Morgan Dhu's Reviews > How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective

How We Get Free by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
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it was amazing
Read 2 times. Last read April 17, 2018.

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, is a collection of work memorialising and expanding upon the significant contributions to social justice theory made by the women of the Combahee River Collective (CRC). Taylor’s stated intent in this volume is “an effort to reconnect the radical roots of Black feminist analysis and practice to contemporary organizing efforts” and “to show how these politics remain historically vibrant and relevant to the struggles of today.”

The Combahee River Collective, “a radical Black feminist organization formed in 1974 and named after Harriet Tubman’s 1853 raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina that freed 750 enslaved people” formed in reaction to both the white feminist movement, and the civil rights movement. The women of the CRC - including Barbara Smith, her sister Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier - were painfully aware that white feminists were not paying attention to racism and the particular conditions experienced by the black woman in America; at the same time, they felt that a focus on racism alone was not a sufficient basis for critical analysis and action planning relevant to black women’s liberation.

While it would be some years yet before Kimberlé Crenshaw named and defined intersectionality, the CRC “...described oppressions as “interlocking” or happening “simultaneously,” thus creating new measures of oppression and inequality. In other words, Black women could not quantify their oppression only in terms of sexism or racism, or of homophobia experienced by Black lesbians. They were not ever a single category, but it was the merging or enmeshment of those identities that compounded how Black women experienced oppression.”

The CRC also introduced the concept of identity politics into radical social analysis, arguing that “...oppression on the basis of identity—whether it was racial, gender, class, or sexual orientation identity—was a source of political radicalization.” Furthermore, identity politics meant that “experiences of oppression, humiliations, and the indignities created by poverty, racism, and sexism opened Black women up to the possibility of radical and revolutionary politics” - it provided a point of entry for an oppressed group to work towards their own liberation. For the CRC, identity politics was connected to coalition building. They believed that different oppressed groups, in working together on the issues affecting the liberation of those oppressed groups, could effect real change. Identity politics allowed people to radicalise around their own oppression, identify the specific issues affecting their own conditions - and then join with other groups to address multiple issues together.

The CRC was a truly radical political movement, operating from a socialist base that acknowledged the importance of class in an understanding of the oppression of black women, and within a spirit of internationalism that declared solidarity with the “global movement of Black and Brown people united in struggle against the colonial, imperialist, and capitalist domination of the West, led by the United States.”

The first chapter of the book is, inevitably, a reprinting of The Combahee River Collective Statement, a historic document that sets out the results of the Collective’s analysis. They begin by stating:

“The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.”

I remember reading, and being deeply affected by, the CRC Statement. I think it is an absolute necessity for any feminist or anti-racist activist to read it, and one of the things that delights me about Taylor’s book is that she has made the Statement readily available in print. If you are unfamiliar with it, there are also a few places where it can be found online, if you look for it. It is an important document, more so now than ever as we witness the failure of white feminism or socialist action or civil rights movements alone to radically transform our world to one in which true social justice is the rule, not the fervently hoped for, rare in practice exception.

The Statement is the heart of this book. What follows in the interviews conducted by Taylor with Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier and Alice Garza, and the comments of Barbara Ransby is the background, contextualisation, extension, and evolution of these essential ideas, presented to a new generation that can build on them to bring about real change, true liberation for all.

These interviews are powerful, thoughtful, often raw, always real, explorations of what it means to be a politically and economically radical black feminist. They are steeped in intersectionality, in the importance of seeing the indivisibility of multiple marked statuses. They are fearless in calling out both white supremacy and late-stage capitalism as poisonous ideologies that limit social justice. They are historically and immediately important.

It has been 40 years since the publication of the Combahee River Collective Statement, and it remains an important document in the body of theory that informs the broad social justice movement, and the specific Black feminist movement. In bringing together the statement and the voices of those who created it, and who have incorporated its ideas into their own movement, Taylor reminds us of its power and truth.
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April 17, 2018 – Started Reading
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