“If Black Women Were Free”: An Oral History of the Combahee River Collective

“If Black Women Were Free”: An Oral History of the Combahee River Collective

“If Black Women Were Free”: An Oral History of the Combahee River Collective

“Here we are, a group of Black lesbian feminist anti-imperialist anti-capitalists trying to do the right thing.”


Last year, fierce protests erupted across the US out of rage against austerity, a botched Covid-19 response, and the brutal murder of George Floyd. Demonstrators blocked traffic, occupied public spaces, and destroyed police property. At the same time, there was an upswell in mutual aid, rent strikes, and labor organizing.

This surge of activism and organizing built upon the history and analysis of radical Black feminism, especially the Boston-based Combahee River Collective, who in 1977 authored the landmark Combahee River Collective Statement. The collective recognized the necessity of working across race, gender, sexual orientation, and class while emphasizing the contributions of queer Black feminists to Black liberation and feminism.

The group’s political strategy was to form coalitions with other activist groups while retaining their independence as Black women. They were socialists who rejected capitalism and imperialism, but wrote in their declaration that they were not convinced that “a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.”

They coined the term “identity politics” to describe their unique position as Black women facing a variety of oppressions. The statement emphasized economic, gender, and racial repression and made fighting on all fronts key to its emancipatory politics. The group introduces “identity politics” with a powerful explanation of its liberatory potential:

We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women, this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

To this day, activists hold this statement in high regard, and it continues to serve as a primer on socialist organizing that recognizes the importance of holistic organizing against multiple oppressions. Activist groups recognize, or at least pay lip service to, the need to organize people in multiple ways; justice can never be about just class, race, gender, or homophobia. These beliefs and aspirations have found new expressions in Black Lives Matter as well as socialist organizations such as the revived Democratic Socialists of America—particularly in its diverse working groups and caucuses.

I spoke individually with the collective’s founders—Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith—as well as Combahee member Margo Okazawa-Rey. We discussed the collective’s history, the true meaning of identity politics, youth organizing, and what they would change about their influential statement.

The Origin Story, 1971–74

The collective got its start when Beverly Smith told her twin sister, Barbara, about an organization called the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). Barbara and Demita Frazier established the Boston chapter of the NBFO, which brought together members of the future Combahee River Collective.

Beverly Smith: I was the one who told Barbara about the first Eastern Regional Conference of the National Black Feminist Organization in the fall of 1973. I knew about it because one of the people who was heavily involved in the organization’s formation was a woman named Margaret Sloan [a cofounder of the National Black Feminist Organization]. And I met her since I was working at Ms. [the magazine, where Sloan rented an office].

Barbara Smith: Those of us who attended the Eastern Regional Conference, which drew several hundred people, were asked to start chapters of the National Black Feminist Organization in our respective cities. So, in January 1974, the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization was formed.

But the women soon realized that their vision for social change was more radical than the NBFO’s, and they broke off to form their own collective.

Demita Frazier: We were feeling very different from how NBFO was organizing itself. We were also interested in forming ourselves as a collective, rather than in a hierarchical structure, with a president, vice president, or whatever sort of schema that NBFO was proposing at the time. We believed socialist theory was important as we considered the material situations of Black women under capitalism. That did not appear to be a conversation taking place in the NBFO.

The group chose the name Combahee River Collective to honor an 1863 raid by Harriet Tubman in which she led 150 Black Union soldiers in a campaign that freed more than 750 enslaved people in South Carolina.

Barbara: There was a little book that I had the opportunity to find and read, which talks about and describes Harriet Tubman’s raid on the Combahee River. And I was very excited about it, and we always shared things we liked when we read or saw them because there was no such thing as Black women’s culture or Black women’s studies. The cultural resources that Black women take for granted now were not available. I liked naming it after a political action that freed over 750 enslaved Africans. Harriet Tubman was a fighter. This action on the Combahee River was unprecedented in American history. It was the only military campaign planned and led by a woman. She knew how to liberate that many human beings from chattel slavery. She was a scout for the Union Army. We were a good match, and that’s how people know us.

