Combahee River Collective Statement

Combahee River Collective Statement

What does “identity politics” mean? What is an interlocking system of oppression, and how does it work?
How does the identity politics discussed in “Combahee River Collective Statement” differ from the “ideal of freedom and equality” discussed in To Secure These Rights?

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Introduction

The Combahee River Collective was a group of black feminist lesbians who met together for discussion in the 1970s. Their purpose was to understand their place in the midst of the ongoing change, if not revolution, in relations between whites and blacks, men and women, and, they hoped, poor and rich. They aimed to free themselves from capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. Their statement is notable for its introduction of the term “identity politics,” and for an emphasis on the privileges of those they branded as oppressors—white men and women, but also any black men who did not want to acknowledge the equal worth of black women. The thinking the collective nurtured began the turn toward the acceptance of gender, race, and class identity as the source of political authority, rather than a common human identity, as in the Declaration of Independence. It helped establish the practice of the unprivileged calling into question any established privilege. In elevating identity, criticizing privilege, and emphasizing the interlocking nature of “systems of oppression,” the language of the Combahee River Collective Statement, like the language of the Black Power movement, helped shape much of contemporary political discussion.

—David Tucker

Source: Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Inc., 1983), available at https://americanstudies.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Keyword%20Coalition_Readings.pdf.


. . . The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are 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 genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism

. . . [W]e find our origins in the historical reality of Afro-American women’s continuous life-and-death struggle for survival and liberation. Black women’s extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes. . . .

What We Believe

Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s [but] because of our need as human persons for autonomy. . . . [N]o other ostensibly progressive movements have ever considered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. . . . [L]ittle value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere. We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.

The focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. 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. . . .

We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation. . . .

Problems in Organizing Black Feminists

The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess anyone of these types of privilege have. . . .

. . . We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. 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 the systems of oppression. . . .