1/ The Combahee River Collective
Combahee River Collective
We are a collective of Black feminists who have been meeting together
since 1974.
2/ [1] During that time we have been involved in the process of
defining and clarifying our politics, while at the same time doing
political work within our own group and in coalition with other
progressive organizations and movements.
3/ The most general statement
of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively
committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class
oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated
analysis and practice based upon the…
4/ …fact that the major systems of
oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates
the conditions of our lives.
5/ As Black women we see Black feminism as
the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous
oppressions that all women of color face.
6/ We will discuss four major topics in the paper that follows: (1) the
genesis of contemporary Black feminism; (2) what we believe, i.e., the
specific province of our politics; (3) the problems in organizing Black
feminists, including a brief herstory of our collective; and…
7/ …(4) Black
feminist issues and practice.
8/ 1. The genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism
Before looking at the recent development of Black feminism we would
like to affirm that we find our origins in the historical reality of AfroAmerican women's continuous life-and-death struggle for survival and
9/ Black women's extremely negative relationship to the
American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been
determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual
10/ As Angela Davis points out in "Reflections on the Black Woman's
Role in the Community of Slaves," Black women have always embodied,
if only in their physical manifestation, an adversary stance to white male
rule and have actively resisted its inroads upon them and…
11/ …their
communities in both dramatic and subtle ways.
12/ There have always been
Black women activists—some known, like Sojourner Truth, Harriet
Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church
Terrell, and thousands upon thousands unknown—who have had a
shared awareness of how their sexual identity combined…
13/ …with their racial
identity to make their whole life situation and the focus of their political
struggles unique. Contemporary Black feminism is the outgrowth of
countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our
mothers and sisters.
14/ A Black feminist presence has evolved most obviously in connection
with the second wave of the American women's movement beginning in
the late 1960s.
15/ Black, other Third World, and working women have been
involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside
reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself
have served to obscure our participation.
16/ In 1973, Black feminists,
primarily located in New York, felt the necessity of forming a separate
Black feminist group. This became the National Black Feminist
Organization (NBFO).
17/ Black feminist politics also have an obvious connection to movements
for Black liberation, particularly those of the 1960s and I970s.
18/ Many of
us were active in those 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
19/ It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation
movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male
left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike
those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black…
20/ …and white
There is also undeniably a personal genesis for Black Feminism, that
is, the political realization that comes from the seemingly personal
experiences of individual Black women's lives.
21/ Black feminists and many
more Black women who do not define themselves as feminists have all
experienced sexual oppression as a constant factor in our day-to-day
existence. As children we realized that we were different from boys and
that we were treated differently.
22/ For example, we were told in the same
breath to be quiet both for the sake of being "ladylike" and to make us
less objectionable in the eyes of white people. As we grew older we
became aware of the threat of physical and sexual abuse by men.
23/ However, we had no way of conceptualizing what was so apparent to us,
what we knew was really happening.
24/ Black feminists often talk about their feelings of craziness before
becoming conscious of the concepts of sexual politics, patriarchal rule,
and most importantly, feminism, the political analysis and practice that
we women use to struggle against our oppression.
25/ The fact that racial
politics and indeed racism are pervasive factors in our lives did not allow
us, and still does not allow most Black women, to look more deeply into
our own experiences and, from that sharing and growing consciousness,
to build a politics that will…
26/ …change our lives and inevitably end our
oppression. Our development must also be tied to the contemporary
economic and political position of Black people.
27/ The post World War II
generation of Black youth was the first to be able to minimally partake of
certain educational and employment options, previously closed
completely to Black people.
28/ Although our economic position is still at
the very bottom of the American capitalistic economy, a handful of us
have been able to gain certain tools as a result of tokenism in education
and employment which potentially enable us to more effectively fight
our oppression.
29/ A combined anti-racist and anti-sexist position drew us together
initially, and as we developed politically we addressed ourselves to
heterosexism and economic oppression under capItalism.
30/ 2. What We Believe
Above all else, Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that
Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity
not as an adjunct to somebody else's may because of our need as human
persons for autonomy.
31/ This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic,
but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has
ever consIdered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously
for the ending of that oppression.
32/ Merely naming the pejorative
stereotypes attributed to Black women (e.g. mammy, matriarch,
Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloguing the cruel, often
murderous, treatment we receive, Indicates how little value has been
placed upon our lives during four centuries…
33/ …of bondage in the Western
hemisphere. We realize that the only people who care enough about us
to work consistently for our liberation are us.
34/ Our politics evolve from a
healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows
us to continue our struggle and work.
This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of
identity politics.
35/ We believe that the most profound and potentially most
radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to
working to end somebody else's oppression.
36/ In the case of Black women
this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore
revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the
political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy
of liberation than ourselves.
37/ We reject pedestals, queenhood, and
walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is
We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in
Black women's lives as are the politics of class and race.
38/ We also often
find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because
in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.
