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Interviews

THE BLACK FEMINIST ROOTS OF INTERSECTIONALITY

Text by Alexis Clements

The history is long and remarkably consistent. From Sojourner Truth’s powerful critiques of abolitionists in the mid-1800s for refusing to fight for Black women’s rights in tandem with the rights of black men, to Anna Julia Cooper’s 1892 book, A Voice from the South, in which she declared, “The colored woman of today [sic] occupies, one may say, a unique position in this country. . . She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem.”[1] To playwright Lorraine Hansberry describing the realities faced by Black women in an interview with broadcaster Studs Terkel: “The most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women,” which in turn makes them “twice militant because they’re twice oppressed.”[2] To the Boston-based Combahee River Collective’s (CRC) 1977 statement on the “simultaneous” nature of the oppressions they faced:

"The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking"[3]

To legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s incisive 1989 legal analysis of the unique position of Black women attempting to bring discrimination claims within the US legal system, in which she coined the term ‘intersectionality’: “They experience discrimination as Black women—not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as Black women.”[4] And even more recently to the platform published in 2016 by The Movement for Black Lives:

"We are intentional about amplifying the particular experience of state and gendered violence that Black queer, trans, gender nonconforming, women and intersex people face. There can be no liberation for all Black people if we do not center and fight for those who have been marginalized."[5]

This ongoing legacy of Black feminist thought is not so much a thread as a river coursing across history, to borrow CRC’s metaphor—a clear and forceful insistence on the recognition of the unique position of Black women, and later also of Black trans, gender nonconforming, and intersex people, as well as a forthright claim to their power.

The term “intersectionality” is everywhere today. It is used, abused, coopted, and maligned in countless settings. In some of its most cynical uses it has become a stand-in for the hackneyed term “diversity,” a limp gesture often made by white leadership to reference a hoped-for or theoretical presence of people of color without any move by that same leadership to cede space, resources, or control to those individuals.

As CRC co-founder Barbara Smith told me in a phone conversation, which centered on intersectionality: “The actual grasp of what it all means is still only known by some, and the ‘some’ are people, generally, who are very involved in the movements of which our work was very formative and catalytic.”[6] Barbara Smith along with her sister Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier wrote the Combahee River Collective’s groundbreaking 1977 statement. The group chose the Combahee River as part of their moniker because it is the river upon which Harriet Tubman led over 700 enslaved people to their freedom.

While many people have heard of the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, particularly Crenshaw’s impact as the person who coined the term ‘intersectionality’ and popularized an understanding of its meaning, far fewer people know of the Combahee River Collective’s work, even though their statement preceded Crenshaw’s term and has served as a direct influence on decades of activism. Most recently the CRC’s impact can be traced to the Black women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement,[7] and the activists in Puerto Rico who formed the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Colectiva Feminista), which helped lead the 2019 protests that forced the resignation of the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló (in office 2017-2019). For example, Shariana Ferrer, a co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Colectiva Feminista, in an article appearing on the Shondaland blog wrote: “Our manifesto is in the tradition of the Combahee River Collective… We are the daughters and heirs of black feminism in traditions of resistance in the Caribbean and in Latin America.”[8]

The world is better for having both Crenshaw’s work and the Combahee River Collective’s statement, not to mention the centuries of work, analysis, and struggle by Black women that preceded them. But here I want to focus on the CRC’s statement because it is less widely known and because it reaches far beyond many similar statements in its analysis. As Barbara Smith stated:

"Another reason that the work of the Combahee River Collective is not as well-known is because we were bonafide members of the left… I really feel that it’s our leftist politics that gives the statement its uniqueness, its impact, and its staying power, at the very same time that it causes it to be ignored."

The Smith sisters and Frazier came to the CRC with years of activism under their belts, working on a range of issues from anti-war efforts and Black liberation to abortion access and women’s health. Those struggles, and the challenges they faced within them as Black queer women, along with their socialist and materialist analysis of the ways in which economics, class, and capitalism played a crucial role in the machinery of oppression, were what drove them to form the CRC. While for some today, many points in their statement may seem self-evident, the reality is that at the time their statement was formulated, it was an utterly revolutionary act to bring all of those pieces together, because as the women of the CRC knew firsthand, many would-be revolutionary groups talked a big game, but when it came down to it, there was always a pecking order that asked women, or queer people, or Black people, or some other group, to take a step back, to wait until later, because something else needed to come first.

Their statement also reveals the lie behind superficial efforts toward “inclusion” that came later in the 1980s and 90s. When the analysis stops at simply acknowledging race and/or gender, society’s solutions often pivot around putting more women and/or people of color in the room without ever redistributing power or resources, and without changing the structure of the rooms themselves. As Smith asserted:

"When those concepts began to be very popular I referred to diversity and multiculturalism as ‘all the colors in the crayon box’… We don’t have to really examine what the meaning is of different histories and their relationships to power, different realities of oppression, we don’t have to address all of that because we’re just so happy we have all the colors.'[9]

The power of rooting contemporary understandings of intersectionality in the CRC’s statement, and the longer history of Black feminism, is to put pressure on those who would avoid confronting oppression, while wanting to appear culturally and politically savvy. As Demita Frazier noted when thinking about how the term has been abused in the popular culture in her chapter of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s 2017 book How We Got Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, “I wouldn’t say co-opted if it weren’t for the fact that there’s still this big divide between practice and theory, right?”[10]The CRC statement, drawn from the authors’ own experience, and their refusal to continue to participate in activism that excluded their demands, evokes the centu-ries-old motto that has since been adopted by disability rights activists: “Nothing for us without us.” It serves as a reminder that work should not and cannot be done in their name, or using their analysis, without incorporating the people whose liberation struggles shaped it. Barbara Smith summarized it best in our conversation and her words are a great reminder to anyone who would take up the mantle of doing intersectional work:

"Most people know what’s happening to them. And if asked, and given a context, they can say what it is they’re experiencing and what’s wrong. That’s how you begin to build politically…you can talk to people, the most targeted by structural oppressions. And you let them take leadership and tell you what’s happening… There are those of us who study this stuff; there are those of us who are very fortunate to have gotten a higher education—we think, we write, we create, et cetera. But at the end of the day… we have to always take our agendas for moving forward from people who understand exactly what’s going on.”[11]

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. A regular contributor to Hyperallergic, her writing has also appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian, and The Brooklyn Rail among others.


1 Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South (Ohio: Aldine Printing House, 1892), 134.

2 Studs Terkel, recorded interview with Lorraine Hansberry, May 12, 1959. https://studsterkel.wfmt.com/p... (accessed December 6, 2019).

3 Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Fourth Edition (Albany: SUNY Press, 2015), 210.

4 Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), 149.

5 The Movement for Black Lives, “Platform,” The Movement for Black Lives, https://policy. m4bl.org/platform/ (accessed December 6, 2019).

6 Barbara Smith, phone conversation with author, November 30, 2019.

7 This point is discussed in the interview with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza featured in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book How We Got Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). Include the quote’s page number here.

8 Sandra Guzmán, “Meet the Women Leading Puerto Rico’s Feminist Revolution,” Shonda-land, https://www.shondaland. com/live/a28653844/puer-to-rico-protests-feminist-rev-olution/ (accessed December 6, 2019)

9 Smith, phone conversation with author.

10 Smith, phone conversation with author.

11 Smith, phone conversation with author.