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Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: What We Can Learn from the Black Feminists of the Combahee River Collective

Web ExclusiveJanuary 22, 2018
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We continue our interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor about the new collection of essays she edited that, titled How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Taylor is an assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University and the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As President Trump completes his first year in office, activists in cities across the country will hold mass protests Saturday on the first anniversary of the historic Women’s March. We’re speaking with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and now editor of a new collection of essays titled How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Now, this is a collective that formed 40 years ago, but certainly has had a significant impact on activism today, and we’re going to go back in time and learn a little about what that is. Again, Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, our guest, in Part 2 of this discussion.

Combahee River Collective, why was it called that? And who were these women?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: So, the Combahee Collective named themselves after a raid that was led and conducted by Harriet Tubman in 1853 in South Carolina, along the Combahee River, that freed several hundred slaves. And that really was—they wanted to name themselves after a political act, which I think is very important to their politics, which is identifying clearly the ways that black women are oppressed.

And I think that that is a important contribution that the Combahee River Collective makes, the discussion about interlocking oppressions, how the way that black women experience oppression in our society cannot just be factored through the lens of race, it cannot just be factored through the lens of sexism or gender oppression, but we look at how those factors together create even new ways of understanding oppression. And so, they talked about interlocking oppressions.

They talked about—they coined the term “identity politics,” you know, which has come to mean all sorts of things 40 years after its entry into our political lexicon. But, for them, identity politics were quite simple. It was a way of understanding how African Americans came to understand their oppression in society. It was a way to really locate the source of black women’s politization and even radicalization, that their experiences with sexism and racism at home, at school, at work, at the doctor’s office, is really what shaped their political and social experiences in the world. And that became the basis upon which black women were going to become active in politics.

And so, they connected these different kinds of political insights and analyses into also a theory of how to confront them, how to combat them. And so, one aspect of that was linking this oppression to capitalism, which I think is a critical intervention, but also to connecting it to the oppression of other people. And so they called specifically for a coalition politics. And then, once strategies had been identified, they recognized that it was important, critical, to link women’s liberation, black women’s liberation, to a complete reconceptualization of American society and, in fact, a reorganization of American society.

And so, these are not just interesting historical anecdotes. They’re not just interesting historical lessons. But they speak very clearly to the contemporary crisis that we find ourselves in—and not just for black women, but really for the oppressed and the exploited in this country and internationally, that these are the politics of solidarity, the politics of struggle, and really should be integrated into our discussions about what we do to get free.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the women involved.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: So, I interviewed the three authors, the co-authors, of the statement: Barbara Smith, her twin sister Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier. And so, they were black women who had been politically active, who had come of age politically during the early 1960s, had all, I think, graduated high school in 1967, 1968. Barbara Smith talks quite fondly of her going to Chicago in 1968 for the Democratic Party National Convention and participating in the protest there. Demita Frazier talks quite poignantly about her experiences in the Black Panther Party in Chicago and how that was formative in her—the development of her politics. Beverly Smith talks about an earlier iteration of political activism in Cleveland involving the Congress of Racial Equality and the struggle around educational justice, and her and Barbara’s involvement in organizing Freedom Schools. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: And didn’t Barbara also help to found the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Yeah, absolutely, which was—it came later. It came in the 1980s but created a critical space for the publication of black women’s writing and became instrumental—

AMY GOODMAN: She did it with Audre Lorde.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Yeah, and became instrumental in the development of not just black women’s studies, but of women’s studies as an academic discipline. The role of Kitchen Press in that was quite foundational.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, Chirlane McCray, the first lady of New York—

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —who is married to Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, was one of the founding members of the Combahee River Collective.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: So, I found that out recently, which is fascinating to me. But I think that it points to, in some ways, the development of perhaps a relatively new dynamic in black women’s politics. And so, in my first book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, I talk extensively about the shift in the black movement, from a kind of radical street movement to organized politics, to formal politics, what Bayard Rustin has described as the movement from protest to politics. And, you know, some people look at that transition favorably, and I don’t look at it as favorably or unfavorably. I look at it to examine what dynamics are uncovered in that transition from protest to—I wouldn’t say to politics, but to formal politics, really to the Democratic Party. And it highlighted the shifts in class dynamics within the black community that, for many decades after the civil rights movement, was really understood mainly through the rise of black men, elected officials. But I think, in the last 20 to 25 years, we’ve seen black women—not to the same degree, to a lesser degree, but to a significant and very visible degree, the shift in class dynamics amongst black women, where you have the emergence of a black woman elite and a black women’s political class, of which I would say McCray is certainly a part of that, even though she is the wife of Bill de Blasio, that she plays a political role in the city of New York.

