Theories of Gender and Sexuality: The Combahee Contradiction

The Combahee River Collective is a group of black lesbian feminists operating in the mid to late 1970s (CRC 63). In “A Black Feminist Statement,” they remind the reader of the presence of black women in political activist movements throughout the history of America. They then describe the events and discoveries that led them to create the Collective. Finally, they describe their politics, which can be summarized in three principles. The Collective adheres to identity politics, resists fractionalization, and holds to Marxism. Despite the valuable contributions which the document provides, its adoption of identity politics leads to hypocrisy, as can be seen through their failure to mention disadvantaged groups other than themselves. Although this glaring silence does exist, the Collective itself would dispute any charge of hypocrisy.

The Collective begins their statement by placing their movement within the larger context of black women in politics throughout history. They assert, “Contemporary black feminism is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters” (CRC 64). To establish this claim, they cite several black women who were activists or leaders in American affairs, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances Harper, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell (CRC 64). The presence of these leaders shows that black women have always been an integral part of social justice work.

Despite the existence of black women in political movements, the Collective does not believe that those movements attempted to rally against the oppression of black women. They find that in the feminist movement “both reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation” (CRC 64). That is, black women are participating in the feminist movement, but their value and support are being ignored and marginalized. The situation is no better in black liberation movements (CRC 64). The members of the Collective find that the antisexist movement is racist, and the antiracist movement is sexist (64). Black women, then, cannot find representation or aid in either group.

Disillusioned, they form the Combahee River Collective. They begin sharing their experiences of dissatisfaction with feminist and antiracist movements, and realize that no one else is truly concerned for their oppression. They write, “It is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression” (CRC 65). In short, “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us” (CRC 65). They recognize that only they are going to fight for their liberation, and this is exactly what they set out to do. They begin as a group that only analyzes the intersection of racism and sexism, but later grow to consider heterosexism and economic oppression as well (CRC 65).

To fight for their liberation, the Collective adopts three main political beliefs. First, they embrace identity politics. They see that they are a group within larger America, and find their political identity in the fact that they are black women. They say, “We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression” (CRC 65). The concept of identity politics, as opposed to party politics, allows them to focus on their own oppression, and thus to take the most effective steps to end that oppression.

Secondly, although their primary goal is the liberation of black women, they “reject the stance of lesbian separatism” (CRC 65). They do not desire to completely remove themselves from the rest of American politics. They clearly state, “We feel solidarity with progressive black men” (CRC 65). They cannot separate precisely because they exist at an intersection. The larger issues of racism and sexism are still their issues, and separating entirely from the existing movements will not help those movements succeed (CRC 65). In addition, separatism leaves out many people who could be a part of their own movement, such as white women, black men, and children (CRC 66).

Thirdly, the Collective generally agrees with Marxist philosophy, though they find it to be simplistic. They affirm that “the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy” (CRC 66). The core message of Marxism is the liberation of the proletariat through the destruction of capitalism, so this affirmation is affirming Marxism. However, they do not only mention capitalism and imperialism. They include the destruction of patriarchy, saying it is a necessary condition for the ending of all oppression. They elaborate, “We are not convinced … that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and antiracist revolution will guarantee our liberation” (CRC 66). They agree with Marx, but extend his theories to their present situation.

Although the Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement” is a milestone in feminist thought and an early pioneer of the concept of intersectionality, it ultimately fails because of its adoption of identity politics.

The Collective assumes that black women are the most oppressed group in America. They claim, “If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our oppression would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression” (67). They are saying that they lie at the intersection of all systems of oppression, so if they are free, everyone is free. The contrapositive of this claim is that no system of oppression exists that does not oppress them. However, this is not true. They are outside of the oppression directed against the disabled, the transgendered, and any other number of disadvantaged groups. In fact, they never even mention any of these groups.

The real problem is the inherent hypocrisy of identity politics. In one paragraph, they remind us, “Cataloguing the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere” (CRC 65). They are, rightfully, accusing humanity of ignoring their oppression. But, in the very next paragraph, they say, “We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression” (CRC 65). They accuse everyone else of ignoring them, and then proceed to ignore everyone else. They feel solidarity with the groups of which they are a subset, such as black people and women, but do not mention the oppression of groups that are outside of themselves, such as Asians or Jews. Taken as individual stances, it is not a fault to focus on the liberation of black women, and it is not a fault to denounce the lack of support from other groups. However, it is a contradiction to hold both of these stances at the same time. This is an inherent problem in all identity politics.

The Collective might respond by contending that they do not only care about themselves. They state, “We … do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand” and “We feel solidarity with progressive black men” (CRC 65). They are standing with others as well as protecting themselves. They maintain, “The inclusiveness of our politics makes us concerned with any situation that impinges upon the lives of women, Third World, and working people” (CRC 69). Thus, they are also concerned with people outside of themselves.

Furthermore, they may postulate that they are driven to focus on themselves because their case is severe. Early in their paper, they establish that no other group has fought for them (CRC 65). They may like to fight for the liberation of others, but their case is dire. Therefore, they must focus on themselves. They have already had to work against others to give themselves a voice; “Accusations that black feminism divides the black struggle are powerful deterrents to the growth of an autonomous black women’s movement” (68). They have no choice but to work for their liberation only, because no one else is helping.

 

Works Cited

The Combahee River Collective. “A Black Feminist Statement.” The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson, Routledge, 1997, pp. 63-70.

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