“If Black Women Were Free”: An Oral History of the Combahee River Collective

Last year, fierce protests erupted across the US out of rage against austerity, a botched Covid-19 response, and the brutal murder of George Floyd. Demonstrators blocked traffic, occupied public spaces, and destroyed police property. At the same time, there was an upswell in mutual aid, rent strikes, and labor organizing.

This surge of activism and organizing built upon the history and analysis of radical Black feminism, especially the Boston-based Combahee River Collective, who in 1977 authored the landmark Combahee River Collective Statement. The collective recognized the necessity of working across race, gender, sexual orientation, and class while emphasizing the contributions of queer Black feminists to Black liberation and feminism.

The group’s political strategy was to form coalitions with other activist groups while retaining their independence as Black women. They were socialists who rejected capitalism and imperialism, but wrote in their declaration that they were not convinced that “a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.”

They coined the term “identity politics” to describe their unique position as Black women facing a variety of oppressions. The statement emphasized economic, gender, and racial repression and made fighting on all fronts key to its emancipatory politics. The group introduces “identity politics” with a powerful explanation of its liberatory potential:

We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women, this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

To this day, activists hold this statement in high regard, and it continues to serve as a primer on socialist organizing that recognizes the importance of holistic organizing against multiple oppressions. Activist groups recognize, or at least pay lip service to, the need to organize people in multiple ways; justice can never be about just class, race, gender, or homophobia. These beliefs and aspirations have found new expressions in Black Lives Matter as well as socialist organizations such as the revived Democratic Socialists of America—particularly in its diverse working groups and caucuses.

I spoke individually with the collective’s founders—Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith—as well as Combahee member Margo Okazawa-Rey. We discussed the collective’s history, the true meaning of identity politics, youth organizing, and what they would change about their influential statement.

  1. Delta 1913 HBCU Svg

2. Delta Afro Woman Svg

3. Delta Queen Delta Sorority Svg

4. Delta Sigma Theta African American Svg

5. Delta Sigma Theta Afro Women Svg

6. Delta Sigma Theta Girl Svg, Sorority African Girl Svg

7. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Svg

8. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Svg

9. Delta Sigma Theta Svg

10. Delta Sigma Theta Svg

Last year, fierce protests erupted across the US out of rage against austerity, a botched Covid-19 response, and the brutal murder of George Floyd. Demonstrators blocked traffic, occupied public spaces, and destroyed police property. At the same time, there was an upswell in mutual aid, rent strikes, and labor organizing. This surge of activism and…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *