How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (2017), edited by Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, highlights the work of the Combahee River Collective vis-a-vis poignant and illuminating interviews with The Combahee River Collective founders, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier and its legacy with an interview with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. It ends with comments from the historian and author of Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21stCentury (2018), Barbara Ransby. While it is not a blueprint for collective freedom, the text definitely is an arrow pointing the way out of the darkness that we currently find ourselves stuck in politically, economically, and socially.
Not only does Dr. Taylor give careful consideration to the kinds of questions she poses to the women, with each one driving home the revolutionary work of The Collective, but the way that the text is written is extremely accessible. By that I mean that, as a reader, I felt almost as if I were eavesdropping on an easy flowing conversation between a deeply curious mentee and her generous mentors. As such, Dr. Taylor’s questions and interjections are revelatory in their deep engagement with the subject matter and the revolutionary thinkers she interviews.
The Introduction sets the stage for the rest of the text by discussing the role that African American women did and did not play in the “disastrous 2016…election” (1) of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. After weaving together a deft overview of Black women’s historically and contemporarily oppressed position in American society she ends with the declaration that “we talk [about Combahee] because “black women are still not free” (14). Although Combahee had been meeting since 1974 and published its Statement in 1977 Black women remain one of the most disenfranchised groups in America.
The actual Combahee River Collective Statement, profound in its simplicity, follows the Introduction. The Collective asserts from the outset that
The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggle against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppression that all women of color face (15).
Readers will recognize the foundation for the concept of “intersectionality” that was coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in their words.
The Statement traces the evolution of The Collective before, in the second section, delineating what they believe; simply put, that Black women are inherently valuable. This was, and I believe, isa revolutionary declaration when we consider that Black women have been some of the most devalued beings in the United States from the time they arrived here in chains in the 16thcentury. The inclusion of the word, “inherent” is important because it implies that Black women’s value is not contingent upon her relationship to anybody or anything else. It simply is.
In a world where it is normal to attribute value to women primarily or solely through their roles as wives, mothers, sisters, church members, etc. the thought that they are important because they exist potentially created a paradigm shift for those fortunate enough to have been exposed to it at the time.
It is also in that section that The Collective introduces the term, “identity politics”, which, like intersectionality, has been appropriated, misunderstood, and misused over the decades. Barbara Smith clarifies the women’s understanding of “identity polities: “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 just working class, or workers—that we are people who embody all of these identities, and we have a right to build and define political theory and practice based on that reality”(61). This is very different from the way that the phrase is commonly used today; as yet another tool to exclude people.
In the third section, The Collective explores some of the challenges they faced in coming together and organizing. One of the most difficult challenges that the women faced was openly claiming their Black feminism when the very country in which they had been born and raised rejected their whole humanity and insisted that they choose one or two fights from amongst the many. The Feminist movement demanded that they put their blackness on a backburner and the Black Nationalist movement demanded that they put their womanhood on a backburner. As they state, “The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight on one front or even two, but to address a whole range of oppression” (22). The women of the Combahee River Collective, inspired by the work of the revolutionary Harriet Tubman at Combahee River in which she freed 750 enslaved people, would not be compartmentalized.
In the fourth section, with an eye toward the future, The Collective introduces some issues that they planned to take up and projects that they were working on; one of which was challenging racism in the white women’s movement. Another, though they don’t mention it, was starting their own feminist press, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which was active from 1981 until 1992 with the brilliant Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde’s passing.
One of my favorite declarations from the Statement is at the very end:
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. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society (27).
This revolutionary philosophy seems to undergird the work of the founders of #Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, the last of whom Taylor interviews for How We Get Free.
The (almost) final words of the text come from Dr. Barbara Ransby, Distinguished Professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies, and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she directs the campus-wide Social Justice Initiative. Dr. Ransby, in her remarks from the 2017 Socialism Conference, echoes the counsel of the Martinican intellectual Frantz Fanon many years ago: that “each of us has our own work to do in our own time” (177).
The final words are left to Dr. Taylor in her Acknowledgements and should not be skipped as it is indicative of the impact of the firm position that The Combahee River Collective took, explicitly anti-capitalist. Her last line, which reads as a kind of prayer, is also a call to action: “Let us end the economic system that devours the people we love” (186). Amen.