39/ We know
that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which 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.
40/ Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with
progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that
white women who are separatists demand.
41/ Our situation as Black people
necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white
women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their
negative solidarity as racial oppressors.
42/ We struggle together with Black
men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about
43/ We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the
destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and
imperialism as well as patriarchy.
44/ We are socialists because we believe
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.
Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create
these resources.
45/ We are not convinced, however, that a socialist
revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will
guarantee our liberation.
46/ We have arrived at the necessity for developing
an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the
specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the
labor force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily
viewed as…
47/ …doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional
48/ We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are
not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual
oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic
49/ Although we are in essential agreement with Marx's theory as it
applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we
know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to
understand our specific economic situation as Black women.
50/ A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the
expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political.
51/ In our
consciousness-raising sessions, for example, we have in many ways gone
beyond white women's revelations because we are dealing with the
implications of race and class as well as sex.
52/ Even our Black women's
style of talking/testifying in Black language about what we have
experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political.
53/ We have
spent a great deal of energy delving into the cultural and experiential
nature of our oppression out of necessity because none of these matters
has ever been looked at before. No one before has ever examined the
multilayered texture of Black women's lives.
54/ An example of this kind of
revelation/conceptualization occurred at a meeting as we discussed the
ways in which our early intellectual interests had been attacked by our
peers, particularly Black males.
55/ We discovered that all of us, because we
were "smart" had also been considered "ugly," i.e., "smart-ugly." "Smartugly" crystallized the way in which most of us had been forced to
develop our intellects at great cost to our "social" lives.
56/ The sanctions In
the Black and white communities against Black women thinkers is
comparatively much higher than for white women, particularly ones
from the educated middle and upper classes.
57/ As we have already stated, we reject the stance of Lesbian separatism
because it is not a viable political analysis or strategy for us. It leaves out
far too much and far too many people, particularly Black men, women,
and children.
58/ We have a great deal of criticism and loathing for what
men have been socialized to be in this society: what they support, how
they act, and how they oppress. But we do not have the misguided
notion that it is their maleness, per se—i.e.,
59/ their biological maleness—
that makes them what they are. As BIack women we find any type of
biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis
upon which to build a politic.
60/ We must also question whether Lesbian
separatism is an adequate and progressive political analysis and
strategy, even for those who practice it, since it so completely denies any
but the sexual sources of women's oppression, negating the facts of class
and race.
61/ 3. Problems in Organizing Black Feminists
During our years together as a Black feminist collective we have
experienced success and defeat, joy and pain, victory and failure.
62/ We
have found that it is very difficult to organize around Black feminist
issues, difficult even to announce in certain contexts that we are Black
63/ We have tried to think about the reasons for our difficulties,
particularly since the white women's movement continues to be strong
and to grow in many directions.
64/ In this section we will discuss some of
the general reasons for the organizing problems we face and also talk
specifically about the stages in organizing our own collective.
65/ The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not
just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to
address a whole range of oppressions.
66/ We do not have 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.
67/ The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this
presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can
never be underestimated.
68/ There is a very low value placed upon Black
women's psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist. As an
early group member once said, "We are all damaged people merely by
virtue of being Black women."
69/ We are dispossessed psychologically and
on every other level, and yet we feel the necessity to struggle to change
the condition of all Black women.
70/ In "A Black Feminist's Search for
Sisterhood," Michele Wallace arrives at this conclusion:
We exists as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the
moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this
society remotely congenial to…
71/ …our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would
have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world.
72/ [2]
Wallace is pessimistic but realistic in her assessment of Black
feminists' position, particularly in her allusion to the nearly classic
isolation most of us face. We might use our position at the bottom,
however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action.
73/ 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
74/ Feminism is, nevertheless, very threatening to the majority of Black
people because it calls into question some of the most basic assumptions
about our existence, i.e., that sex should be a determinant of power
75/ Here is the way male and female roles were defined in a
Black nationalist pamphlet from the early 1970s:
We understand that it is and has been traditional that the man is the head of the
76/ He is the leader of the house/nation because his knowledge of the world is
broader, his awareness is greater, his understanding is fuller and his application of
this information is wiser...
77/ After all, it is only reasonable that the man be the head of
the house because he is able to defend and protect the development of his home...
Women cannot do the same things as men—they are made by nature to function
78/ Equality of men and women is something that cannot happen even in the
abstract world. Men are not equal to other men, i.e. ability, experience or even
79/ The value of men and women can be seen as in the value of gold and
silver—they are not equal but both have great value. We must realize that men and
women are a complement to each other because there is no house/family without a
man and his wife.
80/ Both are essential to the development of any life. [3]
The material conditions of most Black women would hardly lead them
to upset both economic and sexual arrangements that seem to represent
some stability in their lives.
81/ Many Black women have a good
understanding of both sexism and racism, but because of the everyday
constrictions of their lives, cannot risk struggling against them both.