Demita: After leaving the NBFO, we continued organizing in Boston. We first met in the summer of 1975, in my Dorchester home, and then in Barbara’s South End home. I don’t think it was so much an “organization” as a group of people cohering around an idea. We ended up with space at the Women’s Center in Cambridge, where we stayed until the spring of 1981.

Beverly: We were more of a drop-in group at the Women’s Center. Because of the large number of newcomers to the group, the group was rapidly changing. They weren’t our personal connections. But there was a small core group that developed.

Violence in Boston, 1975.

All interviewees said that 1975 was a watershed moment in Boston because it was the first year after a court order forced the city’s public schools to desegregate and implement a busing system, sparking white supremacist riots across the city.

Barbara: Boston was in the midst of a race war, and it was—and still is—one of the most racist cities outside of the old Confederacy. And, of course, in the mid-1970s the battle over school desegregation was filled with terrible violence. The resistance to school desegregation, which was court-ordered by a judge, rivaled anything that happened in the Deep South a few years earlier.

Demita: The shining city on the hill was a lie. Boston was one of the most violent and racist cities—a roiling cauldron of racial injustice. Boston has a long history of having a radical segment of the population. If you look back to the 19th century, there are all these abolitionists. I expected to move to a progressive city—but it was a white supremacist stronghold. Boston looks really cute until you’re here.

It wasn’t all about theorizing. The collective adored cooking, astrology, literature, and Saturday Night Live, which premiered in 1975. Members described the formation of friendships, community, and a thriving Black women’s culture.

Demita: The realization that no one was talking about the political spaces in which we found ourselves was one of the most empowering aspects of the Combahee. Having the opportunity to create a politics, to be a creator, was wonderful. I’ll be eternally grateful to Barb, Beverly, and the other women in Combahee for the opportunity to be Black intellectual thinkers. We called ourselves, “the smart girl crew.” We were all a little precocious in terms of how we moved through life. We used to say “Black excellence” all the time. Black excellence has always existed. It was refreshing and wonderful for us to be unrestricted in our thinking and abilities to just communicate.

Margo Okazawa-Rey: Intellectually and in terms of values, we were on the same page. Maybe some people would talk about things more academically, but to be honest, we were all just Black girls trying to make it. There wasn’t such a deep divide between the academy and the Black communities, especially not in our group. Here we are, a group of Black lesbian feminist anti-imperialist anti-capitalists trying to do the right thing, attempting to make ourselves visible and to explain ourselves, and to assert our existence as political entities.

Beverly: We were big fans of Saturday Night Live. We liked Sesame Street, too. Demita was a talented mimic and could do voices. It wasn’t just the ideas or the activism; it wasn’t just the workshops; it was also the relationships among us—how we interacted allowed us to work together.

Barbara: Beverly and Demita have some of the best senses of humor. Saturday Night Live began right around the time the Combahee River Collective was forming so one of the things we used to do at meetings was recap what had happened on the show. We liked the irreverence. The Blues Brothers, I mean, we loved that. Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi—completely, utterly hysterical.

Margo: Cooking and baking together were two big things that happened at the retreat with chocolate chip cookies and the Cookie Monster. And it was a real part of the joy we shared.

Demita: I’m a big fan of making big dinners—even at that age. So, for example, I recall that we’d all be together for Easter dinner. We were able to replicate the best aspects of Black culture amongst ourselves, which was delicious.

Margo: Also, in the beginning, there were no women’s studies textbooks, let alone Black women’s studies. As a result, we adored novels. Toni Morrison, of course, but also the work of Black women activists or whatever we wanted to learn.

Demita: We couldn’t really call ourselves a book club, but we were all voracious readers. So having the opportunity to talk about the latest Alice Walker or Toni Cade Bambara. I consider Alice Walker a friend now, but at the time, I thought she was a goddess. Our everyday life seemed exciting because we were meeting with people who were part of the zeitgeist, who were involved in the creative life, the women’s community, and the Black women’s community.

Beverly: We were very into astrology. That was Demita’s contribution. Demita is very knowledgeable about astrology. [Demita said she is a Leo, Virgo rising, and Leo moon.]

