Most important, the C.R.C. saw themselves as socialists and as part of the broader left, but they understood that no mass movement for socialism could be organized without responding to the particular forms of oppression experienced by Black women, Chicana women, lesbians, single mothers, and so many other groups. Their point was a simple one: you cannot expect people to join your movement by telling them to put their particular issues on hold for the sake of some ill-defined “unity” at a later date. Solidarity was the bridge by which different groups of people could connect on the basis of mutual understanding, respect, and the old socialist edict that an injury to one was an injury to all. It was mind-blowing!
To be honest, I didn’t know what to do with the Combahee Statement. It was so unlike anything I had ever read before in politics, and it clashed so violently with what I had come to believe about feminism and “identity politics” that I did not know how to integrate it into my activism. I had to put it away.
The Combahee River Collective formed in Boston, in 1974, during a period that regularly produced organizations that claimed the mantle of radical or revolutionary struggle. The group broke from the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization, and named themselves after a daring Union Army raid, led by Harriet Tubman, to liberate seven hundred and fifty enslaved people in South Carolina. A few years ago, Barbara Smith told me that she and her comrades believed that, by naming the group after the Combahee River Raid, they were both honoring Harriet Tubman and indicating that liberation required political action.
The women of the C.R.C. drew on their experiences in Black, male-dominated organizations. Demita Frazier had been a member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, right up until the Chicago police helped to assassinate the Panther leader Fred Hampton, in 1969. More generally, Black men dominated the leadership of the organized Black left. As a result, many Black women felt shut out of directing those organizations, just as they felt that their experiences as Black women were ignored.
They fared no better in organizations led by white women, who, for the most part, could not understand how racism compounded the experiences of Black women, creating a new dimension of oppression. The overwhelming majority of Black women were working-class and were forced to labor both outside and inside their homes. But Black women who tried to utilize public welfare so that they could spend more time caring for their children were demonized as freeloaders, even as white women who chose to work at home were celebrated for prioritizing their families over personal ambition. In the reality of organizing, these tensions manifested themselves in white women’s desire to focus their organizing on abortion rights, while Black feminists argued for the broader framework of reproductive justice, which included the struggle against forced sterilizations of Black and brown women. These were hardly doctrinaire disputes. The eugenics programs of the early twentieth century continued into the nineteen-seventies, as tens of thousands of women in the United States were subjected to sterilization procedures without their informed consent.
The class and race tensions within feminism lasted far beyond the seventies. When I reached college, in the nineties, these same debates could be found animating women’s-studies classes. In my Intro to Women’s Studies class, one white woman, who said she was from Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, chafed at what she described as the “divisiveness” of Black feminism. After all, weren’t we all women? To clarify, the woman said she was as much in solidarity with the women who cleaned her home as she was with white middle-class women like herself, who had also been trained to lower their horizons and expect less out of life. Apparently, the sisterhood was powerful.
The Combahee Statement was anything but divisive. It celebrated the possibilities of a political coalition born out of solidarity among groups who recognized the need to be engaged in struggle. In this way, the C.R.C. pioneered the notion of “identity politics,” perhaps one of the most controversial and misunderstood terms in all of U.S. politics. In the statement, the authors described “the concept of identity politics” in the following way: “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.”
I recently spoke with Barbara Smith, who made clear that “identity politics” was not intended to be exclusionary or to contend that only those who suffered a particular oppression could fight against it or even comment on it. “We were not being reductive, we were not being separatists,” she said. “Combahee was never separatist.” This would, of course, have been a rejection of the solidarity at the heart of the C.R.C.’s politics. Instead, they argued that Black women—and all oppressed people—had the right to form their own political agendas, because no one else would. Smith told me, “By ‘identity politics,’ we meant simply this: we have a right as Black women in the nineteen-seventies to formulate our own political agendas.” She went on, “We don’t have to leave out the fact that we are women, we do not have to leave out the fact that we are Black. We don’t have to do white feminism, we don’t have to do patriarchal Black nationalism—we don’t have to do those things. We can obviously create a politics that is absolutely aligned with our own experiences as Black women—in other words, with our identities. That’s what we meant by ‘identity politics,’ that we have a right. And, trust me, very few people agreed that we did have that right in the nineteen-seventies. So we asserted it anyway.”
Any concept, once it is released into the world, can take on new meanings when confronted with new problems. Identity politics has become so untethered from its original usage that it has lost much of its original explanatory power. In its earliest iteration, Black feminism was assumed to be radical because the class position of Black women, overwhelmingly, was at the bottom of society. But the civil-rights revolution and concerted efforts by the political establishment created a different reality for a small number of African-Americans. Today, there is a small but influential Black political class—a Black élite and what could be described as the aspirational Black middle class—whose members continue to be constrained by racial discrimination and inequality but who hold the promise that a better life is possible in the United States. They stand in contrast to the Black poor and working class, who live in veritable police states, with low-wage work, poor health care, substandard and expensive housing, and an acute sense of insecurity.
More than a fifth of Black women live below the poverty line, but their lives are largely invisible. Instead, popular culture and mainstream media outlets are fixated on Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé Knowles, and Michelle Obama, to whom they turn for insights into the experiences of Black women. Much of what is meant by identity politics in its contemporary idiom is simply representation—the presence of Black, queer, gendered, and classed bodies with almost no attention paid to their political commitments. But the radicality of Black women’s politics was based on their position at the bottom. The view is decidedly different from the top. The C.R.C. gave us the political tools to understand the difference between bottom-up and top-down politics, and their distorted manifestation in the identity politics of today.