Justice  /  Oral History

“If Black Women Were Free”: An Oral History of the Combahee River Collective

“Here we are, a group of Black lesbian feminist anti-imperialist anti-capitalists trying to do the right thing.”

Barbara, Beverly, and Demita worked together to write the collective’s statement, which was based on previous group discussions.

Barbara: You may be aware that the statement was written for a book, Zillah Eisenstein’s Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, published by Monthly Review Press. I don’t know that we ever would have written it otherwise. We had a deadline—and so we did it. Thank goodness. I’m still friends with Zillah. If I hadn’t been friends with Zillah, I’m not sure if people would have heard of the Combahee River Collective. I’m glad there was a catalyst for us to put our ideas down on paper.

Demita: Zillah requested that this be written because there were few other women of color who were feminists. The statement was clearly aimed at a specific audience. It wasn’t Black women. When I think back on the placement and origin of the statement, I understand we were talking about academia. I’m glad we were all committed activists because it meant that the Black feminist project wasn’t just an intellectual exercise, nor was it isolated in some ivory tower, engaging in intellectually important ideas but also talking with segments of the population for whom these ideas would not filter out.

The most famous line in the statement is “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 systems of oppression.” I asked the statement’s authors, Barbara, Beverly, and Demita, what that line is and isn’t about.

Barbara: We were not claiming that Black people, particularly Black women, were the only ones who deserved to be free. We weren’t putting ourselves in the vanguard. If that’s what people think we meant, people are misreading the statement. We meant that all oppressive systems affect Black women. We didn’t say only Black women needed to be free and no one else did. If we could eliminate all oppressive systems that affect Black women, we’d have eliminated all oppressive systems. Period.

Beverly: We were implying that addressing the multiple oppressions would address a large swath of what is wrong in the world. Some of them are things that women go through in general, such as violence. Workplace advancement, equal pay, and equal treatment are all lacking. So, if Black women were free, if Black people were living decently, that would imply that other people would have wealth. I believe it is a very striking, dramatic statement.

Demita: OK, I really did believe that we were at the very bottom of everything, but you know we weren’t actually. When Indigenous women get free—now we’re talking. If you had asked us, “Do you mean only Black women?” I would’ve said, “No, we’re talking about ourselves, because we know who we are and what this story means to us.” The statement is about dismantling power structures.