Reflecting on Black Feminism

Winter is a time for introspection. I pretty much always have a lot of questions that float around in my head which shape the way I interact with the world in general and especially my interactions with people who I think may help me find an answer to some of those questions. However, the cold slow energy of this time of year seems to bring the questions about what it means to be me in the world as it is to the forefront. At the moment there is a particularly thorny question rolling around my brain thanks to the book How We Get Free: Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and published by Haymarket Books.

The Combahee River Collective was a group of black women, many of them LGBT, all of them feminists. They formed the the Combahee River Collective in 1974. The book begins with The Combahee Collective Statement, then features a series of interviews with Barbara and Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, who were part of the collective, and with Alicia Garza, the co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter.

They all talked about their experiences doing the work. One of the themes I picked up from their stories is how even politically aware people have trouble seeing beyond their own horizons and this then causes harm to the people they are organizing with. This particularly hit home for me as I read the interview with Demita Frazier.

Having to deal with sexism from men in various organizations (pg. 119) and having to navigate an erasure of race and class by “white” feminism (pg. 125), she states “we knew it — and we weren’t willing to let it go. Why Black feminism? We had to create Black feminism. We had to actually create it.” (pg 124)

They had to create Black feminism because their interests weren’t being included, represented, or taken care of by the various antiracist, anticapitalist, and feminist organizations at the time. While this same theme is in Barbara and Beverly Smith’s interviews, it wasn’t until I got to Demita Frazier’s that it clicked in my head. Then in Alicia Garza’s interview, the depth of the issue was made even more clear. She was at a meeting between various organizations in LA and she was one of a very small handful of people who weren’t men at the meeting:

“So here we are in this meeting. And this brother talked for a good thirty minutes. And when he was done, I remember I raised my hand. And I said, ‘I really appreciate most of what you said. But the question that I’m trying to answer is ‘where do I fit in in any of this,’ because you have not talked about Black women. You have not talked about Black trans folks [a]nd how that fits in your vision of liberation. I’m a Black queer woman. And I’m not just organizing Black people so other people can get free. I want to get free. So based in your framework, how do I get down? I want to be a part of this team. I want to build Black liberation. So where do I fit?’ And the room — silent. It was silent for a good twenty seconds, and people are looking at each other. […] And they just moved on. Legit, moved on. […] Like, ‘Next question.’ Silence.” (pg 157)

I read this and my brain exploded. I felt like she wasn’t just talking to the men in that room, but to me as well.

Near the beginning of the book I realized that I had been trying (and failing) to figure out the exact things articulated by the Combahee Collective Statement. It excited me because it cleared out a bunch of really hard questions I had been wrestling with, but when I read that speech a whole new set of questions erupted in my mind which can be summed up as “what does it mean for me, as a ‘white’ trans woman, to practice and believe in Black feminism?” Not just, how do I center and support Black queer women? But the exact question she was demanding an answer to “[…] how do I get down? I want to be apart of this team. I want to build Black liberation. So where do I fit?”

I don’t just want to be a “white” ally. I’ve seen how various “allies” have treated each other throughout history. I’m not okay with that. I want to be co-conspirators for each other’s future success and happiness. I don’t want to say “You fight that battle and I’ll fight this battle and we’ll compare notes later.” No. I want to be in the same trench, in the same muck, at risk of being hit by the same bullets, fighting for the same cause on the same battlefield. How do we make that happen? What does that look like? How do I get down?

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