2014 marks the 40th anniversary for one of the most important, yet underrated Black feminist/socialist organization. The Combahee River Collective laid the foundation that broadened the Black feminism perspective to argue that sexism, racism, and racial oppression intersect one another. Their brand of social activism demonstrated that the liberation of Black women didn't have a singular purpose, but was an all-inclusive event that would benefit women around the globe.
Combahee River Collective co-founder Barbara Smith's introduction to Women's Liberation came as a student on campus at Mount Holyoke College in 1968. Anti-war activist Mark Rudd was visiting the school and a woman traveling with him spoke about the Women's Liberation movement. Smith, who had grown up during the hostile time of racial segregation was skeptical about the movement's message and its target audience. "I could not figure out how that [Women's Liberation movement] could be, given the fact that she was White," Smith continued, "What did White women have to complain about?" From her standpoint, the relationship between Black and White had been fraught with tension throughout U.S. history. White women were considered the mistresses of the plantation , while Black women were relegated to slave labor. "It [ the movement's message] was hard for me to grasp from my perspective, because White women were so privileged."
After she graduated college in 1969, she saw that the playing field wasn't even in regards to women and equal rights. "When I experienced some of the attitudes and issues that all women faced, I became interested in feminism." Recently, some critics have heralded singer Beyoncé's latest album as feminist statement. Smith says that she's happy that now being called a Black feminist is often considered a compliment. In the 1970s, when she began to work in the Black feminist movement, Smith suffered backlash.
"We [Black feminists] were definitely marginalized. Anything that didn't look like it wasn't in support of the central politics of the male-defined Black Power movement was considered disloyal."
In 1973, Barbara Smith's twin sister, Beverly, was working on the staff at Ms. Magazine and had a chance encounter with one of its editors, Margaret Sloan. She was organizing the first eastern regional conference for the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) and invited both sisters to the event. The conference called for women of color to convene in New York City and discuss issues that were being ignored by the White-dominated Women's Liberation movement. Barbara Smith met with other Boston delegates to establish a local NBFO chapter there. The idea sounded simple, but it fell apart. "It was really difficult for NBFO to sustain a national organization with chapters with inadequate funding and staff," Smith tells EBONY.com. And she and other Boston activists realized that their political agenda was different from the NBFO. In 1974, Smith co-founded the Combahee River Collective with her sister, Beverly, Demita Frazier, and other feminist activists.
"We [CRC] had a multi-issue perspective. It was understood that being radical was to the far left of being progressive. Plus, a number of us had experience in leftist politics and that's one of the things that characterized the Combahee River Collective," Smith declared. The group's name came from the heroic actions of Harriet Tubman, who solely led a campaign that freed more than 750 slaves at South Carolina's Combahee River in 1863. The CRC's overall mission was clear from its beginning. "We felt very strongly that we had the right to stand up and articulate a politics that looked hard at the conditions of Black women," states CRC member, Demita Frazier.
The CRC hit the ground running with its grassroots approach of addressing issues that plagued women. They got involved in an initiative to stop African, African American, and Puerto-Rican women from being sterilized against their wills. "Doctors would shove consent forms in theit faces right after they'd given birth," Smith sadly commented. In 1977, the Combahee River Collective Statement was written to define the group's political agenda, purpose, and serve as an original plan for other organizations. "We wrote it as a collective. The content and the fullness of it came from our concious-raising groups and testifying with one another, " says CRC member Demita Frazier. The statement appeared along with the work of other active feminists in Zillah Eisenstein's 1978 book, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Social Feminism. "They [CRC] were really brave. They just took it all on. I just felt they had to be in the book," says Eisenstein, who teaches Women and Gender Studies at Ithaca College.
The Combahee River Collective disbanded in 1980. Both Barbara Smith and Demita Frazier have found sufficient arenas to flex their political activism skills. Frazier works as a Professional Mentor/Coach. Smith works as Community Project Coordinator for Albany, New York's first female mayor, Kathy Sheehan. She also has a book, Ain't Gonna Let Nobudy Turn Me Around (SUNY Press) that will be released in November. Frazier is optimistic about the future of Black feminism.
"Standing up for what you truly believe in is what's important. Now is the moment. Everybody has a part to play wherever they stand in life."