On October 3, in a packed Jaharis Recital Hall, Haverford welcomed activist, author, and Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to discuss her 2017 book How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Taylor’s book, which focuses on the legacy of the titular collective of radical Black feminists that arose from the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s, is the selection for the College’s second annual Campus Read initiative.
Launched last year as a joint venture of the Dean’s Office and the Office of the Provost, the Campus Read is a community-wide exploration of the roots and pervasiveness of structural racism in American society through the written word. How We Get Free, copies of which are distributed for free through the Dean’s Office, is filled with essays and interviews Taylor conducted with the collective’s founding members. Through those, it considers the collective’s enduring contributions to feminist and antiracist activism and the significant work that remains to be accomplished in both arenas.
“In the last several years, Black feminism has reemerged as the analytical framework for the activist response to the oppression of trans women of color, the fight for reproductive rights, and, of course, the movement against police abuse and violence,” reads the conclusion of Taylor’s introduction to How We Get Free. “As [collective founding member] Demita Frazier says, the point of talking about Combahee is not to be nostalgic; rather, we talk about it because Black women are still not free.”
Following a brief reception, Vice President for Institutional Equity and Access Nikki Young introduced Taylor and kicked off the event with a Q&A. During the session, Taylor discussed the genesis of her activism, which began in Chicago, where she said she was introduced to segregation while working as a tenant advocate as she pursued her degree. Later, she touched on her work to abolish the death penalty in Illinois, which the state repealed in 2011.
Taylor continued by sharing her thoughts on current activist movements, including Black Lives Matter and the new era of Black leaders and activists who have emerged since 2020. In her answers, she encouraged today’s activists to avoid being discouraged by the challenges they face.
“Setbacks,” she said, “often come with victories.”
Taylor also took questions from audience members and touched on an array of topics. Regarding identity politics, she said it’s “the right of black women to pursue issues that were most important to them.”
Beyond her role as an activist, Taylor explained that, as a college professor, she enjoys discussing pressing issues with students because they often provide new insights. “I want to understand why the world is the way that it is, and there are a lot of questions about how we can change the conditions we live in,” Taylor said. “It’s an important question, and I want to ask as many people as possible to get as many answers as I can.”
After the event, Dean of the College John McKnight said he was thrilled with Taylor’s talk, as well as the College community’s embrace of the collective reading experience.
“The Campus Read initiative has slowly been gaining momentum, but the whole idea is having the community wrap its head around a set of ideas, test theories, agree, and disagree since that’s what happens on college campuses,” McKnight said. “This book fits with the college’s antiracism programming, and, more so, it fits with the big picture idea of the whole program: shared intellectual exploration.”