19: This Month in Black History – The Combahee River Collective

The Combahee River Collective

Written by Dr. Lisa Brock (conceptual and editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

In honor of Women’s History Month, you would think that we would address the Women’s Liberation Movement, and you’d be right. We are specifically focusing on one of the most important, albeit short-lived, movements in Black Women’s History, the Combahee River Collective. It was created in 1974 by Black feminist lesbians who were fed up with the hyper masculinity of Black Nationalists and Civil Rights organizations, and felt the women’s movement centered white women while the emerging Black feminist movement was too conventional. In fact, the Combahee River Collective emerged as a tear-away from the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), which at its peak had over 2000 members. The NBFO issued a Statement of Purpose at its founding in 1973, calling for an organization that would address both racism and sexism in order: “to address…the particular and specific needs of the larger, but almost cast-aside half of the black race in Amerikkka, the black woman.” Significantly, the NBFO was extremely heterogenous, but unfortunately, this led to tensions over the varied perspectives of what a Black Feminist Politic would entail, and by 1976 its national operations had ended. One of the NBFO’s thrust, though, was carried on by the Combahee River Collective, which not only wanted to address racism and sexism but also sexuality, class and imperialism.

Members of the Combahee River Collective (CRC) began meeting in Boston in 1974 and included twin sisters Barbara and Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, Cheryl Clarke, Akasha Hull, Margo Okazawa-Rey, Chirlane McCray, and American writer feminist Audre Lorde. They held retreats, they studied, they published writings, and began to define a Black Feminist Politic that connected Black women’s liberation to various intersecting oppressions. They began to see themselves as revolutionaries whose objectives went far beyond the binary of women and men; they saw capitalism as inextricably intertwined with patriarchy and anti-colonial struggles in the Global South as central to the work of women.

It should be noted that they were particularly inspired by the work of the Third World Women’s Alliance (1968-1980), which was an outgrowth of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee-a caucus of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); SNCC, of course, was the committee formed by young civil rights activists including the late Congressman John Lewis. What separated the CRC from other such movements, was the far-reaching power of their manifesto entitled the Combahee River Collective Statement; a statement that had an unprecedented impact on the nature of feminism. In her New Yorker article of July 24, 2020, Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote:

“As it was explained to me, feminists saw the world as divided between men and women and not between classes. The Combahee Statement obliterated that premise. Theoretically rich and strategically nimble, it imagined a course of politics that could take Black women from the margins of society to the center of a revolution. Because Black women were among the most marginalized people in this country, their political struggles brought them into direct conflict with the intertwined malignancies of capitalism—racism, sexism, and poverty. Thus, the women of the C.R.C believed that, if Black women were successful in their struggles and movements, they would have an impact far beyond their immediate demands. As they put it, ‘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’.”

This CRC statement has so influenced Black and feminist politics, that it is hard to imagine the study of women and gender today without it. Audre Lorde went on to become one of feminisms most influential writers, with her 1984 seminal work entitled, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches. This work, revised in 2007, is now mandatory reading for many women and gender studies programs worldwide. While attorney Kimberly Crenshaw is credited with coining the term intersectionality in 1989, clearly the theoretical groundwork for this understanding of intersecting oppressions was laid with the work of the CRC.

Just in case you are wondering about the origins of the Combahee River Collective and why this name was chosen, know that the Combahee river is in South Carolina, near Charleston, and was named by the area’s original inhabitants. It is the river where in June 1863, during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman, leader of the underground railroad and union soldier, led a group of union troops against the Confederacy with gun boats. When Tubman and her men disembarked, they successfully torched plantations, fields, mills, warehouses and mansions, causing a humiliating defeat for the Confederacy, including the loss of a pontoon bridge shot to pieces by the union gunboats. Nothing like this had ever happened before in US history, where a Black woman led a group of men in battle. But just as significant, especially for the CRC, was the fact that more than 700 enslaved women and men, anticipating this win, courageously made it onto the gunboats led by Tubman and escaped their bondage. It was in honor of this episode that the women of the collective chose their name. The Combahee river is also known for the Yamasee War of 1715-1717, when the Yamasee and other indigenous peoples rose up in resistance to British Colonial Settlers who were taking territory that was not theirs to take. The Yamasee were so skillful in battle, that they threatened to annihilate the entire colony; thus, this war is considered one of the bloodiest battles in US colonial history.

Black women are the bedrocks of societies, but are not treated as such. In March, and every March, we celebrate women; their courage, their fight, and their ability to forge forward and shape societies even in the face of adversity. Happy Women’s History Month!

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History

Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry