Sat. Jul 2nd, 2022

Barbara Smith is a queer feminist activist and scholar who was instrumental in the advent of the Combahee River Collective and other movements. She was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and attended Mount Holyoke College, which she assisted in desegregating. Disillusioned by the misogyny she found in male-dominated Black Nationalist groups, Smith became involved in the National Black Feminist Organization and later went on to form a more distinct radical group.

The Combahee River Collective was a black American feminist queer organization that was active from 1974 to 1980 in Boston. The Collective was a response to the lack of intersectionality in feminism. The name of the organization references the actions of Harriet Tubman at the Combahee River, the result of which freed over 750 slaves—the only military operation in American history planned and led by a woman. The group issued a powerful manifesto entitled the Combahee River Collective Statement, a document that was and continues to be crucial to the modern black feminist movement and identity.

Barbara Smith and others started the Collective after attending a National Black Feminist Organization meeting and realizing their desire for more radical social change in addition to the needs of the queer community. Over the course of weekly meetings and occasional retreats, the Collective identified, in the words of author Alexis De Veaux, “the limitations of white feminists’ fixation ‘on the primacy of gender as an oppression’” as well as the specific problems of black women, both straight and queer. Members were influenced by both the black Marxist and Nationalist movements; author Roderick Ferguson describes their ideas as “rearticulating coalition to address gender, racial and sexual dominance as part of capitalist expansion globally.”

The Combahee River Collective Statement was composed of four parts: “The Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism,” “What We Believe,” “Problems in Organizing Black Feminists” and “Black Feminist Issues and Projects.” M.E. Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan called the statement “what is often seen as the definitive statement regarding the importance of identity politics, particularly for people whose identity is marked by multiple interlocking oppressions.” The document’s impact continues to be seen in the political, social and cultural realms today. Barbara Smith was instrumental in the formation of this movement and a force of nature in her own right.

Caroline Fritz is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in French and linguistics.

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