Demita: We had fun together, and remember, we’re talking about people in their 20s and early 30s, so it’s a time for socializing.

Margo: So many of us are marginalized. I’m mixed race, and I came out as a lesbian. There was no one place where I fit in, and activism helped to create a place where people like me could fit in. Misfits. That was the project.

The collective disbanded in the early 1980s, and it remains a sensitive subject, one that the members prefer to keep private.

Barbara: You’re not going to be able to get a quote from me, unfortunately. You’ve never seen it anywhere else, and it doesn’t need to be seen in my opinion.

Demita: If I stood back and looked at where we were in terms of our evolution as a group, we were engaged in creating our politics in a brave and audacious manner. We were also, as I previously stated, at different ages in our lives, and our lives were about to take different turns. The Combahee lived its life and had a natural beginning and end. That’s why I said there was no big blow up, no big fight, no internal schism. People’s politics just diverged. But I’d never been a part of anything that had such a profound impact on my life. Despite the fact that we had done good coalition-building work, particularly among progressive groups in Boston, Boston was a sort of nexus of racism and burgeoning class issues. It was difficult to continue organizing in a city with the intensity that Boston was experiencing in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When I think about how we conducted ourselves, we did not engage in character assassination amongst one another, and when we did have issues that were even slightly petty, we were like, “No need to talk about that.” Someone once asked me, “What was left undone?” I explained that we began with a narrative thread about Black women’s power, autonomy, and agency, and then expanded on the Western way of talking about Black women. And that story must go on.

The Statement

Barbara, Beverly, and Demita worked together to write the collective’s statement, which was based on previous group discussions.

Barbara: You may be aware that the statement was written for a book, Zillah Eisenstein’s Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, published by Monthly Review Press. I don’t know that we ever would have written it otherwise. We had a deadline—and so we did it. Thank goodness. I’m still friends with Zillah. If I hadn’t been friends with Zillah, I’m not sure if people would have heard of the Combahee River Collective. I’m glad there was a catalyst for us to put our ideas down on paper.

Demita: Zillah requested that this be written because there were few other women of color who were feminists. The statement was clearly aimed at a specific audience. It wasn’t Black women. When I think back on the placement and origin of the statement, I understand we were talking about academia. I’m glad we were all committed activists because it meant that the Black feminist project wasn’t just an intellectual exercise, nor was it isolated in some ivory tower, engaging in intellectually important ideas but also talking with segments of the population for whom these ideas would not filter out.

The most famous line in the statement is “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.” I asked the statement’s authors, Barbara, Beverly, and Demita, what that line is and isn’t about.

Barbara: We were not claiming that Black people, particularly Black women, were the only ones who deserved to be free. We weren’t putting ourselves in the vanguard. If that’s what people think we meant, people are misreading the statement. We meant that all oppressive systems affect Black women. We didn’t say only Black women needed to be free and no one else did. If we could eliminate all oppressive systems that affect Black women, we’d have eliminated all oppressive systems. Period.

Beverly: We were implying that addressing the multiple oppressions would address a large swath of what is wrong in the world. Some of them are things that women go through in general, such as violence. Workplace advancement, equal pay, and equal treatment are all lacking. So, if Black women were free, if Black people were living decently, that would imply that other people would have wealth. I believe it is a very striking, dramatic statement.

Demita: OK, I really did believe that we were at the very bottom of everything, but you know we weren’t actually. When Indigenous women get free—now we’re talking. If you had asked us, “Do you mean only Black women?” I would’ve said, “No, we’re talking about ourselves, because we know who we are and what this story means to us.” The statement is about dismantling power structures.

I asked the three women if there was anything they would change about the statement.

Demita: The statement was written to communicate our perspective as broadly as we could. Of course, it wasn’t as broad as it could have been. If it was written today, it wouldn’t be in a book. If I was going to be organizing as a young Black feminist with access to social media, it would be different.