And so, it raises the question about class tensions, class dynamics between black women—and does that change the objectives within whatever we would term as the black feminist movement today? If at the heart of black feminist politics has really been a political agenda shaped by the experiences of poor and working-class women, around reproductive freedom, around campaigns for higher wages, for healthcare, that really orient the role of black women as care providers in households that suffer disproportionately from poverty, then what does that say about the role of women who are in positions to make powerful decisions, who have authority over the lives of black working-class women? I think it complicates the idea that by simply being black women alone, that we are all on the same side or that we are all on the same team. And the issue of class is something that is very palatable in the Combahee River Collective statement. And I think that, again, is a—the framework of that statement helps us, in that regard, make sense of even the contemporary issues dealing with class, as it pertains to black women in the black community.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the #MeToo movement, the Time’s Up movement, women speaking for themselves, speaking up?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: I think it’s very powerful, and the impact has been very powerful, and that, in some ways, I think we’re at the very beginning of what this has opened up, that right now has been largely contained to the internet and has really been waged on an ideological basis. But I think the space, the urgency and the need for it to manifest itself in terms of protest, demonstrations and more long-lasting organizational forms is there and that it needs to be taken advantage of.

But I think, perhaps, probably one of the most important aspects of #MeToo is how it has really exposed the lie of women’s equality in American society, that we have constantly, you know, been told that the women’s movement go too far, women asking for too much—doesn’t the ascendancy of Hillary Clinton’s campaign as the Democratic nominee signify a different position for women in this society? And I think you can say, “Yes, perhaps for some women.” But for even those women, the quotidian levels of harassment, of assault—what some activists term “rape culture”—in the United States is pervasive.

And that is something that has to be identified, not just in a separate sphere of these experiences that women happen to have, but it really has to be linked to the ways that women are paid less, the ways that women’s ability to accumulate the assets that are needed to navigate American society are minimized, because often these campaigns of harassment, this pervasive kind of sexism, is happening at the workplace. And I think that is one of the most significant things that #MeToo has exposed, is the conditions of sexism and abuse that women endure at work, that it’s not just about one’s personal comfort level, but really have to do with the ability to earn a living wage, to earn a living salary, in this country, when women are being crowded out of jobs that pay more, when women are being made to—asked to make choices about sexual favors to their supervisors in order to keep their jobs, in order to move up in their positions, in jobs. So I think that we have to see #MeToo as not just an issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault, but we also have to see it as an employment issue, as a jobs issue, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, while it was popularized first by Hollywood actors and actresses, it actually was originated by Tarana Burke, who more than 10 years ago, before hashtags and everything—

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —she said, “Me, too.”

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: She was particularly concerned about girls and women. She’s an African-American sexual assault survivor. And it just took off. I mean, she has been recognized. She dropped the ball on New Year’s Eve in Times Square—

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —and went to the Golden Globes—

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —as one of the activists who accompanied the actresses who were pushing the Time’s Up campaign.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think African-American women, one year into Donald Trump’s presidency, so often—and African Americans in general—a target of President Trump’s presidency—actually, the movement is more powerful than he is, or would you say it’s the other way around?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: The movement is significantly more powerful than Donald Trump, but it has to be activated. It has to be. And what I mean by that, because people have been active—I think that this past year has been a tale of two different sets of experiences. On the one hand, we have the kind of unbridled, vitriolic racism of Donald Trump. On the other hand, we have the various iterations of movement to try to resist that.

And so, you can begin with the Women’s Marches of one year ago, which, you know, there was lots of criticism and questioning about the marches themselves, but what was missed in some of that was the significance of 3 to 4 million people in this country coming out the day after the inauguration of this despised president to register that protest, an event completely unprecedented in American history. And so, there were marches in the spring around the climate. There have been marches and actions in solidarity with immigrants and in the struggle for immigrant rights. Perhaps most heroically, last year, in the weeks after the inauguration of Donald Trump, were the airport protests that helped to beat back his attempts to impose a travel ban.

And so, there have been different iterations of protest over the last year, but I think that it has to be—it has to be integrated with a deeper discussion about: Well, what is our side actually fighting for? Is this just to retake the Congress in 2018? Is this just to go back to the good old days of a Democrat in office in 2020 and really ignore the conditions that gave rise to Black Lives Matter, for example, the conditions that gave rise to Say Her Name, under the Obama administration? Or do we want to take this moment to demand more? Do we want to take this moment to demand more than what is on offer electorally in the coming elections? And I think that if we want to do that, then we have to open up the spaces within movement organizing to discuss what our agenda actually is, and not just our opposition to Trump.

