Black female life is worth nothing

Pamphlet created by the Combahee River Collective, 1979
The History Project

Between January and May of 1979, eleven Black women were killed in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in a spate of murders that went largely unreported in the national media. Instead, it was left to grassroots organisations like the Black feminist group Combahee River Collective, co-founded by Barbara Smith five years earlier, to bring attention to these heinous crimes and campaign for justice. Amidst this harrowing climate, Smith found solace and a space for resistance in her diary, and in June of that year, shortly after the “Roxbury murders” had ceased, having left the area to catch her breath, she wrote the following entry.

The Diary Entry

June 26, 1979

I’m sitting by a pond, surrounded by woods listening to birds (and suddenly the inappropriate disturbance of a helicopter.) I cannot believe that I got away, that where I am is real and that I am real in this place. I’ve had such fantasies already about being here after less than two hours. Fantasies about the kind of writing I could do away from the distractions of oppression. Not just city life which I need and love, but pain. Terror. Knowing from moment to moment that who I am is on all counts hated. Black, woman, Lesbian, my breathing from moment to moment inevitable fear.

I came here on many levels to get away from the murders. To escape death. So they’re “over” now. The pressure has “died” down. Not so. Every other phone call that I get concerns them. The poetry reading benefit with Adrienne and Audre, leafletting last week at Dudley station, random conversations… For me the deaths of these women has shaped six months of my life. There has never been forgetting. There has been other activity, other moments, definite joy and laughter, but always, always, always, the tragedy. The certain irrefutable and demonstrated knowledge that my Black female life is worth nothing. That my most appropriate fate here in white-boy patriarchy is to be beaten beyond recognition. Beyond recognition.

I am furious as I write this. Furious perhaps that the escape will be so temporary. Consciousness does not permit it. But I will rest here and explore.

I wonder how many Black women have ever had the chance to do the simple thing that I’ve just done. To go away by oneself to write.

Further Reading

Barbara Smith’s diary entries have been reprinted in a few books over the years, including Life Notes: Personal Writings by Contemporary Black Women, edited by Patricia Bell-Scott.

Last year Huda Hassan published an interview with Smith in which these murders are discussed. Read that here.

In 1979, the Combahee River Collective produced a pamphlet that was handed to thousands of women in the area. You can see it here.

The Roxbury murders on Wikipedia.

The Combahee River Collective on Wikipedia.

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