To say your book is an oracle is not the most humble thing to proclaim.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs and the Universality of Black Women’s Freedom
by Kendra Roedi
these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris at Macalester College, Spring 2018
Upon entering the room, she has already distanced herself from the word “intellectual”, before explicitly telling us she wouldn’t call herself that. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is sitting cross- legged at the front of the classroom. She asks us, “what percentage of you is present right now?” The students respond with numbers admittedly low. She understands, and forces us to be more present not through bringing our full selves into the classroom, but by bringing someone else in, spiritually. While she exudes an energy much more typical of the poet she is, or an organizer, what was perhaps the most subversive thing she did as an intellectual is that for the first two and half hours, she was the one asking us questions.
Spill, she explains to us, functions like an oracle. Sitting in the back of the classroom I’m still barely present despite the activity to counter it, and as someone that doesn’t buy into even astrology, I’m skeptical. Also, to say your book is an oracle is not the most humble thing to proclaim. However, it is this type of colonial thinking, that someone does or doesn’t have certain rights to something, the creation of fugitivity, that Gumbs is displaying and attempting to counteract in her book.
In the last twenty minutes of the time she spent with us, Gumbs explains some of the ways in which she is trying to combat the silencing and isolation of Black women behind the devices she uses in Spill. For instance, in addition to prefacing the book acknowledging the influence of Hortense Spillers’ on her work, she goes on to cite Black White and in Color 125 times, counter- acting the fact that Black women are extremely undercited. Gumbs also explains how her usage and lack thereof of capitalization, particularly her capitalization of “I” denotes collectivity in the sentiment or message she is illustrating. Throughout her book it is clear she wants to emphasize collectivity, particularly among Black women, through the mainly present tense form of speech that is relatable amongst everyone to some degree.
It is the fact that everyone can get something out each page that makes the book work like an oracle. One of her first tasks or us was to find what the question in our life is to our freedom. The question that needs to be answered, or solved in which you can be free. She then asked us to associate a number with it, that we were to then use to find the page in her book that would provide us some insight. I was initially skeptical of the magic of the book, but still struck with the question. We often think about the obstacles in our life but in no context of how we can be free of them, or what the true question of our freedom is in the long-run.
I was also surprised that she instructed a majority-white classroom to do this, and called on willing students to share their question, and she would read aloud the poem on that page. The message I take from this is that Black women’s freedom is everyone’s freedom. Separately, it acknowledges the ways in which the current obsession with identity politics leaves out the things we experience collectively, and how poetry and literature can transcend that.
Spill is the first book in Gumbs’ trilogy of books examining freedom, possibility, and accountability, respectively. It is the universality of these themes, emotions, and questions she poses in Spill, all clearly aimed, though, in the context of Black women that we point our attention towards them, that the fugitivity of Black women is on full display.