And I think an opportunity exists for that. The more extreme that this administration becomes, it also becomes clear that just piecemeal solutions, typically offered up by the Democratic Party, are not enough, that we need—we need to go much further than that, in the immigration debate, in the debates around criminal justice, in the debates around what constitutes a good society, what constitutes good schools, what constitutes a good life, that we have to take that conversation further than most mainstream politicians are willing to engage in.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked at the Strand Bookstore when you were introducing your book, How We Get Free, about the public spaces that are being ripped down, like public schools, public libraries. But there’s another public institution that’s getting shored up, you said.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Absolutely. It’s the police. It has become the public institution of last resort, the public policy of last resort. And those things are connected. The evisceration of the public sector, whether it’s the shuttering of 52 public schools in Chicago in 2012 and 2013, 26 public schools closed in Philadelphia, the attacks on public hospitals, the—you know, no one even talks about the concept of public housing anymore, that these are services that are increasingly being deflected to the private sector for profit, that they’re searching out ways to monetize, really, the distribution of what historically have been conceived of as public services, that are intended to not just protect the public’s welfare, but to actually promote and preserve the public’s welfare. And they’re being sold to the highest bidder, or the debates are about selling them to the highest bidder.

And the way that you contain the inevitable crisis that arises from the erosion of public institutions is to shore up the police, that the police then become the force that is intended to contain the inevitable crisis that arise—that arises when you strip all meaningful support from the institutions that are really central to civic life, that are fundamental to holding together civic society. And so, that is really—this is not new. We have been witnessing this over the last—over the last two decades. This is part of what people talk about when they—are referencing when they talk about neoliberalism.

AMY GOODMAN: What about on college campuses? What about the right of professors and the attack on professors who have taken on issues of race and racism, and students? What is defined as free speech?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well, I think that it’s clear that academics are under attack, are in the crosshairs. When Wayne LaPierre, the president of the NRA, at their national gathering last April, identified the three biggest threats to the United States, he said it was the media elite, the Hollywood elite and the academic elite.

And so, they see the academy in two ways. One is that it is a place where academic freedom and job protections are supposed to ensure you the right and ability to speak freely, even on controversial issues, without threat of losing your employment. The right also understands that, and I think that is the reason why you have someone like Richard Spencer, who is in the midst of a speaking tour—

AMY GOODMAN: The white supremacist leader.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Richard Spencer, the white supremacist, who—

AMY GOODMAN: And deeply involved in the University of Virginia protest, where—

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —of white supremacists.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: And I think who, yesterday, was approved to speak at Michigan State, is attempting to demand space at Kent State to speak on May 4th—of course, the anniversary of the murder of students at Kent State.

AMY GOODMAN: By National Guard in 1970.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: By the National Guard. And so, not only do these white racists enjoy the kind of row that erupts over whether or not they should have the right to speak on campus, but in fact they do want to speak on campus, because they believe that they can recruit students to their cause. And so, left-wing professors become targets in this atmosphere, because many of us are willing to use that platform to espouse a different set of ideas and a different set of politics, and to really confront the lies that are at the heart of our society right now, in a way that is perhaps unusual in other professions, and so it means that we become a target.

AMY GOODMAN: How have you personally become a target, do you feel?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well, when I gave the talk, the commencement address at Hampshire—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that speech, the commencement address you gave at Hampshire College last May, where you described President Trump.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: The president of the United States, the most powerful politician in the world, is a racist, sexist megalomaniac. It is not a benign observation but has meant tragic consequences for many people in this country, from the terror-inducing raids in the communities of undocumented immigrants to his disparaging of refugees in search of freedom and respite. He has empowered an attorney general who embraces and promulgates policies that have already been proven to have a devastating impact on black families and communities. He thinks that climate science is fake. And his eagerness to take the country into war can only be interpreted as a callous disregard for its steep price in both money and human life.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describing President Trump at a commencement address at Hampshire College. Can you describe what happened next?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: So, I gave the speech, and I do think it’s important to say that, at Hampshire, it was very well received. And I left and, you know, thought I was going into the summer. And my family and I went on a vacation for Memorial Day weekend, and, you know, which is the Friday through—Friday through the Monday. So we were going to the beach. And Friday night, I got three emails, that were basically, you know, “You should shut up” and “How dare you talk about our president this way!” And I was like, “This is weird. What is this coming from?” But, you know, I write a lot of stuff that gets circulated, so, you know, who knows? It could be some random article that I had written.

The next day, I had 25 emails that were of the same increasing vitriol, except one of them said, “I saw you on Fox News.” And so, I googled, and there I was. Fox News had actually created a news spot of me, an excerpt of the speech, that said something like “Professor goes on wild rant about POTUS“—president of the United States. And so, not only had they created a news spot, but there was also a written article. And it was there that I saw that they had gotten the information for their news coverage from Campus Reform, which I then came to learn is a right-wing, Koch brother-funded website, that really trolls left-wing—who they perceive to be left-wing or radical or even liberal faculty, to parse through their words to see if they can come up with a story out of that.

