At the cusp of social outrage in the late 1970s, the racial and sexual repression of Black women was brought to the fore after being routinely engulfed by larger civil rights, and feminist movements. A group of Black feminists from across the country formed a political discourse to reap accountability for the specific, systematic oppression of Black women.
The Combahee River Collective marks a vital moment for Black Feminism in America. The overlapping of race, gender, and class oppression as experienced by Black women heralded an important sense of intersectionality within community organising that carries forward today. Crenshaw (2006) defines intersectionality as the merging of social identities that must be analysed as complex multifaceted experiences.
As the collective formed, intellectuals gathered and dispersed as they were exposed to various independent schools of thought. Careful attention towards class oppression was cultivated as the country’s capitalist machine continued to enforce social organisation that prioritises the white elite. Ideas of socialism were dissected as the collective postured itself distinctly: while socialist revolution was considered, the collective proclaimed that “a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will not guarantee our liberation” (Burgett & Hendler, 2014: 5). In addition, the collective advocated for transformative political change rooted in this philosophy:
“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” (ibid: 7).
As time progressed, writing, printing, and publishing became a key medium for advocacy and coalition-building with other groups. These skills also furthered the collective’s project of organising Black feminists who continue to do political work. In the body of works the collective produced, the ‘othering’ role of white feminism in the journey towards gender equality was greatly emphasised.
“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, colour, and Black history and culture” (ibid: 11).
‘Superficial’ understandings of race, colour, Black history and culture culminate in appropriative comradery in the movement towards gender and race equality. The extent to which white feminist groups are proactively concerned with issues of race has been relative to further a hegemony of progress for white women, firstly. Historical cases of this are expansive with the suffrage movement’s prominent betrayal of Black women as one such example.
The suffragist movement acquiesced to white supremacy- selling out the interests of black women. Based on political expediency, white feminists have led a series of betrayals against black women. The Civil War had brought to light the differing intentions of white women and black women in seeking the right to vote. White women were “seeking the vote as a symbol of parity” while black women (mostly from the South), were “seeking the ballot for themselves and their men.” Black women sought the ballot to empower black communities under the siege of racial terror after Emancipation.
The tension between white and black feminists came to a tipping point in the run-up to the 15th Amendment; “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.”
The 15th Amendment would bar states from denying black men the right to vote.
The debate that ensued questioned, should it be black men or women that should first be given the right to vote?
White feminist suffragist hero, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, responded with a Klan-like condemnation against the 15th Amendment.
She warned and feared that white women would be degraded if black men were allowed to vote first.
White women perceived this as being furthermore disenfranchised than black men. This fact is often glossed over by prominent historians. Historian, Lori Ginzberg, remarks,
“racism and elitism were enduring features of the great suffragist’s makeup and philosophy.”
It is less known that Frederick Douglass was a key advocate for black suffragists. He retorted to white suffragist’s racist insults with emphasising the need for federal protection of the black vote; he cited this as the distinct factor between black and white suffragists, and the political purpose that grounds them.
Douglass criticised the white suffragist belief that
“African-American women could magically separate their blackness from their femaleness.”
This criticism is also echoed in Combahee River Collective’s statement and purpose. The 15th Amendment was ratified, while women waited another 50 years for the 19th. Black women can never forget what white suffragists embodied; stark betrayal.
The Combahee River Collective believed in “collective process and a non-hierarchical distribution of power” within its group, and in its vision of a revolutionary society (ibid: 11). As times changed, the core principles of the collective (documented in its statement) has led to inspire the frameworks of Black feminist coalitions across the country. Organisations such as Black Youth Project 100 carry forward The Combahee River Collective’s critical beliefs as reiterated in Chicago organiser, Charlene Carruthers’s (2018), Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements.
The Combahee River Collective’s reflexive approach to its institutional development has set a precedent of how modernising movements must hold themselves accountable in their own functions. ‘Self-criticism’ remains a cornerstone in black radical movement-building. Moreover, the collective has established:
“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.” (ibid: 11).
What political goals are ‘correct’ still remains a vexing question in present times. The Combahee River Collective is an integral landmark in intersectional movement building where the synergising force is seeing, understanding, and emboldening Black women in all structures of society.
- What is the prominence of The Combahee River Collective today?
- What has been its role as an ‘institution’ in building a place for political organising?
- What would the collective have emphasised as key objectives in our current racial climate?
- Crenshaw, KW. 2006. ‘Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color’. Kvinder, Køn & Forskning, no. 2–3 (June). https://doi.org/10.7146/kkf.v0i2-3.28090.
- Burgett and Hendler. 2014. ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977).’ Yale University. CN: US.
- Staples, B. (2018, July 28). How the suffrage Movement BETRAYED black women. Retrieved March 18, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/28/opinion/sunday/suffrage-movement-racism-black-women.html