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Combahee River Collective

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The Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist Lesbian[1] group formed in Boston in 1974.[2] The Collective held their last network retreat in February, 1980,[3] and disbanded some time that year.[2]

Beginnings in the NBFOEdit

Barbara Smith, along with other conference delegates attending the first (1973) regional meeting of the National Black Feminist Organization in New York provided the groundwork for the CRC with their efforts to build a NBFO Chapter in Boston.[4][5]

Naming the CollectiveEdit

The Collective's name was suggested by Smith, who owned a book called: Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Earl Conrad.[1] She "wanted to name the collective after a historical event that was meaningful to African American women."[1] Smith noted: "It was a way of talking about ourselves being on a continuum of Black struggle, of Black women’s struggle."[1] The name commemorated an action at the Combahee River planned and led by Harriet Tubman on June 2, 1863, in the Port Royal region of South Carolina. The action freed more than 750 slaves and is the only military campaign in American history planned and led by a woman.[6]

Developing the StatementEdit

The Combahee River Collective Statement was developed by a "collective of Black feminists...involved in the process of defining and clarifying our politics, while...doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements...."[7] The Statement was drafted by Barbara Smith with help from Demita Frazier and Beverly Smith.[2]

"The Combahee River Collective held retreats throughout the Northeast between 1977 and 1979. The first retreat was held July 1977 in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The purpose of the retreat was to assess the state of the movement, to share information about the participants’ political work, and to talk about possibilities and issues for organizing Black women."[1]

"Twenty Black feminists ...were invited (and) were asked to bring copies of any written materials relevant to Black feminism--articles, pamphlets, papers, their own creative work -- to share with the group. Frazier, Smith, and Smith, who organized the retreats, hoped that they would foster political stimulation and spiritual rejuvenation."[1]

The second Black feminist retreat was held in Nov. 1977 in Franklin Township, New Jersey, and the third and fourth were scheduled for March and July 1978.[1] "After these retreats occurred, the participants were encouraged to write articles for the Third World women’s issue of Conditions (magazine), a journal edited by Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith."[1] The importance of publishing was also emphasized in the fifth retreat, held July 1979, and the collective discussed contributing articles for a lesbian herstory issue of two journals, Heresies and Frontiers.[1]

"Participants at the sixth retreat... discussed articles in the May/June 1979 issue of The Black Scholar collectively titled, The Black Sexism Debate...They also discussed the importance of writing to Essence to support an article in the September 1979 issue entitled I am a Lesbian, by Chirlane McCray, who ...was a Combahee member...The seventh retreat was held in Washington, D.C., in Feb. 1980."[1]

The final Statement was based on this collective discussion, and drafted by African-American activists Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier and Beverly Smith.[2]

Political, Social and Cultural impact of the StatementEdit

The Combahee River Collective Statement is referred to as "among the most compelling documents produced by black feminists",[8] and Harriet Sigerman, author of The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941 calls the solutions which the statement proposes to societal problems such as racial and sexual discrimination, homophobia and classist politics "multifaceted and interconnected"[9]

In their Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, M. E. Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan refer to the CRCS as "what is often seen as the definitive statement regarding the importance of identity politics, particularly for people whose identity is marked by multiple interlocking oppressions"[10]

Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term identity politics, which they defined as "a politics that grew out of our objective material experiences as Black women.[11] In her essay From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960-1980, Duchess Harris credits the "polyvocal political expressions of the Black feminists in the Combahee River Collective (with) defin(ing) the nature of identity politics in the 1980's and 1990's, and challeng(ing) earlier "essentialist" appeals and doctrines..."[11]

Combahee River Collective StatementEdit

Importance of Black women's liberationEdit

The CRC emphasised that they held the fundamental and shared belief that "black women are inherently valuable, that...(their) liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of (their own) need as human persons for autonomy...."[7] and expressed a particularly commitment to "working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression...."[7]

Importance of Black feminismEdit

The group saw "Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face...."[7] and believed that "[T]he most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identit(ies)."[7]

The statement describes "Contemporary black feminism (as) the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters" such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and March Church Terrell, as well as thousands upon thousands of unknown women), "[7] and situates itself as "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.[7]

Problems in Organizing Black FeministsEdit

The Combahee Statement notes that "Feminism is...very threatening to the majority of Black people because it calls into question some of the most basic assumptions about our existence, i.e., that sex should be a determinant of power relationships...The material conditions of most Black people would hardly lead them to upset both economic and sexual arrangements that seem to represent some stability in their lives. Many Black women have a good understanding of both sexism and racism in their lives, but because of the everyday constrictions on their lives cannot risk struggling against them both."[7]

Addressing Racism in the white women's movementEdit

The Combahee Collective expressed a concern and a desire to publicly address issues of racism in the white women's movement. The Statement is clear that: "Eliminating racism in the white women's movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak out and to demand accountability on this issue."[7]

Collective Members and ParticipantsEdit

The Combahee Collective was large and fluid throughout its' history. Here is a list of some collective members and contibutors:

and others

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Duchess Harris. Interview with Barbara Smith
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Manning Marable, Leith Mullings , eds. Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, Combahee River Collective Statement, Rowman and Littlefield, 2000, ISBN 084768346X, p524
  3. Allida Mae Black. Modern American Queer History, Temple University Press, 2001 ISBN 156639872X, p194
  4. Angela Bowen. Combahee River Collective, Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America, October 2005 issue
  5. Bettye Collier-Thomas, Vincent P. Franklin. Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, NYU Press, 2001, ISBN 0814716032 p292
  6. Anne C. Herrmann, Abigail J. Stewart. Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Westview Press, 2001, ISBN 0813367883, p29
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah Eisenstein.
  8. Harriet Sigerman. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0231116985 p316
  9. Harriet Sigerman. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0231116985 pp316-317
  10. M. E. Hawkesworth, Maurice Kogan. Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0415276233 p577
  11. 11.0 11.1 Harris, Duchess. From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960-1980, in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, eds: Bettye Collier-Thomas, V. P. Franklin, NYU Press, 2001, ISBN 0814716032, p300
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