And so, by the end of the weekend, I had received near 70 emails. And within that, most of those weren’t death threats. Most of those were racist. I was called the N-word several times. I was subjected to sexist slurs, to homophobic slurs, to transphobic slurs. And then, within that, I received two clear death threats, one that I would be lynched, that I was being investigated by this person and that I was going to be lynched by he and several other people, and then another one that said that all of my problems with America would go away when I received a 45 bullet to the head.

And so, you know, at that point, as, you know, it felt as if the death threats were continuing to mount, I contacted Princeton University. And the police at Princeton got involved. And, you know, eventually, the hateful email—because it was also going to my department’s email, it wasn’t just coming to me. You know, part of what these people do is they also contact who they think are persons of authority, to try to get you fired from your job, as well. So, emails were going everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: So, at that point, wasn’t Eddie Glaude the head of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Yes. So there were a couple of emails addressed to Eddie, where I was CCed about, you know, “You N-word this, you N-word that.” You know, so, how do I have a job at this campus? You know, all sorts of, you know, sometimes incoherent, just violent, racist nonsense, you know, that is, I felt like, at the time—and I put out a statement that was trying to explain why I was canceling the West Coast swing of my book tour, which is that Fox News, they know what they’re doing. You know, this was a deliberate attempt to activate a racist cyberhate mob and in an attempt to intimidate and silence me. And I was intimidated. But clearly I’m not silent.

AMY GOODMAN: So, when did you feel safe enough to re-emerge? And now you’re speaking in different places.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well, I gave a speech at the Socialism 2017 conference in Chicago in June, roughly a month after this, that talked about fighting racism in the Trump administration, in front of 1,500 people. And that was kind of my re-entry into public talks. But, you know, it means that I have to take precautions, you know? I have to have a plan around security. And so, whereas before, yeah, I’d just sort of go anywhere and, you know, give a talk and that sort of thing, you know, I have to think about “Is this a right-to-carry state? Is this a, you know, you-don’t-need-a-permit, you-can-have-a-concealed-weapon state? What are some of the laws regarding that on campus? Where is it that”—you know, I’ve been asked to go to places that are somewhat remote, like college campuses that are remote. And I won’t do it, because of the political climate that exists in this country right now. And that, you know, unfortunately, is something that if you have any aspect of a profile around any of this, you have to—you have to be wary about, and you have to take heed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to end with your title of your new book, How We Get Free. On this anniversary of the inauguration of President Trump and also the anniversary of millions of people, led by women, all over the country, marching against the election of President Trump, how do you think, as you put it—how we get free?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well, I think that we have to get back onto the streets of this country in a way that we really haven’t been in the last several months. And I think that it means not just a series of individual individuals who are aggrieved organizing their own marches, but, you know, we have to do the work to bring these different struggles together. We have to do the work to bring the black movement together with the immigration movement, together with the movement against Islamophobia, together with the movement of ordinary working people to oppose this tax bill. How is it that this tax bill can be passed, and there is not a peep from the AFL-CIO? That is the level of corrosion in our politics right now. That is the level of orientation on, “Well, if we just get Congress back, then that will take care of most of the problem.” And again, it ignores how we got into this problem in the first place.

The reason why 100 million people don’t vote or didn’t vote, or at least part of the reason, is that if you invest your hopes and aspirations into the presidency of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, who promises you hope, who promises you change, who promises to do everything differently, and delivers precious little, then what hope do you have from the candidate who promises you nothing? And so, that is the dilemma in 2016.

And so, the hoping and waiting just to get back Congress ignores where we actually have power. And that, we saw in the airport protests. That, we saw with the 3 to 4 million people out on the streets. That is how we will change the dynamics around deportation—if we make our cities, in the streets, ungovernable, through our ability to shut things down. And that’s not just about students. That’s not just about people directly affected. That’s also the power that people who work have, the power of ordinary people. And so, we have to figure out how we combine our efforts, instead of seeing these as individual campaigns, and apply that sort of pressure, that comes through organizing, that comes through street protest. And that is at least part of the way that we get free.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see these protests that are planned for this inaugural weekend as part of that?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: I think that for—many of the people who will go to these protests are looking for an outlet to get involved in that sort of way. I think, for the organizers, they see this, in some ways, as a way—I mean, they’re calling it “Power to the Vote,” or something like that, power to the presidency. And I think that, you know, that’s kind of the wrong orientation. But I think that—

AMY GOODMAN: Meaning it should be?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: I think that it has to be that we actually have the power to stop this agenda. And we should stop handing that over to other people, with the belief that they’ll do it for us, because they have no track record of doing so, that we have that ability. And so, we need the power to the protest, power to the streets, to actually stop that agenda and put forward our own. And I think that the people who show up to these protests want to do that. And that’s who, you know, activists and organizers must connect with, as we try to rebuild the social movements, but also the political movements that fight for the agenda of regular people and of ordinary people.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, editor of a new collection of essays titled How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, also author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. She is an assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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