A Call to Home

First Encounters with the Combahee River Collective

November 6, 2017

I grew up in a home overflowing with black literature, history, and fiction. My mother’s library shaped my world in Southeast Washington, DC amid police militarization and socioeconomic displacement. Politics was inherent to the flows of life in the city, no matter how far removed we locals were positioned away from a locus of power. At the time, I did not know that I was developing a political consciousness — I read, I lived, and these things simply were as they’d always been. Against the tide of drugs and violence that nearly destroyed neighborhoods in the late 1980s and 90s, I was raised in a lovingly woman-led community where I’d implicitly learned lessons of black women’s survival. Our lives were being shaped by the totalizing policies and rhetorics of the War on Drugs, but there was somehow hope and possibility to recover. From these women I learned that selflessness may sustain a community in need, but the cost could be the price of a liberated life.

Where does the outcast queer fit into the narrative of black love and community that would save us? I discovered quite early that most visions of progress did not include me, and yet this was not a fight that I could abandon.  

The first time I read The Combahee River Collective’s "A Black Feminist Statement," I felt my black queer heart beat for the first time. I was 18, cluttering the margins of my Words of Fire anthology with Amens, Yeses, and Better Preach, Sis!-es. I read out loud and clapped along with emphasis in that homegrown, recognizable way that we black femmes do when “I said what I said” is an indisputable fact. It was a call-and-response I didn’t know I needed. It was a great historical secret that insisted: we’ve always been here, and we can’t be erased. I was young and feminist and black and queer and had no idea how to be all those things at once. But then there I was, listening in on what felt like a private meeting of radical aunties whose language of love was as sharp, warm, and stunningly beautiful as I had ever witnessed.

The Combahee statement was, in part, about developing a literacy in critical love; and in this new language, I appeared, whole and possible—an unapologetic generational cypher of black queer feminist potential. It was, and is, a Sacred Text. A guiding grammar that mapped the great expanse between being imagined and being real.

Until I read the Combahee statement the only vision of community I knew depended on the sustained, repetitious erasure of black women and queer folks as politically salient. This was for the greater good of respectability. This was the counter to a national narrative of welfare queens, sexual deviants, and violent thugs. This was to preserve any remaining dignity of black love, consciousness, and progress that emerged out of cultural movements peaking in the 1970s.

I had yet to learn that uncritical selflessness would rob me of the ability to demand accountability — to be seen as fully fleshed, levelly human. From the first encounter through every return thereafter, my life and my work are indebted to the vision mapped by a group of black lesbian feminists who dared to speak when not spoken to.

Once called into existence, hailed by manifesto and made real through emphatic articulation, we could not be undone. Black. Queer. Feminist. Scholar. Activist. Creative. The language of liberation that took root in this foundational text refused the demand of unwavering self-sacrifice and martyrdom that bound black queer women to political neglect, forced to welcome every form of social death. I learned to speak myself into a world that had forgotten my kin and my kind. I found solace in the collective's treatise on the risk and vulnerability required to be self-reflexively honest about intracommunity conflict.

I heard, for the first time, a call to come home.


Bio: Dr. Niq D. Johnson is currently a Visiting Scholar at Chatham University’s Women’s Institute. They research and write about political and social displacements, highlighting the convergence of antiblackness, queerantagonism, and misogyny.

Tweets are unbossed & unbought @MxNiq2.



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