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The Combahee River Collective and Intersectionality in the Age of Identity

Written by Jess Womack. The Combahee River Collective grew out of disillusionments with "mainstream" feminism. Founded in the early 1980s by Black queer women, the Collective developed an "intersectional" approach to political activism.

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of racist and transphobic violence.

1974. Martin Luther King Jr. has been dead for six years and the issue of African American Civil Rights continues to divide the US. The Equal Rights Amendment, promising legislative equality on the basis of sex, battles for state ratifications as Second Wave Feminism sweeps the nation. New York City sees its fifth annual Pride Parade as it becomes clear that the dust from Stonewall is nowhere near close to settling. If the 1960s was America’s decade of mass mobilisation, the 1970s perhaps saw the greatest explosion of groups clambering for their rights to simply exist.

Enter the Combahee River Collective. Stemming out of growing disillusionments with mainstream feminism, the Collective was a Boston-based organisation of Black queer socialist activists. Quite simply, they argued that neither the Civil Rights nor Feminist movements addressed the specific interests of Black women. Named after the 1863 military campaign lead by Harriet Tubman that freed over 750 enslaved people, the Collective set about carving a space for themselves in the political landscape. Almost a decade of thought and activism culminated in the publishing of a Statement in 1980 that has been credited with the origin of the term “identity politics”, and as one of the earliest expression of intersectionality.

The Collective were not the first women to highlight racism inherent within feminism, nor were they the originators of Black feminist thought. Instead, they situated themselves within a tradition that stemmed from Sojourner Truth to Ida B. Wells, reorientating that tradition to the issues of the decade. Much of Second Wave Feminism was based on the needs and interests of middle-class white women, who sought liberation from the home. There was little consideration of the domestic workers, overwhelmingly women of colour, who would look after children once white women were free to enter the workforce. Outside of more radical groups, there was no place for queer women’s concerns. Most white activists were college-educated, and well-off enough to not have to consider economic reality alongside political aims. Furthermore, rhetoric of a united women’s movement did not allow space for dissent, nor difference. Even when white women were committed to racial equality, their segregated upbringings and class privilege often meant that the movement they lead was not attractive to many Black women.

If members of the Collective did not feel represented by mainstream feminism, the same could be said of the Civil Rights Movement. While it is important to acknowledge the involvement and crucial contributions of women to racial activism, the movement was in many cases patriarchal and centred around issues particular to Black men. Many leaders held traditional conceptions of gender roles and attempts to affirm Black masculinity to the same status as white masculinity often came at the cost of women’s concerns and security. Again, of course, there was very little representation of queer issues, and behaviour that fell outside the social and economic structures of marriage. Sexual violence and compulsory heterosexuality within Civil Rights activism left queer women isolated.

Furthermore, the Collective was founded on the belief that there were a set of experiences, issues, and vulnerabilities unique to Black women. The statement lists the stereotypes often imposed upon Black women, including ‘mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger’. Other issues included being discouraged from reporting sexual assaults due to ‘solidarity politics’, and an economic order which left them shut out of many employment options. Due to these specific and compound vulnerabilities, the statement argues for Black feminism as the ‘logical political movement’ to counteract these issues and to carry all of its encompassed movements forward. Quite simply, if Black women were to become 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.’

Crucially, however, was the argument that the oppressions faced by queer Black women were not simply multiple, but also interconnected. Their experiences were crafted by the specific interactions between racism, sexism, and economic hierarchies. This idea is at the heart of what we now might call ‘intersectional feminism.’ The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the legal loopholes allowing companies to dismiss discrimination charges. However, the work of the Collective shows that Black female activists were utilising the same concepts a decade earlier.

Having identified intersecting systems of oppression, the Collective argued that overlapping solutions were needed. The 1980 statement is the first recorded use of ‘identity politics’ and they did indeed root their radical politics within an oppressed identity. However, they advocated cooperation with members of different identity groups in order to overcome oppressions. The statement asserts: ‘We feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand.’ Perhaps drawing from their own queer identities, the Collective rejected the essentialism of gender or race as a solution to oppression and advocated for cooperation. This allowed for the fact that Black men were one source of their oppression, as they felt that education and understanding was only possible through working together to overcome shared challenges. This is a political stance that centres the issues of a specific identity and roots its solutions in wider communities and movements.

Reflecting from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is clear that the Collective’s work on intersectionality and identity politics is still vitally important. Tragically, queer Black women continue to be one of the most vulnerable groups in America and across the world. 80 percent of transgender homicides in the US between 2015 and 2020 were Black women, while some have estimated that the average life expectance of a Black trans woman in America is just 35. The unique issues faced by this group remain prevalent.

Identity politics continues to be a divisive issue, and a vitally necessary one. Hashtags like MeToo or BlackLivesMatter have changed the world with demands that oppressive systems must be held accountable. But perhaps the removal of these systems can only be complete when we take a cue from the Combahee River Collective and from Black feminism, to understand their roots as indelibly interconnected. In the United States, February marks not just Queer History Month but Black History month. In celebrating these histories together, their intersections become clear, and maybe it will be just a little easier to tell the stories of queer people of colour.

Written by Jess Womack

Bibliography

Breines, Winfred. The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

The Combahee River Collective Statement, The Combahee River Collective, Accessed 31 January 2020, https://americanstudies.yale.edu/sites/default/files/filesKeyword%20Coalition_Readings.pdf.

Trans Women in America, Legal Council for Health Justice, Accessed 31 January 2020, https://legalcouncil.org/blacktranswomeninamerica/.

Image: Verso

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