Magazine article Resources for Gender and Women's Studies: A Feminist Review

The Archive of Black Women's Memory: A Liberation Experience

Magazine article Resources for Gender and Women's Studies: A Feminist Review

The Archive of Black Women's Memory: A Liberation Experience

Article excerpt

For numerous reasons, Black women's lives have historically been marginalized in the archives. Racism, sexism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity have erased the nuanced, diverse experiences of women of the African Diaspora in the written record. During the last few decades, various repositories have made concerted efforts to document the experiences of Black women, and a number of texts have analyzed how the omission of women's stories gravely impacts the historical record. However, the importance of diverse communities of Black women being empowered to document their own experiences and tell their stories cannot be overstated. These voices are a radical reclamation of Black women's nuanced experience. For as Black women have historically been subjugated societally, so too have our herstories.

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective situates Black women's archive of memory as critical to the narrative of the Combahee River Collective's (CRC's) herstory. By interviewing foremothers Demita Frazier, Barbara Smith, and Beverly Smith about how their own experiences growing up shaped them as Black feminists, scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor positions their voices as vital to the origins of the historic CRC statement. Taylor's conversation with #BlackLivesMatter founder and activist Alicia Garza brings the conversation to the present-day influence of Black feminist ideology on current liberation movements. Taylor profoundly notes that "[a]s Demita Frazier says, the point of talking about Combahee is not to be nostalgic; rather, we talk about it because Black women are still not free" (p. 14).

I was surprised by the structure of this book. Initially I assumed Taylor was offering a scholarly analysis of the CRC, following a linear historiography of the organization, a brief overview of the women involved, a discussion about situating the collective into the narrative of feminist theory, and a conclusion about where to go next. Upon discovering the book centered on the interviews with the scholar-activists, I was interested to see how Taylor's questions would shape the conversations with the Smith sisters, Frazier, and Garza. In some ways, the interviews served to be an even more powerful witness to the continued relevance of the CRC. The conversations felt simultaneously informal and formal, familiar and new, historically significant and currently relevant.

Taylor's introduction expertly situates the CRC within the contemporary political climate, the historic significance of the statement and the collective, and the continued relevance of CRC ideologies for true revolutionary change for oppressed communities. Recounting how Black women are still disproportionately affected by economic oppression and inequality, she notes, "The Combahee River Collective built on those observations [by previous Black women intellectuals and activists] by continuing to analyze the roots of Black women's oppression under capitalism and arguing for the reorganization of society based on the collective needs of the most oppressed" (p. 5).

The CRC statement is printed in its entirety in the book as an excellent preface to the interviews. Readers can learn the herstory behind the collective and get a clear understanding of its ideologies as well as an overview of the state of Black feminism before and during the 1970s. The collective's members speak of the "interlocking" oppressions Black women face--an ideological precursor to scholar Kimberle Crenshaw's powerful concept of intersectionality. (1) The passage below provides a salient summation of one of the CRC's key positions:

Black feminists often talk about feelings of craziness before becoming
conscious of the concepts of sexual politics, patriarchal rule, and
most importantly, feminism, the political analysis and practice that we
women use to struggle against our oppression. The fact that racial
politics and indeed racism are pervasive factors in our lives did not
allow us, and still does not allow most Black women, to look more
deeply into our own experiences and, from that sharing and growing
consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and
inevitably end our oppression. … 
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