Title

Reading Myself into Existence

First Encounters with the Combahee River Collective

 
October 31, 2017
 
 

I encountered Combahee as a first year college student. As a dance major and ballet scholarship recipient, I’d spent the last eighteen years gazing back at the only Black swan in the dance studio mirror. I yearned for self-knowledge. I identified with white gay men in my performing arts community. In the mid 1990’s, I was unclear what “gay” meant for Alabama bayou Black girls, beyond unrequited crushes. Eventually, through the grapevine of emerging artists and performers, I learned the word “lesbian.” Apparently, there had been a few in ancient Greece; those remaining now emerged at music festivals. Labrys jewelry, short haircuts, and cryptic bumper stickers would give them away. I subscribed to lesbian magazines in brown paper mailers for more clues. However, none of the stories featured had anything to do with being a Black swan.

I was excited to go to college, a thousand miles from home. I enrolled in the Introduction to Women’s Studies course; I wanted to learn more about myself, and the members of the college women’s soccer who were declared WS majors and wore rainbow jewelry. I was the only Black girl in the class. By midterm, we had covered the suffrage movement, and various political pursuits of the “second wave.” I was excited by the language and analysis of feminism and settled down with my course packet to read something about women, or womyn, or wimmin who had collected themselves “down by the river,” which was a familiar song from a borrowed women’s music CD.  

As I opened my roughly photocopied readings, I learned that “Combahee River,” as it was listed on the syllabus, was a Black feminist statement. I read the full title a few times. I was astounded by the idea of Black women claiming feminism, in 1977. I felt the stirrings of a feminist unapologetic Blackness. I read, “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.” I was a member of a community, I imagined an “us” for the very first time. I considered my role in achieving our liberation. The statement continued, “We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.” I had experienced this; even as I was still unsure what these oppressions were called or what caused them. And then…

On the second page of the murky Xerox, I read myself into existence. “Although we are feminists and lesbians…” it said. What! The Black women collected on the river were Black feminists and lesbians! I was a Black feminist and lesbian! I fantasized for days about this community beside the river. I wasn't even alive in 1977, I mourned, I didn’t own a dashiki! Had I missed them entirely? Did they still exist? Did I exist? I am not sure how long it took me to learn the history behind the name of the collective, and to trace my lineage. I became a feminist Black queer studies researcher and scholar that day. I set about loving and recovering us.

I went on to get a BA, MS, MA, and PhD, all in women’s studies; my work centers intersectional Black queer feminist pedagogies and praxis, our voices and visions. Through my work with NWSA, I’ve had the opportunity to be in community with many of the women of color feminist luminaries who initiated me through their writings. I teach the Combahee statement every semester as a revolutionary task that honors the statement’s conclusion, “As Black feminists and lesbians we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.”

The Struggle Before Us is for Us

River

I read myself into existence

And revel in the “multilayered texture of Black women’s lives”

I learn how to conceive of myself

In all of my complexity

As something other and apart from

What I had once been said to be

Embodied textuality

I am Combahee

_________

Dr. Mel Michelle Lewis is Associate Professor and Director of Ethnic Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California in the Bay Area. She is a Black feminist queer studies interdisciplinary scholar working at the nexus of intersectional queer femme critical race studies and pedagogies of social justice praxis. [email protected]

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