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Anti-Blackness and Black Feminism

A Study of the Combahee River Collective and the Rise of Black Feminism

Published onDec 01, 2022
Anti-Blackness and Black Feminism

Across time, feminism has often been studied through the analysis of distinct “waves”. While this has allowed for the progress created by these movements to be shown more clearly, this way of studying is not without its faults. For example, Black women are often overlooked in their contributions to these movements. The contributions of Queer Black women from movements like the Combahee River Collective were essential to the development of ideas like intersectionality within future feminist movements.

In order to properly understand the beginnings of Black feminism, a fuller understanding of the context that surrounds it is necessary. To do this, one can look at the movements that came before it, and how they influenced subsequent movements. Through these past movements one can see the ways in which the Combahee River Collective’s theorizations of the intersection between class and feminism emerged. One such movement that can be examined in particular is the Bread and Roses collective, based in Boston, which belonged to an emerging group of socialist feminists. More closely linked to the new left movement and antiwar movements than traditional liberal feminists, these socialist feminists did not wish to assimilate to male-dominated capitalism.1 Unlike the similarly emerging radical feminists, they tended to view men as their comrades in working towards a socialist and feminist society. Furthermore, this was not simply an isolated movement. As more movements began to make the connection between class and feminism, this view of feminism would prove to be enduring. Other examples can be seen in journals such as Women: A Journal of Liberation, which holds the perspective of many contributors active in movements like the Bread and Roses Collective in analyzing women as workers under capitalism. One such connection describes how the housework of women is described as not “work” but rather as “labors of love” under capitalism and devalues the labor of women.2 Thus, by the emergence of Black feminism, a bond between anti-capitalism and feminism had already been established, allowing for the Combahee River Collective and other movements to build upon this foundation in new ways.

At this time, many movements were dominated by White female figureheads. Hence, Black women were often required to pick between representing Black people or women. Here, the ideals of a Queer Black anti-capitalist movement began to be cultivated through these senses of inadequacy that those prior movements were unable to grapple with Black feminist thought. In the 19th century white feminist organizations often denied Black women membership and the difficulty to obtain high rankings within organizations centered around black men meant that Black women had to turn elsewhere if they were looking to truly become free. This illustrates the struggle in which many Black women had to face, they were cornered with the fundamental questions of both race and gender which meant they had to face twice the battle of any other groups. One of the most prominent activists of the time was Maria W. Stewart, she delivered four public lectures and was the first American born woman to deliver a speech pertaining to politics to a racially diverse audience.3 Mary Shedd Cary became another advocate as the first Black female newspaper editor, after migrating to Canada she founded the Provincial freedom becoming an outlet for Black female journalists. After returning to America, she became the first Black female lawyer and founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in 1880. Following efforts on the part of more middle-class Black women, a new movement was spurred: Black women’s clubs. Ida B. Wells primarily spread the ideas around the nation and helped found many clubs across the country.4 In 1896, these clubs joined together to become the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW). This became a foundational moment for Black women’s organizations as it was one of the first countrywide movements that was founded by Black women. It also ushered in a new era of Black feminism with advocates like Nannie Buroughs who was initially a member of the NACW.

Following this, a growing sense of discontent among Black women began to emerge as they did not see themselves represented among wider women’s liberation movements. This would go on to set the stage for the establishment of the Combahee River Collective. Even as these movements began to gain traction, Black women still did not see themselves represented. Largely dominated white women, many of these movements did not welcome Black women, and those that did used them as tools. Toni Morrison identified this sentiment in saying “In spite of the fact that liberating movements in the Black world have been catalysts for white feminism, too many movements and organizations have made deliberate overtures to enroll Blacks and have ended up by rolling them.”5 Thus, the need for a new movement, both anti racist and anti-sexist in nature, existed. This would allow the Combahee River to emerge and fill this need.

The Combahee River Collective (CRC) was an organization of Black feminist lesbian socialists located mainly in Boston in the 1970s. Their first meeting was in 1974 and were committed towards ending “racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” as per their statement released in 1977.6 The movement emphasized value in Black women as people whose liberation is valuable for no reason beyond the capacity of the right to selfhood and freedom. What was a revolutionary ideal was the use of class-based oppression as an analytic that undergirded the violence that happened within their lives. They believed that a socialist movement ought to include the individual analytics of race and sex in order to be fully liberatory. Their ideas differed from the NBFO in this specific area, the NBFO, the CRC believed, upheld the ideals of capitalism. Thus, their movement was, in the CRC’s eyes, doomed. 