Beverly: Looking back, the thing that bothers me is that there are things that we don’t discuss in the statement that are also oppressive to people. We were talking about our racial identities, homophobia, and heterosexism, but the statement doesn’t specifically address the issues of transgender people and people with nonconventional gender identities. There are just a lot of different things that we don’t cover, like disabled and immigrant rights. There is far too much oppression in the world that the statement does not address.

Barbara: There was only one thing I’d change or clarify—a quote from Robin Morgan. People don’t always understand this. What we were doing was making a comparison, but it wasn’t necessarily a clear one.

(Barbara is referring to a quote from Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood Os Powerful: “I haven’t the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual men could fulfill since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest power.”)

In 1977, we said that, as Black feminists and lesbians, we recognize that we have a very different revolutionary task to perform and that we are prepared for the lifetime of work and struggle that awaits. Now the year is 2021, so that assertion about being committed for the long haul was accurate. That was the contrast we were trying to make. Some people believe we felt the same way about white men as Morgan—and we may have. I can’t tell you exactly how we felt during that time. In the interest of movement building and solidarity, I believe that could have been removed or more clearly explained.

The Backlash Against Identity Politics

The collective is credited with coining the term “identity politics.” But today the phrase is mostly used pejoratively. The right opposes it because they’re against any racial politics that emphasizes the bloody and oppressive history of whiteness. On the center-left, people often use it to describe a superficial politics of racial representation. And on the left, the term is frequently condemned for ignoring class and shifting the discussion away from redistributive demands. I asked if, given the evolution of the term, identity politics remains a useful phrase.

Barbara: Identity politics, as we defined it, is absolutely, positively useful. Identity politics is a two-word phrase that has been completely misunderstood and weaponized against progressive, radical, and revolutionary projects. The right wing snatched up identity politics in the same way that they snatched up critical race theory. The right wing uses identity politics to say we don’t need any change and that these people want special rights and privileges that they don’t deserve. One of the myths about identity politics is that people with a certain set of identities only want to associate with people who have the same set of identities. But we write about our commitment to coalition-building in the statement.

The most disappointing attacks on identity politics are now coming from the so-called left. I’m not sure how many people on the left actually oppose identity politics. Most people who criticize identity politics—whether on the right, the left, or the middle—have never read the Combahee River Collective Statement and have no idea what we meant. That is, Black women have a right to create a political agenda based on our intersecting identities. And why was that so important at the time? No one else believed it. What’s most disturbing to me is when people I respect attack the concept of identity politics based upon inaccurate understandings of what we actually meant. I just read something on Twitter yesterday that said identity politics is one of the worst things that has ever happened.

Demita: The right has perfected taking concepts and immediately fabricating a narrative that begins the process of suspicion, manipulation, and mischaracterization. Don’t forget identity politics was never meant to say your own unique identity was the only thing that mattered or that the most crucial aspect of focusing on identity is through representation. But in this environment, maintaining narrative control is impossible.

Barbara: There’s the distinction between identity politics and representational politics. It wasn’t that our identities need to be represented in some way. It was that we wanted to build a politics based on our lived experiences as a specific type of person. Representational politics, as far as I’m concerned, is Black faces in high places. This wasn’t on the agenda. The Statement never even mentions electoral politics.

Combahee did something novel by explicitly stating that we, as lesbians, opposed homophobia. If you go back and look at historical statements about the coming together of race and gender, you won’t see anything about lesbians and homophobia. It wasn’t allowed, and it couldn’t have happened until after Stonewall. We didn’t see our politics as being solely for lesbians, and some people in Combahee did not identify as lesbians. But in those days, lesbians were much more likely to lack the constraints that allowed them to speak out against patriarchy. That’s a glib generalization; there were staunch feminists who did everything they could to destroy patriarchy who were not queer. But during that period, there was an utter unbridled contempt for anyone who was not heterosexual. And I believe that it made it so women who identified as lesbian had the kind of boldness to speak out about issues of gender and sexuality.

The Left Today

When I asked what they thought about how young people talk about politics today, they cited the resurgence of class politics, TikTok, self-care, internationalism, and studying the classics.

