The little known story of The Combahee River Collective which spearheaded black lesbians’ agenda in 1977

Ama Nunoo October 08, 2019
Photo: Social Equality

Harriet Tubman’s legacy has impacted many generations of African Americans and still lives on. Her South Carolina resistance raid in 1863 is known as  the Combahee River Raid where she freed over 750 slaves. It is perceived as a spectacular military raid masterminded and executed by a woman.

Many feminist groups look up to her as an icon for her revolutionary role in abolishing slave trade. Particularly the Combahee River Collective founded by black feminists and lesbians in 1974 who chose their name specifically from the resistance action by Tubman.

The Combahee Collective isn’t the first black feminist group in the states. The founding members of the collective were originally members of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) who after attending the NBFO’s 1973 convention decided to form a more radical version of the group in Boston Massachusetts.

The group of black feminists wanted to make known their place in the politics of feminism and to carve their niche by being different from what white women and black men were doing at the time.

Mostly because black feminists at the time believed Women’s Liberation Movement was centered around white middle class women.

There were several retreats and seminars held by the group, altogether they had seven black feminist retreats between 1977 and 1980.

In April 1977 they issued a statement widely known as the Combahee River Collective Statement which addressed issues concerning sexual oppression and racism in the black community and the wider black feminist movement.

Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith were the main authors of the Combahee River Collective Statement.

They were critical of “essentialist” ideas on race, sex, and sexuality by using consciousness-raising which paved way for various forms of activism for black women that would have been easily glossed over.

The CRC labelled their recognition of the political tension at the time as identity politics and the statement is thought to be the first text where the term identity politics is penned. It is a term now widely used in many conversations surrounding the various forms of identities that want to be heard in this highly politicised society.

“The authors focused on identity politics and challenging racial-sexual oppressions. They sought to destroy what they felt were the related evils of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy while rejecting the belief in lesbian separatism.”

 Finally, their statement acknowledged the difficulties black women faced in their grassroots organizing efforts due to their multiple oppressions” in a male dominated society.

The little known story of The Combahee River Collective which spearheaded black lesbians' agenda in 1977
Photo: Amazon

The group made two key interpretations in their use of identity politics. The first was that political radicalization birthed oppression based on identity—”whether it was racial, gender, class, or sexual orientation identity.”

The second was that black women’s social status opened the up to the adverse effects of capitalism, notable among them include “poverty, illness, violence, sexual assault, and inadequate health care and housing.”

The statement paid homage to many predecessors in black feminism, including Harriet Tubman’s, Sojourner Truth, Frances E. W. Harper, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Their statement has been a key influence on black feminism and on a social theory about race.

“As black feminists and lesbians, we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggles before us.”

In 1980 the group was dispersed but their greatest legacy is the foundation they set in paving the way for communal activism among black women or women of colour who have to battle sexual and racial oppression.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: October 9, 2019


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