What might be limiting us, what might strengthen us, what might be the answer to leading a life of freedom, possibility, and accountability?
these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris at Macalester College, Spring 2018
I’ve always had trouble with the stark contrast between academic theory and real-life, in- your-face realities of the world. The main instance of this is in my unending struggle with political theory. I never quite understood how one could write about the world without actually having lived or known it. Then there’s Alexis Pauline Gumbs. I take inspiration from her book Spill: Scenes of Black feminist fugitivity, which takes on a life of its own as a work of narration, theory, and affirmation. In simple terms, Hortense J. Spillers’ Black, White, and in Color essays gave Gumbs inspiration for Spill, and her poetry reflects that source. Spillers’ collection of essays plays to the timelessness and unending work required of dedicated writers, perhaps particularly when diving into centuries of literature, art, and academic institutions. However, Spillers is quite inaccessible to the non-academic, simply because that is not the public she intends to write for. The work Gumbs does to retool Spillers’ theory and critique in a wholesome form, an embodiment of an—and many—actual human beings is simply remarkable. From Spillers, Gumbs weaves in first-person narratives of feminism, motherhood, community, belonging, pain, oppression, searching, hopelessness… the spectrum of human pleasure and pain is encased in Gumbs’ words. Staying true to Spillers, she upholds the observation that Black writers must retool the language that they inherit, and likewise continues a tradition of idiomatic language and writing that Spillers belongs to. This means that the reader is not meant to anticipate, but rather to be surprised by the discontents between the present sentence and the preceding one. For Hortense Spillers, this meant selecting words as a political act, meant to surprise the reader and to underscore the inherent racism of academic discourse. I believe Gumbs
works to emulate the same purposefulness in her language. Although it might not be in an effort to directly confront racist academics, I believe a similar push to de- and reconstruct language for Gumbs’ public is evident throughout Spill. For example:
“her fingers rake the dirt pull the roots eat the hurt under her
nails. enter earthworm. enter snails. center trails led by the
sweetest decomposers. cue the music start the rain press the
chest in to stain the housedress half-life. hold the trowel hold
the hoe hold the spade this will by played out by hand now…” Spill, pp. 59
Capitalization is also an intentional component of Spill—as Gumbs notes, sometimes the personal “I” is capitalized when meant to refer to herself, while a lowercase “i” is meant to create space for a more relatable narrative for any public.
Another vital extension of Gumbs’ effort to make Spillers and Black feminist writing in general more accessible to a wider public is her push to present Spill as a freedom oracle. In our discussion we were most fortunate to have her replicate the oracle for our class. How this worked was that in the three themes of freedom, possibility, or accountability, we were asked to write a question. What might be limiting us, what might strengthen us, what might be the answer to leading a life of freedom, possibility, and accountability? Some students shared questions related to financial stability, to resolving nation or worldwide racial violence or to promote healing, and similar lofty questions. Then we were asked to think of a number, which corresponded to a page in Spill that would provide some guidance or a response to our question. While I cannot speak personally for the students posing questions, it seemed as if the oracle arrived at meaningful contributions for each and every question that was posed. We repeated the exercise with her book M Archive, which without even having read it yielded fantastically meaningful results! In her educational program Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, she has understandably found a loving community in Durham that feels the strength of the oracle and similar activities enough to support her livelihood.
Even having read through Spill and parts of Black, White, and In-Color, it can be difficult to grasp the awesome force of the words on the pages. What Gumbs does with Spill allows the word to speak for itself naturally, through individual reflection and through community-oriented processing. The retooling of language, the imagery, and the purposefulness of grammar combine to form a powerful collection of poetry that rightfully asserts itself as a valuable addition to the work of Black feminist theorists such as Spillers.