A Book About Feminism

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, was published in 2017.

The first line of the Combahee River Collective statement is: “We are a collective of Black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974.

How We Get FreeHow We Get Free is a collection of interviews with the founders of The Combahee River Collective (CRC).

How We Get Free was published on the 40th anniversary of the 1977 publication of the Combahee River Collective statement.

The CRC was founded by a group of Black women who felt excluded by the feminist movement, The Black Panthers, the male-dominated American political system, and by capitalism. It was formed from “the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable.”

The first interview is with Barbara Smith. In it, she explains how she came up with the name for the group: She’d read a short biography of Harriett Tubman which included the story of the raid Tubman led on the Combahee River, in South Carolina, which freed 750 slaves. It was the only military campaign in American history planned and carried out by a woman.

She tells of participating in the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. She tells of her introduction to activism on college campuses, and her career path in becoming a teacher and a writer.

She tells of how the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization became the Combaheee River Collective.

The next interview is with Beverly Smith. She tells of her sister and her growing up in a politically active all-female household, and how that influenced her. She tells of joining CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and about being involved in school boycotts and protests. She was too young to be allowed to join the March on Washington, so she watched it on television. “You know, ‘The revolution won’t be televised’… Well, part of the revolution was televised!

She tells of her and her sister going to different colleges – Barbara to Mount Holyoke and Beverly to the University of Chicago – and compares their different experiences with activism.

She talks about the career path and social connections that led to the CRC and the creation of  the Combahee River Collective statement.

The next interview is with Demita Frazier. She tells of growing up in segregated Chicago, leaving home at an early age, and of getting into activism.

She describes herself as a Zelig. “The stupid Woody Allen movie… Where the character appears in the background of all these very important political events…” She tells of being involved in the Black Panther breakfast program right before Fred Hampton was murdered. She was involved in the Jane Collective. And she was there for forming of the CRC.

She discusses her views of the past, present, and future of Black feminism.

The final interview is with Alicia Garza, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.

She speaks about the difficulty of joining the feminist movement as a queer Black feminist.

She tells of joining the CRC, how it led to Black Lives Matter. She discusses the backlash BLM receives on social media.

How We Get Free closes with a commentary from Barbara Ransby, an historian and activist, who was not part of the CRC. She writes about the importance of the Combahee River Collective, in terms of socialism, lesbian identity, Black identity, and feminism.

How We Get Free is an amazing book. I enjoyed reading it very much. It is a personal, oral accounting of a fascinating era in the history of the USA. The one-on-one interview format of this book made this a quick read. The many insights and ideas made me turn back and re-read certain passages, make it also a not-so-quick-read.

I highly recommend it.

Why I chose this book:

The Seattle Public Library published a reading list for International Women’s Day. How We Get Free caught my interest because, I admit, I hadn’t heard of the Combahee River Collective. Secondly, I felt that an interview format would make a heavy subject easier to handle. (And it did.)