Why are you struggling to form words? Can’t you breathe underwater, talk through water?
Spill: Uncovering Black Invisibility
by Julissa Molina-Vega
these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris
at Macalester College, Spring 2018
Written by a young, accountable community intellectual, Spill is written as an ode to black women. The book speaks of seeking freedom from oppressive situations that further racism and sexism towards black women, and Gumbs’ poetry portrays definitive literary criticism. Her syntax style throughout each scene breaks the norm of a narrative having a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, she elects to share the meaty middle moment to hit us with the most powerful climax of each story. Gumbs ignores the expectation that narratives should also have a coherent, developing character throughout the story. The absence of a single character allows the scenes to belong to former fugitives, recent slaves, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers. The characters each share an individual story to combine together into a novel that teaches the reader about a wide spectrum of hardships and circumstances of black women.
Inspired by Hortense Spillers’ Black, White, and In Color, Gumbs cites phrases from Spiller’s work in order to set an example of citing black feminist writers and theorists from whom her ideas are inspired. Instead of writing original thoughts, Gumbs demonstrates how writers can write with each other and expand their stances. By adding her insight to their thoughts, she strengthens the ideas. The collaboration allows further investigation into the topic and deeper understanding of fellow writers and their perspectives.
With that being said, tie a rock around your ankle and jump off the dock. Next, explain to me how you feel. Why are you struggling to form words? Can’t you breathe underwater, talk through water? Gumbs’ poetry takes a similar scene and incorporates the pure hell black women of all generations have been through. When they’re drowning, they’re dying. Opening their mouth and screaming results in a quicker death. Gumbs relays countless moments of domestic violence, abuse, or personal entrapment, where the men, the racist, the sexist, or just white society is the rock pulling the woman down. If she shouts for help or tries to get away, the only person harmed is her. Any attempt to escape her reality will prove fruitless. Instead, black women are taught to stop trying to escape the inevitable and to persevere through the life they were given. Gumbs describes ways for women to imagine their position in the world, to expand the parameters in which they can move, and make themselves be heard and acknowledged. Despite the fact that they “are not born. we are made” (129), they are determined to fight in a world that was not made for black women. A world that pushes them to run and lose themselves. A world where the reflection in the mirror is a stranger staring back. A world with constant thoughts of: “how did you get here” (71). Oppression keeps black women from flying, from finding their identity away from man, from loving, and from finding meaning and purpose.
Gumbs describes a powerful scene where “now that she has dropped the frame of what she thought she was making onto the floor where bare feet sacrifice and smile…no picture frame could contain her now” (28-29). The stress of fitting into the frame causes the pain growing from the depths within the woman, poisoning her thoughts and heart. The pressure surrounds her and begins to squeeze, until she feels like she can’t breathe. She reaches a point when the pain hits the highest note, and she loses her mind. The moment when she shatters the picture frame and lets the pain and anger she had inside of her go. But the release of the shards around her reminds her she is still alive. A reminder that there’s still something to save: herself. This scene is powerful in the way it describes chasing after an ideal that will never be achieved, no matter how much effort is put in. The woman cuts herself from the glass, but smiles at the realization that she is free from the suffocating standard of fitting into the picture. The cuts represent the sacrifices and pain she went through. The damage is done, and now she has to clean up her mess and herself as society and men do not allow her to express her anger. Women can never complain. Instead they must hold it all inside of them until they explode in private. Then, they must pick themselves up and restore the appearance of being normal and happy. Women are required to endure the endless, destructive cycle of inferiority and maintain the house’s appearance within society.
Furthermore, the common metaphor and reference to sandpaper is a subtle way to connect the excerpts and the idea of invisibility. Having these images of being smooth and sanded-down promotes the notion of erasing qualities that people call attention to: can’t be too beautiful, can’t be too ugly. They need to be in the middle: smooth and plain. Invisible women are safe and Gumbs shows that as she uses invisibility as a major theme throughout the book, “it was no superpower that made her invisible to them, that made it possible for her to move from room to room without them knowing her sequence” (41). Women go throughout their day without being noticed by anyone. The fact that the house is clean, food is ready, and clothes are washed are the only indications that black women exist. Smart, resourceful women have strategies to avoid punishment and placate their man. It takes strength to stay and fight for their life. Doing what they’re asked for correctly avoids repercussions, but doesn’t guarantee a fist-free night. This is a cycle that has repeated for centuries and continues today. Women need to stand up and demand more. End the suffering, pain, and heartache instead of breaking like glass and sanding themselves down. I believe that Gumbs paints these painful scenes with the intent of empowering women to realize their sad reality and fight for a change.
Most excerpts have an element of desperate hope, “she imagined the blue of her bruises spreading daily on his insides until his muscles could not take it and his bones grew weak and bent…receipt for how her life was spent” (22). Besides writing about black women’s limitations and their inferior position within society, Gumbs also addresses a man’s relationship to a woman: male dominance and the domestic violence occurring behind closed doors. In these scenes, there is a longing for freedom and an accumulation of hate felt radiating from the pages. Women are hurt and suffering. Despite it all, women still have strength left within them. Black women cannot escape the burden beaten into their shoulders, but they are fighting to live and see another day. Mentally strong, black women find a coping mechanism or vice to help erase their flawed reality to make their day-to-day life a little easier; until their less than perfect world transforms into an almost pleasant life, where some days they can even smile.
Throughout the novel, Gumbs supplies us with clear imagery that exudes powerful emotions that rightfully enrage the reader. Nobody deserves these situations or this pain, but many do experience it. The usage of lowercase letters eliminates emphasizing a particular pronoun or subject. “i” is not Gumbs, “i” is everyone: you, me, your next door neighbor, the past and present. The images, paired with not focusing on a particular journey, allows the reader to realize the extent of the problem: how widespread this issue is. Gumbs gives a voice to the survivors and support to black women. Her books gives us a wakeup call as well as hope that the informed future will change its actions and treatment of black women: empower them, not enslave them with invisible chains and expectations.