Beverly: I get the impression that younger people are less phobic of socialism and more open to exploring alternatives to capitalism. One of the reasons I believe this is true is that they did not grow up in a Cold War climate.

Demita: I’m not willing to criticize young people’s approaches to these issues. Younger people are doing what needs to be done while attempting to do so in a highly complex environment. Compassionate understanding, recognizing the character and difficulties of these times, and looking at the context in which individuals are undertaking this political work is important to me. I’m learning more and more about your perspectives and why young people like you hold them every day. And I’m done with all these fake-ass wars between boomers, millennials, and Gen Zs. Stop the foolishness. I am a TikTok addict, I admit it.

Margo: I like how young people are talking about self-care. Back in the day, if you took care of yourself, you weren’t committed enough, which was a very patriarchal male-dominated way of thinking about organizing. I’m grateful that the young organizers are now thinking about healing. Having said that, I believe there is a much greater emphasis now on the individual. I wish there was more of an ethic of caring for each other.

I’m also really disappointed that political organizing has gotten so internal to the US. The internationalist ideas that we had in the 1960s and early 1970s just appear to have fallen by the wayside. We had a strong focus on the United States, but we recognized the need to denounce imperialism and capitalism. Rhetorically, the way we think about domestic policies as separate from foreign policy is incorrect. They’re clearly linked together. You can’t talk about one without talking about the other. So, for example, discussing police state violence in this country without also discussing military brutality on behalf of the American people is impossible.

Barbara: Back in my day, there was admiration for people who had read the great political thinkers and who could use their terminology and insights in the present. People thought that that was a good thing. It’s important to know the thinkers that predate the present time, from whom you might draw something.

Finally, I asked everyone to tell me what they are working on now and thinking about right now.

Beverly: If people understood what that 600,000 plus Covid deaths figure meant, they would never vote Republican again. At this point, my main concerns are the terrible impact this has had and continues to have on people of color, and not just the diseases—the disastrous financial consequences.

Demita told me about her work in Texas teaching incarcerated people about Black feminism. She’s also working on her memoir.

Demita: This is my first book, and I’m glad I waited until I was truly ready. I’m experimenting with various forms and formats. I’m having fun writing about what it’s been like to be a lifelong activist. Many books are being written about Black feminists who emerged from multiple movements to create Black feminism. It’s an important piece of the puzzle.

Barbara: I’ve been trying to stay alive during Covid. That is my main project. So far, it appears I’ve been successful. Theoretically, I’m retired. But the pandemic and technology have made it possible for me to be invited to more presentations than I could possibly do if it meant traveling somewhere. One of the projects I’ve been working on since the lynching of George Floyd last year is writing articles for mainstream publications as a part of the national dialogue on white supremacy. Three were in The Boston Globe. One is in The Nation. I’ve been active in Black Lives Matter organizing. We older folks who have been involved in movement organizing have tried to help those who are new to it. I’ve even helped to teach people how to deal with the media. I’ve been doing monthly trainings for two political organizations. We had a session on capitalism to talk about oppressive systems. I taught three sessions on white supremacy for our local Extinction Rebellion group last summer. Currently, I try to decline almost every presentation. But, if I do say yes, the ones I really prioritize are ones where people are actively involved in organizing.

Margo: I’ve been heavily involved in international work since 1994. I work with the International Women’s Network Against Militarism. It is an organization that has brought people from all over the Pacific together to oppose the US military and to draw connections between domestic and foreign policy. In April, we released our manifesto, “A Feminist Vision of Genuine Security and Creating a Culture of Life.” I’m also involved with a women’s organization in Palestine, as well as other international projects. It’s about ensuring that all people live with dignity in everyone’s natural protected environment.

For me, the political project is to talk about love, to be loved, to bring joy in whatever small and large ways I can. So, every week on Zoom, there are dance parties—​​the Transnational Feminist Dance for Hope, Joy, and Love. We have people from South Africa, various parts of Europe, and Palestine who dance with us. And we’ve been dancing together since April 2020, which seems like a long time. Everywhere I go, if I’m at a conference or something, I say, “I’d like for us to dance together.”

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