A review of How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by Keeyanga-Yahmatta Taylor
Kelly E. Wright
The Combahee River Collective was one of the most important organizations to develop out of the anti-racist and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. In it, activist-scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, founding members of the organization, and contemporary activists reflect on the legacy of its contributions to Black feminism and its impact on today’s struggles.
As I sat down to read Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor’s How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective for our local Socialist Reading Group, I was instantly struck by how foreign the names of the collective’s members featured in the book, including Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, were to me. I expected the Combahee River Collective to be a new, radical outcropping of Black feminism. But it was 40 years ago when these women formed the Combahee River Collective by stepping away from the Black Panther Party, women’s liberation White feminists, and anti-war socialists because even in those leftist spaces, there was no space for their particular liberation. These women felt they, and others like them, deserved a personal autonomy that is not conceived of as an adjunct to someone else’s liberation. Most of the members of the Socialist Reading Group did not know these names because such radical voices had (and have) been systematically hushed. The Black lesbians of Combahee found themselves on the periphery of contemporary social movements, and thus their exigence from within these spaces is subject to erasure, just as their independent, external successes are subject to whitewashing and co-optation.
The Combahee River Statement calls for a politics that is explicitly—and specifically—anti-racist and anti-sexist. It recognizes that we are all servants of capitalism, and that our struggle originates from within this base. They term themselves “third world women” and by doing so simultaneously shift the focus of their politics to combat the global imperialist project and build solidarity with women across the Global South who suffer under the bound oppression of racism, sexism, and capitalism. This particular constellation of oppression is intersectionality. This concept—defined first in the Combahee Statement—should be understood as “the synthesis of these oppressions [which] creates the conditions of our lives.” Intersectionality—and a broader identity politics—are not conceived of in the Combahee Statement as inseparable aspects of being and character that constitute an individual. Instead, intersectionality is conceived of as the combined weight of forces—each bent on limiting freedoms based on independent aspects of our being and character—which press us into silence; in our most silent spaces there are still-quieter voices.
We exist in a parasitic system dependent on ideology. In our reading group, we discussed how well this volume rescues identity politics, by developing a (re)cognition that our class system creates categories of people. And as we add more categories of belonging and existence that seat us farther from the White heteropatriarchy, we become exponentially oppressed. Being a Black woman is to remain in a state of constant oppression. For those who live this, feminism and socialism often come as a surprise, for the Black woman moves at the eye of a hurricane, unable to determine the sources of the swirling powers which endanger her body. From page 37 of the statement: “The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated.”
We also developed a (re)cognition that liberation must be bottom-up, because the act of freeing the most oppressed among us is How We Get Free. The Combahee women were “convinced…that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist one” would never secure liberation for Third World women. Because the Third World woman’s life is so constrained by the categorizations foisted upon her by the marketplace, she must seek material stability in either sexist or racist spaces, making it difficult for her to “risk struggling against both,” and impossible for her to control the material output of her labor.
Combahee organized against against this hierarchical oppression. The meetings they organized sought to building consciousness of intersectional oppression as something that can be specifically—directly—resisted. Even the simple, primary action of bringing the community together allowed Black American feminists, at least, to envision alternative ways of being. Alicia Garza (founder of Black Lives Matter; also interviewed in How We Get Free) and Demita Frazier both comment here, and Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor echoed at the University of Michigan in March 2018, on the tangible need for a built and accessible vision of a functional state, led by Third World women as essential to the project of liberation.
Those of us who do not suffer under the compounded effects of hierarchical oppression must—in the example of the Combahee women—refine our allyship by reaching beyond ideology, becoming what Garza calls co-conspirators, and laying our bodies on the line for those whose oppressions we cannot know. We must work specifically against those categories defined by our class system, embedded in our economics, and focus our collective energies on the creation of spaces of inclusive equanimity wherein we are all recognized as levelly human. Until such steps are taken, whatever progress we make will result in the mere shifting of capitalism’s categorical calculus, bringing parity to some and the additional oppressions of invisibility and silence to others.
A final takeaway from this volume that I feel brings together several other threads from our group discussions begins, in my opinion, to light the way forward in this new era of supremacy, intolerance, and global imperialism. It is not difficult to see how the story of Combahee can be read as one of failure in the face of massive institutional pressure; how readers can come away feeling that if Combahee had been successful, that Alicia Garza and Black Lives Matter wouldn’t have been necessary. But, as many have said, the revolution isn’t tomorrow and we need to make spaces to celebrate our work and each other in the meantime.
In chapter four, Garza remarks on a conversation she had with a friend who considered the protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline a failure.:
I was in a conversation with someone about Standing Rock. And they were going crazy because they were like, “It’s not a victory, and none of this matters.” I’m like, “It’s totally a victory, and they’re going to keep drilling.” They’re going to keep drilling. It is still a victory that you got Obama’s lame ass to step in. You know?
You didn’t fix anything. You just changed the balance of forces, that’s all. And that’s a big deal. And you should celebrate that because people put work into that shit. It’s seventeen degrees, and there are seven thousand people out there.
We can remain focused on the endgame while recognizing that getting there is work, and that not every day of action is a day where a step forward is taken. We can live in celebration even as we watch freedoms disappear.
This is why we march, why we gather, why we sing, why we keep names in our mouths to prevent them from being forgotten. We have not yet lost our chains, but solidarity brings solace even to the shackled, and it is our solidarity and love for one another that whispers the hope that keeps us moving toward that not-tomorrow revolution: nothing is immutable. Barbara and Beverly and Demita and Alicia and Keeyanga all tell us that the most powerful thing we can be is noisy—to resist with our bodies, our voices, our being—to take the space we’ve been placed in and shake the superstructure around it. We are thorns in the rose bed of capitalism: annoying and omnipresent. Until we secure self-determination for all and create something new and beautiful in the light of true democracy, noise is how we improve our positions within the system. Every breath drawn in that service is a victory against that which would stifle our will to think differently. In writing these words, I am victorious, as are you in reading them.
Kelly E. Wright is an activist devoted to promoting class consciousness in her time, a mixed-race Tennessee woman, and a linguist dedicated to describing and explaining the neural bases of racial discrimination. Currently, she is researching institutionalized racism in the media and housing markets.