Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Revolution 4/13 on the Combahee River Collective Statement

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The Combahee River Collective (“CRC”) statement, written in 1977, remains today a formative declaration of American Black feminism that continues to influence political organizing, critical thought, and social movements, as we have witnessed all around us now with the Movements for Black Lives and to defund the police. The CRC statement, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains, coined the term “identity politics,” introduced the expression “interlocking oppression,” and showed the world a paradigm of how to think and act at the intersection of antiracism, antisexism, antipatriarchy, and anticapitalism.[1] Along with the writings and engagements of members of the CRC, such as Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith, and other interventions, such as the collection This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, the CRC statement shaped the course of Black feminist organizing. In the words of the abolitionist historian, Barbara Ransby, “the Combahee River Collective statement, as well as the example of the Combahee River Collective, laid the ground for a number of projects that came after that,” from the Black Radical Congress and the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves (AAWIDO) projects of the 1990s to the Resist Reimagine Rebuild coalition in Chicago, the Black Youth Project 100, and the Movement for Black Lives more broadly in the 2010s and still today.[2]

Founded in 1974 as an off-shoot of the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization, the CRC assembled a group of radical Black women who identified as Black feminist, lesbian, and socialist, to think, work, and struggle together in political action, study groups, retreats, teaching, publishing, and organizing. They named themselves after a battle in 1863 known as the Combahee Ferry Raid where Harriet Tubman led about 150 African-American Union soldiers in a rescue effort along the Combahee River in South Carolina that freed more than 700 enslaved persons.[3] As Barbara Smith, one of the founders of the CRC emphasized, the collective decided to name itself not after a person, but after an action, and not any action, but “a political action for liberation.”[4]

The CRC engaged in political organizing and action, especially in the areas of reproductive justice and the defense and protection of women of color, militating against forced sterilization, for the right of access to abortion, for the creation of shelters for Black women who were survivors of abuse and poverty.[5] The CRC developed critical concepts including the importance of identity in political awakening and action, and the ways in which interlocking forms of oppression build on each other and can lead to new insights for political organizing and action. These concepts and actions would prove formative to current notions of intersectionality and to principles of Black feminism—such as leaderfulness, inclusivity, solidarity, alternativity, and assuming the viewpoint of the most vulnerable member—that have infused movements like #BlackLivesMatter.

Through the publication of its statement in 1978 and its political actions, the critique and praxis of the CRC influenced generations of activists and thinkers. “Theoretically rich and strategically nimble,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in The New Yorker, “it imagined a course of politics that could take Black women from the margins of society to the center of a revolution.” In her comments on the CRC statement delivered at the Socialism 2017 Conference (included in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s How We Get Free), Barbara Ransby provides an inspiring recapitulation of the continuing vitality of the statement and engagements of the Collective:

If we take to heart the spirit and politics of the Combahee River Collective Statement, what we go away with is this: (1) never be afraid to speak truth to power, and (2) in the face of racist, misogynist threats of violence and attacks, when you have the impulse to either fight or flight, what do you do? Fight! And, (3) always ally yourself with those on the bottom, on the margins, and at the periphery of the centers of power. And in doing so, you will land yourself at the very center of some of the most important struggles of our society and our history.[6]

Identity and the Worldly Philosopher

The CRC statement, especially its herstory in part 3, and the interviews conducted by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, reflect a gradual development of thought and organizing from, initially, a central focus on the core issues of race and gender to matters of sexuality and political economy. As the CRC wrote in its statement: “A combined antiracist and antisexist position drew us together initially, and as we developed politically we addressed ourselves to heterosexualism and economic oppression under capitalism.”[7] The herstory explains how this development occurred in terms of the gradual coalescence of the Black feminist members of the CRC, through attrition and expansion, around socialist and lesbian politics and identities.

The question of identity—which is especially fraught because of current critiques of identity politics from the Right and from the Left—is carefully treated in the CRC statement and by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in her introduction and interviews with the authors of the CRC statement, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier. As they explain, their identity as Black women, who had been subject to oppression along both dimensions of race and gender, served as a galvanizing force toward critical thought and political action. As Taylor notes, the identity of being Black and women were questions of “identity politics” because they contributed to the politicization of the CRC members. “Identity politics became a way,” Taylor writes, “that those suffering that oppression could become politically active to confront it.”[8] Identity was an integral part of the fabric of their political engagement.

