization active in Boston, United States, from 1974 to 1980. The CRC emerged as a radical alternative to the National Black Feminist Organization, taking its name from a raid led by Harriet Tubman at the Combahee River in South Carolina in 1853 which freed some 750 enslaved people. As Barbara Smith, one of the original founding members, explains, ‘My perspective, and I think it was shared, was let’s not name ourselves after a person. Let’s name ourselves after an action. A political action. And that’s what we did. And not only a political action but a political action for liberation’ (quoted in Taylor, 2017: 30-31).
The CRC is perhaps best known for publishing The Combahee River Collective Statement in: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties in 1977. The Statement is comprised of four sections. The first, ‘The Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism’, outlines the way in which the CRC had ‘found its origins in the historical reality of the Afro-American women’s continuous life-and-death struggles for survival and liberation’. The CRC were also attentive to the role played by ‘Black, other Third World, and working women’ in the ‘feminist movement from the start’. Not only this, the statement notes that ‘Many of us were active in [Black Liberation] movements (Civil Rights, Black nationalism, the Black Panthers), and all of our lives were greatly affected and changed by their ideologies, their goals, and the tactics used to achieve their goals. It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements, as well as experiences on the periphery of the white male left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was antiracist, unlike those of white women, and antisexist, unlike those of Black and white men’.
The Statement’s second section, ‘What we believe’, notes that the CRC’s politics had evolved from ‘a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters, and our community, which allows us to continue to struggle and work’. As feminists and lesbians, the CRC were of the view that ‘the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy’. Not only this, as socialists, the CRC believed that ‘work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses’. The CRC also rejected ‘the stance of lesbian separatism’ and ‘any type of biological determinism’, considering the latter to be both ‘dangerous’ and ‘reactionary’. It is in this section that the CRC also made an important and distinctive contribution to global social theory.
As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains, ‘the Combahee women did not coin the phrase “intersectionality” – Kimberlé Crenshaw did so in 1989 – 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’ (2017: 4). Prior to the formation of the CRC, Claudia Jones – a black feminist and communist political activist – had developed the term ‘triple oppression’ in an attempt to theorize the interrelatedness that exists between classism, racism and sexism. Similarly, the CRC were also attentive to the ‘interlocking’ nature of multiple oppressions, arguing that, ‘Black women could not quantify their oppression only in terms of sexism, or racism, or of homophobia experienced by Black lesbians’ (Taylor, 2017: 4).
As well as contributing to what is today widely referred to as intersectionality, the CRC also ‘originated’ the term ‘identity politics’. Today, identity politics is mostly invoked in a pejorative sense. On the political left, this phrase is often used to decry a lack of attention to class and a shift away from the politics of redistribution. Interestingly, Barbara Smith has recently argued that this is ‘horrifying, but not surprising … when folks on the left dismiss [identity] politics because their understanding of it comes from conservative sources’. For the CRC, Black women ‘needed to have a place where we could define our political priorities and act upon them. And that’s where identity politics comes from…What we were saying is that we have a right as people who are not just female, who are not solely Black, who are not just lesbians, who are not only working class, or workers – that we are people who embody all identities, and we have a right to build and define political theory and practice based upon that reality’ (quoted in Taylor 2017, pp. 60-61).
The third section of the Combahee River Collective Statement speaks to ‘Problems in Organizing Black Feminists’. In this section, the CRC address questions of racial, sexual, heterosexual and class privilege when being politically active across multiple fronts, as well as the experience of psychological harm and dispossession. The fourth section of the statement lists the various ‘Black Feminist Projects and Issues’ the CRC have organized and been involved in. These include, but are not limited to: discussion, reading and writing retreats, ‘sterilization abuse, abortion rights, battered women, rape and health care’, ‘conscious raising sessions’ and ‘workshops and educationals on Black feminism on college campuses, at women’s conferences, and most frequently for high school women’.
At the time of writing it is just over forty years since the publication of The Combahee River Collective Statement. However, the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has renewed interest in both the theory and practice of the CRC. The readings and resources provided below also demonstrate that the work of the CRC continues to shape attempts to create ‘Black Feminist classrooms’ (see Cespedes, Evans & Monteiro, 2018). What is more, students and scholars interested in participatory and solidarity action research may also want to consider the ways in which the CRC’s call for being able to ‘define our political priorities and act upon them’ might shape the politics and ethics of their research.
Combahee River Collective (1977) The Combahee River Collective Statement.
Cespedes, K. L. Evans, C. R. & Monteiro, S. (2018) ‘The Combahee River Collective Forty Years Later: Social Healing within a Black Feminist Classroom’, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, 19 (3), pp. 377-389
Ransby, B. (2018) ‘Combahee at 40: New Conversations and Debates in Black Feminism – Editors Notes’, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, 19 (3), pp. 239-240.
Taylor, K-Y. (2017) (ed.) How we get free: Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective. Chicago, Ill: Haymarket Books.
Further Readings & Resources:
Democracy Now (2018) ‘Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: What We Can Learn From the Black Feminists of the Combahee River Collective’, YouTube – video.
Left POCket Project (2020) ‘47. Combahee River Collective Statement’, YouTube – podcast.
Why did the Combahee River Collective coming into being?
What are the defining features of The Combahee River Collective Statement?
What did the Combahee River Collective mean by ‘identity politics’ and in what ways does it differ from how others have used it?
According to the Combahee River Collective, what were the ‘problems in organizing Black Feminists’, and to what extent do these problems still exist?
Discuss the impact of The Combahee River Collective Statement.
Submitted by Stephen D. Ashe