Staff Pick! How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective

by 1804 Books

Mary and Tahia holding up book

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Our staff pick is How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, a collection of interviews with the founding members of the Combahee River Collective (CRC) edited and introduced by activist-scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. The CRC women were a trailblazing group of radical Black feminists, and were one of the most important organizations to develop out of the antiracist and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They were socialists who deeply understood the class struggle and extended Marxist analysis by recognizing the plight of Black women as an oppressed group that has particular political needs. In these interviews, the activists reflect on the legacy of their contributions to Black feminism and its impact to today’s struggles, ending with an interview with Alicia Garza of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The work of the Combahee River Collective continues to be relevant and important for our political education, in the wake of never-ending police racial violence against Black people in the United States. We mourn and acknowledge the murder of 20 year old, Daunte Wright, pulled over for a traffic violation this week in Minneapolis. As the trial of George Floyd’s murderers unfolds, killed a year ago near the site of Wright’s death, hundreds came out against racist police violence, and were met with police in riot gear and the National Guard. We are in solidarity with these protests.

Mary and Tahia holding up How We Get Free

An edited conversation between Mary Gana and Tahia Islam, members of The People’s Forum

In bold: Tahia

Italic: Mary

Why did you choose to read this book? 

On I was looking for Black feminist books, and this was one that was recommended to me by the Education team at The People’s Forum.

In the Combahee River Collective’s collective statement (1977), they write:

“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.”

What are your thoughts on this?

This makes so much sense. I think about Claudia Jones, a Black feminist leader of the Communist Party in the 40s and 50s, on the triple oppression that Black women have to face: race, class and gender. She theorized that by freeing black women, who are the most oppressed of all people, freedom would be gained for all people who suffer from race, class, and gender oppression.

Absolutely, and the CRC were definitely inspired by Claudia Jones’ work. 

In her introduction, Keeanga talks about the Combahee River Collective’s grasp on class in Black women’s lives, and anticipated its growing potential as a key divide among Black women. Today, the number of wealthy and elite Black women is small but extremely visible and influential - the Michelle Obamas and Oprahs. They’re held up as an example of the capitalist American dream. 

Phew. I just feel like the only way people can understand that this system does not serve the working class and poor people is through political education, organizing, and reading. These people who have a “seat at the table” are people with access to immense wealth. They’re already influential. These people maintain and uphold the ruling class interests. The dream that they’re selling to us is not the dream for working class and poor people and at the end of the day, the only way to unlearn that is through political education. 

Class is very important to focus on, and Black people are the most oppressed, especially in the United States, we cannot deny that. 

It’s like running up a waterfall. The capitalist American dream is a mostly unattainable goal for the working class in the United States, but we are sold it and told to worship these figures to continue churning the global markets. If someone cannot reach “those heights,” they’re sold messages that they’re not working hard enough and must internalize and individualize the problem, when the inequality is systemic.

The now famous term “identity politics” was first coined by Black feminists Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective in 1974. However, the women of CRC did not define identity politics as exclusionary, the way it is being weaponized today to divide our struggles. They saw it as an analysis that would validate Black women’s experiences while simultaneously creating an opportunity for them to become politically active to fight for the issues most important to them. Thoughts on identity politics?

One one hand, Black women, Black people, are not radicalizing based on abstract issues. They’re radicalizing based on multiple identities and how they overlap in oppression. Like the CRC, who were Black, lesbian, and working class - this opens you up to a different political consciousness. Your different identities define your level of oppression and exploitation - the more you see the intersectionality, the more you see the overlap.

On the other hand, in contemporary race conversations, I feel like people are trying to dwell on ‘I’m more oppressed than you’ rather than a solidarity that can liberate us all. It’s not about measuring oppression, but being cognizant of our various struggles and then seeing how we can build bridges and help each other. 

At the end of the day, capitalism oppresses everyone who doesn’t benefit from the system. As long as you’re not that 1% and dont own the means of production, you’re exploited at the end of the day, so we must be in solidarity. 

Completely agree. The Oppression Olympics and corporate obsession over our individual identities is a tool to divide us. 

The Combahee leaders have a deep internationalist and anti-imperialist solidarity lens, they organized with Latina women, Asian women, and against the war in Vietnam. They called for solidarity to deepen and strengthen political commitments so that groups can recognize how different struggles are related to each other and connected under capitalism.

It’s beautiful that they highlighted this. Acknowledge that our struggles are interconnected, and manifests in different ways. In Africa, it’s imperialism and colonialism that America is actively involved in. Within the U.S., it’s important to know how we are hurting other countries…

Indeed. with sanctions, wars, embargoes. 

The book connects to today’s Black Lives Matter movement with an interview with Alicia Garza. 

I’m interested to get to the end and read her essay and learn more. From my understanding, Garza has a Marxist analysis and seeks to build towards socialism, so how did we get to a place where Black Lives Matter has gone to the Grammy’s and become a co-opted capitalist thing? Activists invoked Tamir Rice’s name in ads and public performances, but his mother has come out asking and demanding where the real justice and conversation on police brutality and racial violence is beyond the performative actions on stage.There are activists profiting off of Black Lives Matter, which is dividing us, and it’s missing the whole point of liberation struggle. 

Agreed. In their interviews later in the book, the Combahee women definitely address some of their current concerns of Black capitalism, aspirational culture, and culture work, its triumphs and downfalls for today’s continued Black liberation struggle. 

Thank you, Mary, for this wonderful conversation and look forward to continued discussions as we read books from 1804 Books collection. What was the last book you read that inspired you politically?

Class Struggle in Africa - Kwame Nkrumah. I’m exploring pan-Africanism and continuing to articulate my politics and learn more everyday!