This book was chosen by a friend as the first book of an Anti-Racist Book Club that she started. I know that the reactions to white people, white women, starting book clubs like this to address racism is very understandably skeptical as an empty gesture that will soon be moved on from… All I can say in response is that that’s true. I accept that criticism and can give only my word, for what it’s worth, that for myself, I am learning and un-learning and will continue to work on that with consistency and open-mindedness and my level best to accept criticism and grow from it. And that I will take what I am learning and translate it to actions that leverage my power and privilege. So, here, I will continue to read and review and share awareness and knowledge of books from Black authors and other diverse populations. That is what I can do in this space. And in my “real” life, I will be continuing to take this knowledge into my personal relationships and interactions and efforts in the wider world.
“…always ally yourself with those on the bottom, on the margins, and at the periphery of the centers of power. And in doing so, you will land yourself at the very center of some of the most important struggles of our society and our history.” – Barbara Ransby
This book is a collection of statements and interviews and speeches related to the formation of the Combahee River Collective (CRC). It begins with an introduction about some of the historical context related to the formation of the group, followed by a re-printing of the CRC’s statement in 1974. It then follows with interviews with three of the founding women (Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier), as they explore how they got introduced to feminism and political activism in the first place, what led to their joining/forming the CRC and what the need for Black feminism was, and more about their own lives and experiences. The final interview, with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, explores the BLM movement, how it began, how it pulls from the principles of the CRC and Black feminism and some more thoughts on the situation of Black people in America today. And it closes out with a speech/comments from historian Barbara Ransby about CRC’s impact at a socialism conference in 2017.
First, I have never read anything structured like this before, as a collection of documents and interviews brought together by an editor. I mean, I guess I’ve read some fiction pieces that use this as a device, but nothing so elaborate or educational as this. It was a phenomenal first experience with this type of oral history for me, having all these perspectives and history collected together in their own words but in one place…it was completely enthralling. I took so many notes and bookmarked so many passages. I’ll try to get in all in some semblance of order to share here. First, I’d like to reiterate how educational this was for me, from the obvious (learning about CRC and the foundations of Black feminism) but also many other things I had no idea about, like much recent history about the second wave feminist movement (both what they did and where they failed in big ways) and general racist/patriarchal practices that I cannot comprehend happened so recently (like, there were still forced sterilization practices in the freaking late 70s and 80s…?!). It’s all just more examples of how the education system in this country needs decolonization in a way bigger than I have words to explain – I shouldn’t be just hearing about so much of this as a 31-year-old reading educational nonfiction in my spare time as a hobby.
Also, strongly related, these women’s lives and accomplishments are BALLER and should be so much more widely known and talked about! We hear about the same Civil War and Civil Rights eras activists ad nauseum (and I mean yes, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and MLK Jr and Rosa Parks are very important), but there are SO many more names we should know. It’s a disservice (to put it lightly) to them, to our country, to our students and especially to our Black citizens/students, that these names and movements are never mentioned. And yet the number of lessons I had about white generals during the Civil War is…well, it’s more than I can count on my fingers, that’s for sure. Refocusing on this book, I loved hearing these women’s impressive and inspiring stories in their own words. I loved their “how I became a feminist” stories and how they’re already so different from today where it’s so easy to say and understandable to identify with that; it was inspiring to read that courage.
I also want to mention a commonality that stuck out to me. First, so many of these women participated in anti-war demonstrations (with Vietnam) and it’s interesting how much that contributed to their political awakenings, as frequently as Civil Rights and Black Nationalism insofar as how often those protests are mentioned. And it’s simply amazing what they did for other causes (like fighting for reproductive rights and agency over your own body and sexual openness as well), more than many who would have even directly benefitted, before realizing that their bodies and realities weren’t even recognized/included in those movements. Their transition from that to creating the CRC, to directly help themselves because there was damn sure no one who was going to do that for them, is awe-inspiring.
And in this last little section, well likely to be a fairly long section actually, I want to point out some of the major points and lessons that stuck out to me or that I learned while reading (in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, of course). First, the discussion about the common reaction to the terminology/ideology these women used is that they were so ahead of their time as far as inclusion and intersectionality (i.e. creating press/publishing for women of color, defined as “any woman who identified with the indigenous people of her respective land or nation”), but like I feel that it’s more than that. I feel more like they were spot on for what should have been happening/addressed and the rest of us are just that far behind…and that is so much of why their work and words are still so apropos of today. They weren’t “radical” in their inclusion, we are just so damn exclusionary…in a way that does nothing but harm. More currently, Garza talks about the layered experiences of Black folks, that they’re not just one thing, not a monolith, but are also immigrants, mixed-race, LGBTQ, etc. and how those experiences are being included (or not) in this movement for BLM and in the world of social justice at large. She also mentions how the outlook of multiculturalism erases individual histories because they become part of the “melting pot” and how that can be very harmful, which was a big learning point for me personally (I was always taught about how America the Melting Pot was the creation of a better/ideal society that included everybody…).
In both the historical context of CRC’s founding and in Garza’s comments in a present-day context, the re-affirming of identity politics not as a narrowing, but rather a broadening of the collective political vision, at stated in in the CRC’s statement, is an important touchpoint. The phrase has been horribly co-opted and learning about its origination and actual meaning was a major education point for me. Finally, across all interviews, the need to reframe our thoughts and shift the narrative about reality in regards to Black people in America is paramount. As Frazier says, “Black brilliance and capacity,” which has always been there, has not been allowed to thrive; it’s about confronting the illusion of white supremacy from the perspective that there is no such thing because being white does not make, in fact, one superior in any way. Black people do not need to become closer to whiteness to be great, but rather deserve the space to make their greatness known. So powerful.