With these goals in mind, the CRC, led by Black Queer women, would go on to distinguish itself from other movements at the time, cementing its radical legacy. As discussed earlier, many movements of the time were inadequate in dealing with what the CRC felt was of the utmost importance. Black nationalist movements and movements led by Black men oftentimes put women’s rights on the backburner believing, that women are subservient or intellectually and physically lesser than men. White feminist movements dealt with internal racism within their movements and would frequently do the bare minimum to understand the perspective of Black women. Hence, the unification of the CRC as a movement dedicated against class based, sexual, and race-based oppression was truly revolutionary for the time. They used the idea of the interlocking of these individual oppressions as categories that worked together in order to create newer and more intense forms of oppression. This would go on to supplement the ideas of Kimberlé Crenshaw with her theorizations of intersectionality. They believed that attempting to use political systems was inevitably doomed as it was an institution built for and by white men. Hence, they aimed towards mutual aid in Boston to create refuges and provide for the people. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes, “The CRC identified their recognition of this political tension as identity politics. The Combahee River Collective Statement is believed to be the first text where the term identity politics is used.”7

Alongside the Combahee River Collective, other Black feminist movements that shared its ideals began to gain prominence as the values of the CRC began to gain traction. One such group included the Salsa Soul Sisters, who shared the Combahee River Collective’s views on the interlocking oppressions of gender, race, and class.8 Thus, the ideas promoted by the Combahee River collective were not limited in who supported them to those within the movement, as these ideas began to receive widespread acknowledgement.

While technically fitting under the era of second wave feminism, the Combahee River Collective laid the foundations for third wave feminism and recontextualized what it meant to be a Black woman living under a white liberal order. In defining third wave feminism, one helpful tool exists in describing what makes it different from second wave feminism. Third wave feminism, at least in popular literature, makes four main claims to distinguish itself from its second wave predecessors. These claims include the necessity for a new feminist movement for a generation that faces unique challenges, being less rigid and judgmental, being more inclusive and racially diverse than second wave feminist movements and having a broader vision of politics than second wave feminism in focusing on more than women’s issues.9 And yet, aspects of all of these claims can be seen in the Combahee River Collective. The Combahee River Collective’s impact cannot be understated with its focus on inclusivity and political liberation. This impact can be seen in modern feminism’s inclusion of intersectionality and identity politics, both pioneered by the Combahee River Collective. As said by Diane Harriford, “Combahee” centered Black women within mainstream feminist spaces that were forced to expand.”10

Through the Combahee River Collective, we can identify and reorient our understandings of feminism in order to grapple with the struggle with all women, using the Combahee River Collective as a heuristic in order to expand beyond liberal notions of what feminism is. The premise that ending the oppression of Black women as the end all be all for ending the oppression of all is a useful method to engage within revolutionary practices. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts it, “[t]he most visible organizations and activists connected to the Black Lives Matter movement speak openly about how Black feminism shapes their politics and strategies today.”11 As Black lesbian women in America are used to the gratuitous oppression that upholds the systems of capitalism, the ending of suffering for a group that suffers from race, class, and sexual oppression would necessarily be an indicator for the elimination of the suffering of all groups. Hence, the resurgence of a politics of Black feminism and the CRC’s ideas are necessary, especially within a climate that sees cases like Breonna Taylor’s, in order to fight against oppression. In Karina L. Cespedes, Corey Rae Evans & Shayla Monteiro’s paper The Combahee River Collective Forty Years Later: Social Healing within a Black Feminist Classroom., they extend the analytic of the CRC to college. They see the hegemonic institutions of white feminism usurping Black feminist ideologies. Specifically, they mention how the conception of intersectionality has become a term that has become co-opted by white feminism to eliminate the aspects of race that interact with intersectionality, and thus, the ideas of power that intersectionality analyzes.12 Hence, within the environment of colleges the CRC’s mission statements and theorizations of interlocking are a necessity in order to deconstruct the discourses that white feminism presents within the orders of feminism as a whole.

Through the prior failures of radical feminist movements to include Queer Black feminist thought, the Combahee River Collective was born. Its radical beliefs reshaped the second wave of feminism to be more inclusive of diverse thought and recast the ways in which modern theorists conceptualize feminism. The Combahee River collective was born out of the failures of white feminist thought and contributed to the development of the contemporary ideals of intersectionality within feminist movements. 

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