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How We Get Free, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

January 29, 2018

Visions of Mary

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.  Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017.  Includes interviews with Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, Alicia Garza, and Barbara Ransby.

5 stars

Republication of a key document for defining the intersection of race and gender in the lives of black women, accompanied by interviews of black feminists including those who first authored the document.

In 1977, a small group of black women active in the protest movements of the time realized that none of the existing organizations recognized and fought for the issues that women like theemselves needed. They organized, named, themselves The Combahee River Collective, after a major Civil War victory by Harriet Tubman and the blacks she organized.  In addition they issued a statement defining the relationship of gender and race in ways that are still used today.  Instead of arguing about whether black women identified by race or by gender, they explained that in the lives of black women race and gender intersected, intensifying the oppression. In organizing and stating their own position they hoped to make clear that they were not trying to get everything exclusively for themselves as their critics continue to claim.  They were naming their identity and their needs in order to form workable coalitions with groups with other primary goals.    As participants describe, they also formed a support network for black women moving into academia and caring professions.  The Kitchen Table Press, which published works by women of color, grew out of the group’s support.

How We Get Free was edited by author and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. She also did the interviews of the five black feminists included in the book. I found the interview with Barbara Smith particularly informative and moving. As a key author of the Combahee River Collective statement, her reflections amplify both the document and the group’s early activity.  She makes clear that she and the others involved came to their task only after extensive involvement with a variety of movement organizations and with the debates in which other activists were engaged. After the statement was issued, she went on to become one of the leaders in the emergence of Black Women Studies. Interviews with her sister, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier also contributed memories of the early group.  Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, discussed the relevance of the statement in the work she is doing. A speech on black feminism by scholar, activist Barbara Ransby addresses the issues raised by the document.

As I reread the Combahee River Collective, I became newly aware of how it exemplified concepts and actions that we are just now discovering as we do the hard work of figuring out how to build alliances that deal with diversity.  Their explanation of dual, or triple oppression, is still vital and widely used as scholars try to understand what it means that we all have multiple identities.  They realized that they would never be a priority in predominately white women’s groups or predominately black men’s group.  Their statement of identity is their way of stating where they are grounded and what they needed as they work for a “seat at the table.”

Everyone who cares about diversity should read or reread the Combahee River Collective statement and the words of those that composed and used it.  All of us who seek to work in coalitions today need to think through our own identity and needs as the women of the Combahee River Collective did.

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