On June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman led 150 black Union soldiers in a battle that resulted in the liberation of 750 enslaved black persons. The Combahee River Raid is the only known instance of a woman leading troops during the Civil War; it is yet another example of a black woman’s heroism lost to history. The Combahee River Collective, was a fierce collection of black and lesbian women who were some of the first feminists to speak about multiple oppressions. The term “intersectional feminism,” credited to Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to the various systems of oppression that may have an impact on feminists, especially those of color. For example, a black lesbian feminist may find that the experience of being LGTBQ has a real-world oppressive effect that is outside her experience of being a feminist, while she is simultaneously dealing with the oppressions that come from being female and black in a white supremacist patriarchal society. Other types of oppression may include class status, education levels, sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and religion, each creating structural barriers.
The term “intersectional feminism” is generally seen in contrast to the term “white feminism,” which refers to white women who proclaim themselves to be feminists, but who fail to consider the effects that their words and actions may have on feminists who are not white. The examples of “peak white feminism” have been even more galling since the election of Donald Trump – 53 percent of white women who cast ballots chose Trump, thus voting their class and racial identities above their gendered identities. The majority of white women voters ignored Trump’s record as a serial groper, and his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, racist rhetoric in order to vote him into power. The divide between white women and black women (who voted for Hillary Clinton at a rate of 93 percent) was made disastrously clear.
But damage to black women by white women feminists has occurred on a regular basis since the election. Just in the past two months, we have had Lena Dunham, a self-proclaimed white feminist, tweet that the rape accusations against one of her male writer colleagues should be considered part of the “3 percent false accusations;” Rose McGowan, the actress who has been prominent in the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, imply in a tweet that only white women were raped; and Taylor Swift, who has also claimed the feminism mantle, has committed a number of actions that have led many to proclaim her as the poster child for Trump’s America.
It’s why the publication of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s How We Get Free, which provides readers with an oral history of the Combahee River Collective, could not be more timely. The Collective’s original statement laid out a series of statements that defined the “genesis of contemporary Black feminism; what we believe; the problems in organizing Black feminists; and Black feminist issues and practice.”
The authors of the statement address, in addition to the issues raised by the inability of white women to see what other issues confronted black women, why the pushback from black men had been so painful. The Civil Rights struggle and subsequent Black Liberation movements had championed the black man, who had been dehumanized by those who sought to control them through the terrorist activities of the KKK and the legal structures under Jim Crow. Some black men saw the insistence on feminism among black women as an allegiance with white women against black men. Thus the statement affirmed their connection to Black Struggle while insisting that black women would not allow themselves to be subjugated by black men.
Instead, the statement insisted on black women’s liberation as its own project, not “as an adjunct to somebody else’s” but “because of our need as human persons for autonomy.”
Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, and others were instrumental in the formation of the Collective and the working out of its statement. In wide-ranging interviews, Taylor gets the women to fill in the gaps in the history of the group and allows readers to fill in the connections between the instrumental, life-changing work of the Collective and our present state of being. The work of the Collective has been taken up not only by intersectional feminists, but also by, for example, members of the transgender communities who are engaged in a struggle for recognition. The work reaches across time and space to provide oppressed peoples with a blueprint for organization and philosophies that unite them as a group.
And while all of this may sound “heavy,” I found myself laughing along at the memories told of family members, or throwing my fist in the air at the righteousness of a statement. At a time when so much of feminism has been co-opted by advertising companies or has enabled the oppression of others, reading a fascinating history of such incredible women may be just the reminder that we need.