How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
I was first introduced to the term “Black feminism” in my fourth (and final!) year at Ohio State. I signed up for my one and only Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course, and it changed my life. One of the first assignments that we had was the Combahee River Collective Statement. I highly suggest you take a second to read it before you continue here for context. The CRC Statement was the first time that I had ever been able to fully identify with this thing called “feminism;” of course, I had long known what it was, but in my mind, that was a thing for white women. It never really seemed to fully encompass the reality of my life and needs as person who is simultaneously woman and Black. But what the CRC women articulated was something that spoke to the intersectional nature of my lived experiences, and I was able to fully take up the mantle I had been unsure of for some time.
With that being said, when I first saw this title on Twitter, I was filled with excitement. The CRC Statement means so much to me and is still so very relevant to modern day movements (see: Black Lives Matter), so I rushed over to Amazon to pick it up. How We Get Free is a collection of interviews with Combahee River Collective founders Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, as well as Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. It also includes a copy of a speech made by Barbara Ransby commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the CRC Statement at the very end.
I will keep it real with ya’ll, this book is dense and heady. It’s an actual edited text of the conversations between Taylor and her subjects. I personally much more prefer the interview style of that New Yorker article about Donald Glover that recently came out. The author spent days with Glover, and the piece had movement and narrative as well as blocks of regular interview style prose. Nevertheless, I plodded through (over the course of at least two months, if I’m being completely honest), and I thought that I would be reviewing this book from the perspective of not enjoying it at all. However, my opinion quickly changed by Demita Frazier’s interview. The pace of the conversation picked up noticably, and since I had already gotten so much historical context for Combahee from Barbara Smith and her sister, Beverly, Taylor didn’t have to include much of that. Frazier’s interview was the most interesting of the original CRC Statement writers because she most explicitly connected what was written forty years ago to what is happening — and needs to happen — today. I love how she succinctly defines Black feminism and its efficacy:
…Black feminism is a representation of Black women’s power. Black women’s agency. Black women’s right to look at their material conditions, analyze it, interrogate it, and come away with an analysis that’s about empowerment (pg. 124-125).
Frazier’s interview was followed by Alica Garza, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. I recently saw a tweet calling Black feminists the “white people of Black society.” It seems that so many folks are uneducated about what Black feminism is and what it seeks to do for the Black community. I think that some people would find their positions strongly challenged if they realized that Black Lives Matter is the direct result of Black feminism. Garza explains, “Black feminism was so much more expansive. Like Black feminism, one, acknowledged the humanity of Black people. Right? It starts there. It starts with we are full human beings that deserve to have a choice about how we’re in the world. . . . Right?” (pg. 147). Is that not what we are trying to articulate when we say “Black Lives Matter”? Garza’s interview traces her journey as an activist that led her to start BLM along with Patrisse Khan-Cullors. She had felt for some time that there was no one willing to talk about and make space for her specific needs as a queer Black woman in the fight for freedom. The activist work was most often led by Black men and/or white people, but the work on the ground was being done by Black women. It is important that BLM is an activist organization that is led by women and is a space where they can be wholly who they are without feeling marginalized and stiffled.
I say that I plodded throught the first two interviews of the book, but I think that speaks more to my short attention span, and less to the merit of the interviews. It is so easy to want to skip to the part that seems most relevant and exciting to us today, but to forget where we’ve come from is dangerous. Both Beverly and Barbara Smith provide important context for the time within which the Combahee River Collective came to be and they way they intentionally chose to organize themselves with regards to racial politics, class, and economic politics. The very last line of Barbara’s interview struck me as critically important. She says,
…the reason Combahee’s Black feminism is so powerful is because it’s anticapitalist. One would expect Black feminism to be antiracist and opposed to sexism. Anticapitalism is what gives it the sharpness, the edge, the thoroughness, the revolutionary potential (pg. 69).
The work of challenging capitalism is something that Black organizers have been doing for decades now. I think the crux of that made the Black Panther Party so dangerous to our government was that they dared put the community’s health over that of individuals and then were willing to defend that community with force. Black women were unfortunately marginalized in that group, but here we see the women of the CRC articulating a vision that is markedly in that same vein. They viewed their oppression as Black women directly linked to capitalism.
Taylor poses this question to Beverly: “…what do you think the significance of your contribution to Black feminism politically is then?” Her responce is powerful.
Number one, we were proof positive that there was such a thing as a Black owman who was committed to feminism, or Black women who were committed to feminsim. Plural, more than one. We also contributed to the fact that for some of us — that is to say — feminists were not white. That we had to include all of our identities and experiences. And so for us, that meant dealing with racism. . . .
So what we did, which I think is a tremendous contribution to politics in general, is that we really worked and struggled to develop a political analysis that took into account the multifaceted aspects of our identities and of our conditions (pg. 101).
One facet of Black feminism that is most readily recognizable of Black feminism is the concept of intersectionality. Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, it is the understanding that our identities exist simultaneously; we cannot separate our blackness from our womanness from our sexuality. The Combahee River Collective was able to articulate the ways in which Black women are subject to multiple, coinciding oppressions and to give language to a feeling that many of us had been feeling since the beginning of our time in this country.
You should read this book if you actually care about how Black women must get free. It requires that we connect the past to the present and honor the women that came before us, who were radical before we even understood what it meant to be so, and who were willing to put their bodies on the line before we were even born. For me, this is critical literature for conscious resistance in our current time.
Have you heard of the Combahee River Collective before? Or better yet, have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!