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The Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist Lesbian organization active in Boston from 1974 to 1980.[1][2] They are perhaps best known for developing the Combahee River Collective Statement[3], a key document in the history of contemporary Black feminism and the development of the concepts of identity as used among political organizers and social theorists.[4][5]

Beginnings in the NBFO

Author Barbara Smith and other delegates attending the first (1973) regional meeting of the National Black Feminist Organization in New York provided the groundwork for the Combahee River Collective with their efforts to build a NBFO Chapter in Boston.[6][7]

In her 2001 essay From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective, historian and African American Studies professor Duchess Harris states that, in 1974 the Boston collective "observed that their vision for social change was more radical than the NFBO", and as a result, the group chose to strike out on their own as the Combahee River Collective.[8] Members of the CRC, notably Barbara Smith and Demita Frazier, felt it was critical that the organization address the needs of Black lesbians, in addition to organizing on behalf of Black feminists.[9]

Naming the Collective

The Collective's name was suggested by Smith, who owned a book called: Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Earl Conrad.[1] She "wanted to name the collective after a historical event that was meaningful to African American women."[1] Smith noted: "It was a way of talking about ourselves being on a continuum of Black struggle, of Black women’s struggle."[1] The name commemorated an action at the Combahee River planned and led by Harriet Tubman on June 2, 1863, in the Port Royal region of South Carolina. The action freed more than 750 slaves and is the only military campaign in American history planned and led by a woman.[10]

Developing the Statement

The Combahee River Collective Statement was developed by a "collective of Black feminists...involved in the process of defining and clarifying our politics, while...doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements...."[3][11]

Members of the collective describe having a feeling of creating something which had not existed previously. Demita Frazier described the CRC's beginnings as "not a mix cake", meaning that the women involved had to create the meaning and purpose of the group "from scratch."[12] In her 1995 essay Doing it from Scratch: The Challenge of Black Lesbian Organizing, which borrows its title from Frazier's statement, Barbara Smith describes the early activities of the collective as "consciousness raising and political work on a multitude of issues", along with the building of "friendship networks, community and a rich Black women's culture where none had existed before."[13]

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Process of writing the Statement

Throughout the mid 1970s members of the Combahee River Collective met weekly at the Cambridge, Mass. Women's Center.[14]

The Collective held retreats throughout the Northeast between 1977 and 1979 to discuss issues of concern to Black feminists. Author Alexis De Veaux, biographer of poet Audre Lorde, describes a goal of the retreats as to "institutionalize Black feminism" and develop "an ideological separation from white feminism", as well as to discuss "the limitations of white feminists' fixation with on the primacy of gender as oppression."[15] .

The first 'Black feminist retreat' was held July 1977 in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Its purpose was to assess the state of the movement, to share information about the participants’ political work, and to talk about possibilities and issues for organizing Black women."[1] "Twenty Black feminists ...were invited (and) were asked to bring copies of any written materials relevant to Black feminism--articles, pamphlets, papers, their own creative work -- to share with the group. Frazier, Smith, and Smith, who organized the retreats, hoped that they would foster political stimulation and spiritual rejuvenation."[1]

The second retreat was held in Nov. 1977 in Franklin Township, New Jersey, and the third and fourth were scheduled for March and July 1978.[1] "After these retreats occurred, the participants were encouraged to write articles for the Third World women’s issue of Conditions (magazine), a journal edited by Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith."[1] The importance of publishing was also emphasized in the fifth retreat, held July 1979, and the collective discussed contributing articles for a lesbian herstory issue of two journals, Heresies and Frontiers.[1]

"Participants at the sixth retreat... discussed articles in the May/June 1979 issue of The Black Scholar collectively titled, The Black Sexism Debate...They also discussed the importance of writing to Essence to support an article in the September 1979 issue entitled I am a Lesbian, by Chirlane McCray, who ...was a Combahee member...The seventh retreat was held in Washington, D.C., in Feb. 1980."[1]

The final Statement was based on this collective discussion, and drafted by African-American activists Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier and Beverly Smith..[2]

Political, Social and Cultural impact of the Statement

The Combahee River Collective Statement is referred to as "among the most compelling documents produced by black feminists"[16], and Harriet Sigerman, author of The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941 calls the solutions which the statement proposes to societal problems such as racial and sexual discrimination, homophobia and classist politics "multifaceted and interconnected"[17]

In their Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, M. E. Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan refer to the CRCS as "what is often seen as the definitive statement regarding the importance of identity politics, particularly for people whose identity is marked by multiple interlocking oppressions"[18]

Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term identity politics, which they defined as "a politics that grew out of our objective material experiences as Black women.[19 ] In her essay From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960-1980, Duchess Harris credits the "polyvocal political expressions of the Black feminists in the Combahee River Collective (with) defin(ing) the nature of identity politics in the 1980s and 1990's, and challeng(ing) earlier "essentialist" appeals and doctrines..."[19 ]

Combahee River Collective Statement

Interlocking oppressions

The statement describes "the most general statement of our politics at the present time" as "we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression" and describe their particular task as the "development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking."[3][11] They then conclude that "the synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives."[3][11]

Importance of Black women's liberation

The CRC also emphasised that they held the fundamental and shared belief that "black women are inherently valuable, that...(their) liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of (their own) need as human persons for autonomy...."[11] and expressed a particularly commitment to "working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression...."[3][11]

Importance of Black feminism

The group saw "Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face...."[11] and believed that "[T]he most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identit(ies)."[3][11]

The statement describes "Contemporary black feminism (as) the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters" such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, (as well as thousands upon thousands of unknown women). "[11] The work of these women has been obscured "by outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the (feminist) movement.[3][11]

Problems in Organizing Black Feminists

The Combahee Statement notes that "Feminism is...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 relationships...The material conditions of most Black people would hardly lead them to upset both economic and sexual arrangements that seem to represent some stability in their lives. Many Black women have a good understanding of both sexism and racism in their lives, but because of the everyday constrictions on their lives cannot risk struggling against them both."[3][11]

Destruction of Capitalism, Imperialism and Patriarchy

The collective theorized that the "liberation of all oppressed peoples nesessitates the destruction of the political and economic systems of Capitalism and Imperialism as well as Patriarchy."[3][11]

Addressing Racism in the white women's movement

The Combahee Collective expressed a concern and a desire to publicly address issues of racism in the white women's movement. The Statement is clear that: "Eliminating racism in the white women's movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak out and to demand accountability on this issue."[3][11]

Other political work

In the encyclopedia, Lesbian Histories and Cultures, contributing editor Jaime M. Grant contextualizes the CRC's work in the political trends of the time thus:

"The collective came together at a time when many of its members were struggling to define a liberating feminist practice alongside the ascendence of a predominantly white feminist movement, and a Black nationalist vision of women deferring to Black male leadership."[20]

Grant believes the CRC was most important in the "emergence of coalition politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s... which demonstrated the key roles that progressive feminists of color can play" in bridging gaps "between diverse constituencies, while also creating new possibilities for change within deeply divided communities..."[21]

She notes that, in addition to penning the statement, "collective members were active in the struggle for desegregation of the Boston public schools, in community campaigns against police brutality in Black neighborhoods and on picket lines demanding construction jobs for Black workers."[22]

The collective was also politically active around issues of violence against women, in particular the murder of twelve black women and one white woman in Boston in 1979.[23] Smith developed a pamphlet on the topic, articulating the need "to look at these murders as both racist and sexist crimes" and emphasising the need to "talk about violence against women in the Black community."[24] In an interview with Susan Goodwillie, Smith noted that this action moved the group out into the wider Boston community. She commented that "the pamphlet had the statement, the analysis, the political analysis, and it said that it had been prepared by the Combahee River Collective. That was a big risk for us, a big leap to identify ourselves in something that we knew was going to be widely distributed."[25]

Historian Duchess Harris believes that "the Collective was most cohesive and active when the murders in Boston were occurring. Having an event to respond to and to collectively organize around gave them a cause to focus on..."[26]

Endings

The Collective held their last network retreat in February, 1980,[27] and disbanded some time that year.[2]

Collective Members and Participants

The Combahee Collective was large and fluid throughout its history. Here is a list of some collective members and contibutors:

and others

See also

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Duchess Harris. Interview with Barbara Smith,[1]
  2. ^ a b c Manning Marable, Leith Mullings , eds. Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, Combahee River Collective Statement, Rowman and Littlefield, 2000, ISBN 084768346X, p524
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j The full text of the Combahee River Collective Statement is available at the following link: [2]
  4. ^ M. E. Hawkesworth, Maurice Kogan. Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0415276233 p577
  5. ^ Harriet Sigerman. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0231116985 p316
  6. ^ Angela Bowen. Combahee River Collective, Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America, October 2005 issue
  7. ^ Bettye Collier-Thomas, Vincent P. Franklin. Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, NYU Press, 2001, ISBN 0814716032 p292
  8. ^ Harris, Duchess. From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective, in Sisters in the Struggle" eds: Collier-Thomas et al., New York University Press, 2001, ISBN 0814716024, p294
  9. ^ Harris, Duchess. From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective, in Sisters in the Struggle" eds: Collier-Thomas et al., New York University Press, 2001, ISBN 0814716024, p294
  10. ^ Anne C. Herrmann, Abigail J. Stewart. Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Westview Press, 2001, ISBN 0813367883, p29
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein.
  12. ^ Smith, Barbara. Doing it from Scratch: The Challenge of Black Lesbian Organizing, in The Truth that never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom, ed: Barbara Smith, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0813527619, p172
  13. ^ Smith, Barbara. Doing it from Scratch: The Challenge of Black Lesbian Organizing, in The Truth that never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom, ed: Barbara Smith, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0813527619, p172
  14. ^ Grant, Jaime M. (ed: Bonnie Zimmerman), Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, p184
  15. ^ De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde,W. W. Norton & Company, 2004 ISBN 03930195434, p218
  16. ^ Harriet Sigerman. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0231116985 p316
  17. ^ Harriet Sigerman. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0231116985 pp316-317
  18. ^ M. E. Hawkesworth, Maurice Kogan. Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0415276233 p577
  19. ^ a b Harris, Duchess. From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960-1980, in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, eds: Bettye Collier-Thomas, V. P. Franklin, NYU Press, 2001, ISBN 0814716032, p300
  20. ^ Grant, Jaime M. - (ed: Bonnie Zimmerman) Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, pp184-5
  21. ^ Grant, Jaime M. - (ed: Bonnie Zimmerman) Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, pp184-5
  22. ^ Grant, Jaime M. - (ed: Bonnie Zimmerman) Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, pp184-5
  23. ^ Grant, Jamie. “Who Is Killing Us?” accessed in “All of Who I am in the Same Place”: The Combahee River Collective, by Duchess Harris [3]
  24. ^ Grant, Jamie. “Who Is Killing Us?” accessed in “All of Who I am in the Same Place”: The Combahee River Collective, by Duchess Harris [4]
  25. ^ Smith, Barbara. Interview with Susan Goodwillie. 1994
  26. ^ Smith, Barbara. Interview (videotaped) with Susan Goodwillie. 1994
  27. ^ Allida Mae Black. Modern American Queer History, Temple University Press, 2001 ISBN 156639872X, p194

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