Overcoming Race and Class Divides

From the March/April 2018 PNL #859

By Barbara Smith

I was asked to speak about identity politics and the history of the Combahee River Collective. I’m also going to discuss where the concept of intersectionality actually came from, because most people do not know that.

The Combahee River Collective was a small group of Black feminists. Usually we were about ten or less, who came together in the mid 1970s in Boston, to do Black feminist organizing at a time when even the white women’s movement was not mainstream and  was not that well accepted. But certainly, organizing as women of color—and many of us were also lesbians—we were persona non grata. We were marginalized, demonized, vilified, you name it. But we persisted.

We named ourselves the Combahee River Collective after the river in South Carolina. Harriet Tubman was a scout with the Union Army during the Civil War, and she planned and led the Combahee River Raid, the only military action in US history, probably even up until now, that was planned and led by a woman. It was an action that freed over 750 enslaved Africans.

We were founded in 1974. In 1977 we wrote the Combahee River Collective Statement, and that statement is still read, taught, talked about and used. It was in the statement that the term “identity politics” first appeared, as far as we know. There were three co-authors of the Combahee River Collective Statement: my sister Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier and me.

The following section of the Combahee River Collective Statement talks about identity politics:

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

The reason we asserted that was because we were writing during a period when Black power and Black nationalism were dominant political perspectives. This was also a legacy of the politics of the Civil Rights movement. Although Black women were central to the success of the Civil Rights movement, we got very little credit. During this period of Black nationalism going into the late ’60s and early ’70s, Black women’s roles were more proscribed and constricted. Kwame Ture, whose birth names was Stokeley Carmichael, was asked, “What is the position of the Black woman in the political Black movement?” His response was, “The position of the Black woman is to be prone.” Now he actually meant supine. But either way you’re on the ground, right?

The reason we asserted that identity politics were so important was because we thought it was critical for us as Black women and women of color to define a political agenda based upon our actual experiences—not just being female, that is, female and white, or being Black and having no gender—we thought it was important to bring all of that to the table and that’s exactly what we did.

We considered ourselves to be revolutionary then and I think some of us still see our politics that way. You can’t really say that you’re a revolutionary—someone else has to say it about you. Somebody has to agree besides you.

One of the things that made the Combahee River Collective unique was that we were part of the left. We had been involved in other movements. We had a lot of experience before we began to build our version of Black feminism. We had been involved in the movement to end the war in Vietnam. We had been involved in the Panthers. We had been involved in the Civil Rights struggle. We had been involved in student organizing. We had been involved in a lot of movements that were critical during that period.

What we meant by ‘’identity politics” was not to be exclusionary. We believed in coalition. We were committed to coalition, and we actually worked in coalition with various kinds of people in Boston during that period. Keep in mind, that period in Boston history was a period of racial warfare, because that was during the school busing crisis of the 1970s—court-ordered school desegregation. Yet we thought it was important to work across our differences. The way identity politics is used now is very different than what we actually intended.

How identity politics is being used now has been reduced at times to a desire only to connect with people who share your exact identity and not necessarily for the purpose of doing political organizing. The right wing has also taken to defining it too. What we had meant was that it was legitimate for us as women of African heritage living in the US to define and create a political theory and practice, a political agenda, that would address the situations and the realities that we faced as Black women and women of color.

For example, the issues of sexual assault, rape and violence were not going to be taken up, at least at that time period, by Black political movements, because those issues were just beginning to be defined and were generally not understood to be the result of gender oppression. When we looked at sexual assault, domestic violence and violence against women we didn’t look at it the same way white women did. Our first thought was not, “Let’s call the police. The police will make everything all right,” because we knew that by and large that was never the case. Our communities had never relied on the police for safety. In fact, we had often been targeted by the police in very violent ways.

So how do you build a movement to address interpersonal violence? And violent rape? Rape is violence, not sex, but violence. How do you build a movement in communities of color that takes that into account? Those are the kind of subtleties, fine tuning, that we pushed to bear in mind. We were very, very committed to coalition-building work, but were also completely committed to toppling white supremacy.

People think that people like us didn’t exist. We were stereotyped and called all kinds of names like “man haters,” “race traitors,” etc. But the thing is, those people didn’t realize that you could actually hold an understanding of all these interlocking oppressions  together and build off of that. We defined ourselves as socialists and anti-capitalists.

What has happened with identity politics is that it is seen as, “If you’re not just like me, if you don’t have the same experiences that I do, then I don’t want anything to do with you; and if you say something that I find oppositional, then we have nothing to talk about further.” No one should have to go anywhere and have their humanity decimated and destroyed. If the basis on which you decimate people’s identity is to decimate their value based on their various identities, then you have to bring identity into the conversation. On the other hand, we work with people whose politics we share. So there are white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men who I may have more in common with politically than with some idealized lesbians of color. We work with people whose politics we share, and that makes for a wonderful and incredibly strong possibility for making deep change.


The politics of intersectionality demonstrates how people with multiple identities are simultaneously targeted by various forms of systemic oppression and that the complexity of interlocking identities and oppressions must be taken into account to develop effective strategies for challenging injustice. In response to the #MeToo movement, for example, women of color, poor and working class women have pointed out how sexual harassment and sexual assault play out quite differently for women working in factories and in fields than it does for Hollywood actors. Some in the movement have listened and are finding strategies for eradicating sexual abuse that do not leave out the majority of women.

In this time of political crisis the commitment to solidarity and to building inclusive coalitions which characterizes the organizing of feminists of color can provide useful models for bringing about much needed change.


The Combahee River Statement is easily available online. Also the 40th anniversary edition of the Combahee River Collective Statement with interviews with each of its authors was just published by Haymarket Books. The book, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, was edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.


Barbara is this year’s speaker at the Peace Council’s 82nd Birthday Dinner on March 24. See page __ to learn more about her and the dinner.