The reaction of Black men to feminism has been notoriously negative.
82/ They are, of course, even more threatened than Black women by the
possibility that Black feminists might organize around our own needs.
83/ They realize that they might not only lose valuable and hardworking
allies in their struggles but that they might also be forced to change their
habitually sexist ways of interacting with and oppressing Black women.
84/ Accusations that Black feminism divides the Black struggle are powerful
deterrents to the growth of an autonomous Black women's movement.
Still, hundreds of women have been active at different times during
the three-year existence of our group.
85/ And every Black woman who
came, came out of a strongly-felt need for some level of possibility that
did not previously exist in her life.
86/ When we first started meeting early in 1974 after the NBFO first
eastern regional conference, we did not have a strategy for organizing,
or even a focus. We just wanted to see what we had.
87/ After a period of
months of not meeting, we began to meet again late in the year and
started doing an intense variety of consciousness-raising. The
overwhelming feeling that we had is that after years and years we had
finally found each other.
88/ Although we were not doing political work as a
group, individuals continued their involvement in Lesbian politics,
sterilization abuse and abortion rights work, Third World Women's
International Women's Day activities, and support activity for the trials
of Dr. Kenneth…
89/ …Edelin, Joan Little, and Inéz García. During our first
summer when membership had dropped off considerably, those of us
remaining devoted serious discussion to the possibility of opening a
refuge for battered women in a Black community.
90/ (There was no refuge
in Boston at that time.) We also decided around that time to become an
independent collective since we had serious disagreements with NBFO's
bourgeois-feminist stance and their lack of a clear politIcal focus.
91/ We also were contacted at that time by socialist feminists, with whom
we had worked on abortion rights activities, who wanted to encourage
us to attend the National Socialist Feminist Conference in Yellow
92/ One of our members did attend and despite the narrowness of
the ideology that was promoted at that particular conference, we became
more aware of the need for us to understand our own economic
situation and to make our own economic analysis.
93/ In the fall, when some members returned, we experienced several
months of comparative inactivity and internal disagreements which
were first conceptualized as a Lesbian-straight split but which were also
the result of class and political differences.
94/ During the summer those of
us who were still meeting had determined the need to do political work
and to move beyond consciousness-raising and serving exclusively as an
emotional support group.
95/ At the beginning of 1976, when some of the
women who had not wanted to do political work and who also had
voiced disagreements stopped attending of their own accord, we again
looked for a focus.
96/ We decided at that time, with the addition of new
members, to become a study group. We had always shared our reading
with each other, and some of us had written papers on Black feminism
for group discussion a few months before this decision was made.
97/ We
began functioning as a study group and also began discussing the
possibility of starting a Black feminist publication. We had a retreat in
the late spring which provided a time for both political discussion and
working out interpersonal issues.
98/ Currently we are planning to gather
together a collectIon of Black feminist writing. We feel that it is
absolutely essential to demonstrate the reality of our politics to other
Black women and believe that we can do this through writing and
distributing our work.
99/ The fact that individual Black feminists are living
in isolation all over the country, that our own numbers are small, and
that we have some skills in writing, printing, and publishing makes us
want to carry out these kinds of projects as a means of organizing…
100/ …Black
feminists as we continue to do political work in coalition with other
4. Black Feminist Issues and Projects
During our time together we have identified and worked on many
issues of particular relevance to Black women.
101/ The inclusiveness of our
politics makes us concerned with any situation that impinges upon the
lives of women, Third World and working people.
102/ We are of course
particularly committed to working on those struggles in which race, sex,
and class are simultaneous factors in oppression.
103/ We might, for
example, become involved in workplace organizing at a factory that
employs Third World women or picket a hospital that is cutting back on
already inadequate heath care to a Third World community, or set up a
rape crisis center in a Black neighborhood.
104/ Organizing around welfare
and daycare concerns might also be a focus. The work to be done and
the countless issues that this work represents merely reflect the
pervasiveness of our oppression.
105/ Issues and projects that collective members have actually worked on
are sterilization abuse, abortion rights, battered women, rape and health
106/ We have also done many workshops and educationals on Black
feminism on college campuses, at women's conferences, and most
recently for high school women.
107/ One issue that is of major concern to us and that we have begun to
publicly address is racism in the white women's movement.
108/ As Black
feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort
white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which
requires among other things that they have a more than superficial
comprehension of race, color, and Black history…
109/ …and culture.
Eliminating racism in the white women's movement is by definition
work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and
demand accountability on this issue.
110/ In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always
justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been
done in the name of achieving "correct" political goals. As feminists we
do not want to mess over people in the name of politics.
111/ We believe in
collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our
own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society.
112/ We are
committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop
through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our
113/ In her introduction to Sisterhood is Powerful Robin Morgan writes:
I haven't the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual
men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interestpower.
114/ As Black feminists and Lesbians we know that we have a very definite
revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work
and struggle before us.
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