The Combahee River Collective Statement, published in April 1977, advocates for the reorganization of society based on the collective needs of those who it most oppresses. The statement is considered one of the most foundational texts of contemporary Black feminism and influences Black liberation work today.
The statement was written by the Combahee River Collective, a Black, lesbian, womanist (ThoughtCo) organization in Boston from 1974-1980. The organization was co-founded by Barbara Smith, a Black lesbian scholar, writer, and activist who has shaped Black feminism throughout her lifetime. The collective asserted that the white feminist movement and Civil Rights Movement did not address Black and/or LGBTQ+ women’s needs and committed themselves to the struggle against “racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression.” Their groundbreaking statement was written for a book entitled “Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism,” a 1978 anthology about socialist feminism (ThoughtCo) edited by Zillah R. Eisenstein.
• Read The Combahee River Collective Statement online.
• Read How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, a book by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor that analyzes its legacy and influence today.
• Join the Smith Caring Circle, a community initiative to directly support Barbara Smith.
• Consider: how may liberation look different for someone from a more marginalized background than you?
The statement also introduced the concept of “identity politics,” the political organization of people of a particular religion, race, social background, class, or other shared identity based on the oppression they face. This, alongside their urge to consider the “interlocking oppressions” of multiple identities, was the predecessor to what we know today as “intersectionality.” Coined by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality analyzes how multiple marginalized identities tend to exacerbate the impact of systemic oppression, i.e., the increased disparity of police brutality against the Black trans community v. the Black community. Learn more in her TED Talk.
The Combahee River Collective statement was particularly groundbreaking considering that, during this time, the Civil Rights Movement tended to center the leadership of Black men, not the voices and efforts of Black women, particularly Black LGBTQ+ women’s voices. There are repeated instances of Black women being sidelined during pivotal moments throughout Civil Rights history (The Root). In addition, the feminist movement celebrated during this timeframe was largely white, and the needs of white women were often prioritized over those of Black women and other women of color (Vox).
“Black politics, male-defined, is not going to get it for us. A white, bourgeois politics isn’t going to get it for us. We need to have all the parts of who we are to be incorporated into our political agendas and our political work.”– Barbara Smith, in conversation with Hannah Hodson for Autostraddle
Today, the role of Black women in social and political change is celebrated more than centered. Even that celebration is rare enough. Black women were acknowledged for their role in voting in the 2020 presidential election (WBUR) but, despite the major gains made in the past three years, are rarely seen in government positions (NYTimes).
Representation of Black queer leaders is even more rare. But the blueprint for change is there, and we must continue to reflect on works like these that help us reimagine tomorrow.
• The Combahee River Collective Statement, published in 1977, was a text that advocated that society should be reorganized based on the collective needs of those who it most oppresses.
• The statement also introduced the concept of “identity politics,” or how people organize based on their identities and the consequent oppression they face.
• This work acknowledged the lack of representation for marginalized identities in both the socialist and feminist movements.