Review: ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement’, A Manifesto by Black Feminist Lesbians

Image by Ellen Shub of Combahee River Collective members in a 1979 march.

Authored by a collective of self-proclaimed black feminist lesbians, ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement’ is a manifesto that addresses the issues of those at the bottom of the hierarchical power structure in a society, homosexual black woman. They are subject to simultaneous and interlocking oppression due to their membership in several oppressed social groups such as the working class, the African-American race, female sex, and the lesbian community. The collective was a result of wide-scale resentment among black feminists that neither the white feminist movements nor the black liberation movements addressed their issues in a substantive manner.

The manifesto was drafted in 1977 against the background of the rising social movements in the United States due to people’s frustration with the prevailing oppressive power structures. It employs a process and extensive view of politics which is inclusive of formal and informal social institutions. It views oppression as a structural concept and rejects methodological individualism and biological determinism. The objective of the collective, as highlighted in the manifesto, is to serve a logical political movement which would struggle against the interlocking oppressions faced by black women and challenge the status of the privilege of whites, men, and heterosexuals.

Viewing this document in light of Iris Marion Young’s ‘Five Faces of Oppression’ helps understand the complexity of the oppression faced by these women who experience all the fives forms of oppression. Firstly, black women experience exploitation of several kinds in addition to those experienced by black working-class men. There is a constant and systematic appropriation of women’s labour in order to benefit men and family members. The unreciprocated transfer of material, nurturing, and sexual labour by women makes them the oppressed class in this power dynamic. The manifesto calls for an extension of Marx’s theory in order to accommodate women and simultaneously eradicate exploitation by the destruction of class structures. Secondly, black women and homosexuals are marginalized from the mainstream as they are subject to material and non-material deprivation. Social structures often deny them the opportunity to exercise their capacities in meaningful ways and to lead a dignified life. One of the major underlying demands of the manifesto is to recognize black women as “levelly human”. This clearly indicates the marginal status accorded to these women, who demand nothing more than to be treated as human. Thirdly, black homosexual women are rendered powerless in relation to the ruling class, white men, white women, black men, and heterosexuals. They are subject to power without being able to exercise it. In the professional sphere this impedes them from advancement or promotion and in the social sphere it isolates them and reduces their respectability and opportunities. All these factors consolidated together helps create a system of social division of labour in which the forces of people, power, and resources interact in a manner that oppresses black women.

On the subject of cultural representation, black women face cultural imperialism and violence, both of which contributes to their oppression. They are regarded as the inferior and deviant social group due to their incompatibility with the norms of the dominant group. Hence they are categorized as “Other” or the out-group. The manifesto alludes to such cultural imperialism while referring to the elitism and racism prevalent in white feminist movements. Black women are also subject to the most direct form of oppression, namely violence. Such violence is backed by social norms as society validates it through acceptance or tolerance. The genesis of the collective was rooted in such personal experiences of violence and sexual assault which compelled these women to come together and organize their efforts in a collective.

To address this manifesto engaging Nancy Frazer’s redistribution-recognition dilemma, we can clearly identify black feminists as a bivalent collective, as both maldistribution and misrecognition co-exist and is co-original in their oppression. They are misrecognized due to lack of cultural or symbolic capital and are subject to maldistribution due to the prevalence of socio-economic injustices. This theory is useful in thinking about possible approaches to remedying social injustices that black feminists deal with. Transformative remedies would be the ideal approach to achieve long-term solutions to this problem. A restructuring of society and its socio-politico-economic structures to compliment an anti-racist, feminist, and socialist society is what the manifesto desires. This would end hegemonic relations by employing the bivalent concept of justice which includes redistribution and recognition, which will help combat oppression.

In my view, the manifesto and the collective merits appreciation for its efforts to organize black women despite problems such as minimal access to resources and power, psychological impediments, isolation, suppression, disagreements, disapproval from black men, et cetera. It played a vital role in bringing attention to the complex and layered issues pertaining to black women which white feminist movements and black liberation movements simply do not address. The manifesto takes a chronological sequence alluding to the historical and long struggle of black women, their values, problems, and future course of action. One obvious weakness of the manifesto is its organization and presentation of future projects and possible solutions. There exists a lack of clear and definite focus. Though several possibly progressive ideas are put forth, it appears to be presented as a clutter of ideas, rather than a clear plan of action. History is proof that for any movement to achieve substantial success, it must chalk out a well thought out end and the means to achieve the same. Although the solutions to the issues dealt with in the collective’s manifesto do not come easy owing to their multilayered nature, some systematic way of dealing with it is necessary to attain progress.

This review was contributed by Malini Chidambaram, Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat.

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