This collection is a beautiful bringing together of Black feminist voices, voices I absolutely wish I had heard before today. But I am so glad I have heard them now. There are very important arguments for people (read: WHITE PEOPLE) needing to decide that justice is more important than their status and their privilege. This is a succinct and precise account of a history of a movement and the beginnings of officializing identity politics and intersectional feminism, political freedom, and racial and economic justice in the US, which is absolutely central to the fight for equality in this county. I urge you to, at the very least, read the CRC’s statement that I linked to at the beginning. But I encourage you to pick up this full book as well, using it as a resource as we do the work in our own lives. Join me in learning/un-learning and so that our efforts to affect change for Black people (and, as a natural result, other marginalized populations) in this country – the inclusive framework of Black feminism is the standard we should all hold ourselves to in this fight.
Included below are some specific passages that I marked while reading, and, in some cases my personal thoughts/reactions to them (in parentheses/italics afterwards):
“The ability to distinguish between the ideology of the American Dream and the experience of the American nightmare requires political analysis, history and often struggle.”
“The baloney, you know. ‘I don’t really see color.’ ‘Well, time to go to the ophthalmologist.’” (On the many sects of feminism that did not address race and class and claimed “Oh, I don’t really care if people are different.” as opposed to the socialist feminists who had no life-experience in some aspects of it, like being Black, but did include race and class analysis in their manifestos and were therefore closest aligned to Combahee.) -Barbara Smith
“…what we meant by identity politics when we originated the terminology was […] we have a right as people who are not just female, who are not solely Black, who are not just lesbians, who are not just working class, or workers – that we are people who embody all of these identities, and we have a right to build and define political theory and practice based upon that reality. […] That’s what we meant by identity politics. We didn’t mean that if you’re not the same as us, you’re nothing. We were not saying that we didn’t care about anybody who wasn’t exactly like us.” (As an update, the current day outlook that if you do not have an experience with a struggle, then you do not have the ability to fight against that particular oppression…and there is no hope for you to give solidarity. That is also not what was intended…people who interpret it otherwise should revisit the original statement and also consider the time frame when the Collective was created. Also, this sounds like an excuse for those who aren’t interested in doing the work and crossing the bridge across differences…or the idea of coalition politics, because that’s the only way we can win, by working together.) -Barbara Smith
“So I feel like what we contributed was a politics that says ‘No, it is not as simple-minded and flat and one-dimensional as you all may think it is.’ And you can look at many different identities or opinions.” (A first reckoning in politics with the idea of intersectionality.) – Beverly Smith
“There was a whole lot of suddenly emerging information about the way that the state and the heteropatriarchal state had controlled and limited women’s agency through their bodies. […] ‘You know, we stand at the intersection where out identities are indivisible.’ There is no separation. We are as Black women truly and completely intact in our paradox, and there’s nothing paradoxical about oppression.” (In reference to: agency over the body with sexuality and sexual openness and reproductive rights, sterilization abuse against women of color and poor women, Tuskegee experiment, Henrietta Lacks, and more. And again, importantly, the intersection or intersectionality of their sex, sexuality, race and class.) – Demita Frazier
“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. That’s why. We had to.” -Demita Frazier (In response to “why Black feminism?”)
“I think what we did in publishing that statement and then continuing to remain unapologetic Black feminists over time despite everything just really tells the story – in my mind, speaks the truth about the message that we were choosing to put out. […] I have nothing but a sense of pride and a sense of humility that we didn’t know it, but what we were doing was incubating the next revolution.” – Demita Frazier
“Just remembering that so much of what brought us together was the unique combination at the intersection of our lives, that made us demand an analysis that incorporated the truth of what we were living and experiencing historically and currently, and that made us uninterested in adhering to what people decided was their dogma, their theory, their whatever, if it wasn’t about recognizing complexity of the lives of Black women.” – Demita Frazier
“And so that’s how I get introduced to Black feminism because I’m getting introduced in the worst ways to white feminism.” – Alicia Garza (This is such a profound statement on how white feminism was non-inclusive from the start and continues to celebrate those beginnings/do little to make its work/outlook more intersectional to correct/address that, i.e. Planned Parenthood celebrating Margaret Sanger because of what she did for [white] reproductive justice without taking into account, at all, her racism.)
“Anyways, all that to say, there’s these folks who should go down in history as theorists because they are and theory is not reserved for white people…Or for men.” – Alicia Garza (On the women who created the Combahee River Collective and wrote their statement. This is super important as a concept, to me, because this is an academic double-standard that is very strong. White people and men have theories that are widely studied in philosophy classes and more…regardless of the ability of those theories to be realized…so where are the voices of Black women and others, who not only created theories, but created ones that are more actionable and, truly, necessary?)
“Like this framework of multiracial organizing is so sloppy because it allows us to not take responsibility for the ways that we also perpetuate systems. Like anti-Blackness is the fulcrum around which white supremacy works. […] We’re getting killed disproportionately, and should be thinking about rather than competing, we should be thinking about how we can talk about the different ways that we’re targeted because we’re not targeted in the same way. And inasmuch as they’re related, the idea of who is a criminal is based on Black bodies.” – Alicia Garza
“…our movements can’t only be composed of the people who are most disenfranchised. Our movements also have to be composed of people from across the class spectrum and people who also have power. Right? If we want to compete for power, then part of what it means is we also have to amass our power as a unit. And it also means we have to take some of theirs. That’s how you compete, right? You’ve got to break some of their folks off and be like, ‘Well, which side are you actually on?’” – Alicia Garza
“…sometimes we talk about these empowering, important historical moments, and we are looking for blueprints or road maps. Unfortunately, history does not offer us that. We have our own work to do, in our own time.” (Historical context is key.) – Barbara Ransby