February 11, 2023

Book Report: How we Get Free

Our reflections on the incredible book on Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, “How we get Free,” edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

“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 the systems of oppression.”

- Combahee River Collective    

Along my journey of dismantling my social conditioning, I was gifted How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. And what a gift it was. I had awareness of the nuances that exist within feminism, but reading this book gave me a better understanding of the intention and position of Black feminism and the importance of the distinction. 

In the 1970s, as Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier were organizing alongside other anti-racism and socialist efforts, they began to see the lack of understanding of the oppression of Black women in the political analysis of either camp. At the time, the current Marxist analysis didn’t consider the particular experience of oppression by Black women, and they realized if the social revolution was to include them, it needed to consider the specific layers of oppression tied to their identities as both Black and women. They developed a political analysis that took into account the multifaceted aspects of their identities and their unique conditions, birthing the term “identity politics.” The term “identity politics” has been co-opted by today’s media, but when they coined it in 1977 it was a source of political radicalization. By rooting their political intentions in the unique identities they held, they honored those identities and kept them present in their approach to activism. 

There was such clarity written in the Combahee River Collective statement in 1977, something today’s movements and efforts of activism could use. They spoke about the role of coalition building in activism being imperative and that solidarity strengthened the political commitment from a group. The role of solidarity was not to absorb one’s struggles to help someone else, but to strengthen the political commitments from other groups by getting them to recognize how the different struggles were related and connected under capitalism. Thus, the notion of intersectionality. They defined intersectionality as “the idea that multiple oppressions reinforce each other to create new categories of suffering,” and recognized how imperative bringing awareness to where the systems overlapped was to beginning to unravel it. “You know, we stand at the intersection where our identities are indivisible.” - Demita Frazier 

The Black, queer women of the Combahee River Collective held a complex number of marginalized identities that gave them a clear view of just how intertwined the system was. For them, Black feminism was a representation of Black women’s power, agency, “their right to look at their conditions, analyze it, interrogate it, and come away with an analysis that is about empowerment.”