The CRC made clear, from the start, that the question of identity was not intended to be exclusionary, nor that it implied separatism (not that separatism necessarily presents a problem, recall that Du Bois advocated for separatism in 1935.) “We reject the stance of lesbian separatism,” the CRC wrote, “because it is not a viable political analysis or strategy for us.”[9] “We feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand.”[10] As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains, identity politics served as a “source of political radicalization,” as a way to “validate Black women’s experiences,” and as what “shaped their political outlook” and gave direction to their political action.[11] This is further developed in Taylor’s interviews with Barbara Smith (esp. at p. 63-64), Beverly Smith (esp. at p. 101-103), and Demita Frazier (esp. at p. 130), and in Barbara Ransby’s comment on the CRC statement (esp. at p. 180). As Ransby writes, “The statement and the practice that surrounded it debunks the notion that so-called identity politics represents a narrowing rather than a broadening of our collective political vision. The document is antiracist, anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-hetero-patriarchy. That is CRC’s Black feminist agenda.”[12]

These questions of identity politics speak to our broader discussion in Revolution 13/13 about the concept of the “worldly” or “revolutionary” philosopher—a term which, I believe, describes accurately the members of the Combahee River Collective. These questions relate to the distinction I have been trying to draw between the writings and action of a worldly philosopher (for instance, Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth), the engagements of an “engaged philosopher” (for instance, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Preface” to Fanon’s work or his book Critique of Dialectical Reason), and the work of critical philosophers (for instance, a book like Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume 4: Confessions of the Flesh or Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics or Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition).

The questions of identity, I believe, play a central role in producing the differences between, on the one hand, thinkers and actors like Fanon or the members of the CRC and, on the other hand, an engaged philosopher like Sartre (who we just discussed last session at Revolution 3/13 with Étienne Balibar). They may also relate to the differences in modes of political engagement insofar as identity, for the CRC, is understood primarily as an engine of political activism—which, as Taylor reminds us, was Lenin’s view as well.[13]

The questions of identity quickly become personal and fraught—along multiple dimensions—but I do believe that many critical, engaged, or worldly philosophers become so in part because of their personal experiences with forms of oppression—in whatever physical, material, or psychological form that takes. The place of identity is undoubtedly central to the being of worldly, engaged, and critical philosophers, but it interacts in different ways either along those categorical lines (if they exist) or as an individual and idiosyncratic matter.

It is far too easy to dismiss identity politics today, at a time supposedly after identity. It is also far too simplistic to engage in psychologization or psychoanalysis of identity questions and their implication for critical thought and political action. But identity is certainly a question that directly relates to the kind of distinctions and their political implications that we are trying to explore in this seminar series. So I look forward to addressing these questions in our seminar with our brilliant guest, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, on the Combahee River Collective statement.

Welcome to Revolution 4/13!


[1] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Introduction,” 1-14, in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), at 4.

[2] Barbara Ransby, “Comments by Barbara Ransby at Socialism 2017 Conference Panel,” 177-186, in Taylor, How We Get Free, at 178, 178-182.

[3] See “The Combahee River Raid,” National Museum of African American History and Culture, at

[4] Barbara Smith, interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in Taylor, How We Get Free, at 31.

[5] CRC Statement in Taylor, How We Get Free, at 24.

[6] Ransby, “Comments by Barbara Ransby at Socialism 2017 Conference Panel,” at 183.

[7] CRC Statement in Taylor, How We Get Free, at 18.

[8] Taylor, “Introduction,” at 8-9.

[9] CRC Statement in Taylor, How We Get Free, at 21.

[10] CRC Statement in Taylor, How We Get Free, at 19.

[11] Taylor, “Introduction,” at 8, 11, 9.

[12] Ransby, “Comments by Barbara Ransby at Socialism 2017 Conference Panel,” at 180.

[13] Taylor, “Introduction,” at 8.