When I finished, I did a shimmy.
Spilling on Spill (and Spillers)
by Maxine Freeman
these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris at Macalester College, Spring 2018
She scrawls words across the page, the ink spilling from her veins and over her fingernails. “The shapes she makes” are round and full as she winds together lives across time (Gumbs 19). She even rhymes. Each ink drop is a “leak of her love” (Gumbs 12).
This is the kind of textual engagement Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ invites her reader into in her new book Spill: scenes of black feminist fugitivity. Gumbs uses vivid imagery, rhyme, and other poetic language to build narratives about Black women’s suffering, strength, and ultimately, liberation.
Spill is not simply a book of poetry, however. It is also a queer, feminist theoretical response to the work of literary critic Hortense Spillers. Gumbs’ explains in an opening note to her book that Spillers’ writing moved her to render scenes from history and life stories. In Spill, she connects the personal struggles of Black women in situations of domestic violence or bullying to the fight for liberation against slavery and racism.
Gumbs’ expression of love for Spillers’ work redefines the possibilities for scholarly criticism; she is commenting on Spillers’ essays in Black, White, and In Color inasmuch as she is painting the stories these essays inspire her to imagine. Spillers inhabits each page of Spill. Gumbs’ phrasing is a direct response to Spillers’ and an endnote for each page reminds the reader of the conversation Gumbs is having with Spillers’ text. As Gumbs’ labor of love unfolded before me, I, too, was prompted to write in response, energized by the richness of the language and Gumbs’ apparent care for both Spillers and the resilience of Black women.
Gumbs’ poetry illustrates entrapment, escape, and flight. Her stories are simultaneously about one woman and about a multitude. One woman faces abuse from her husband but continues to fight and write; “she ate glass and her lips stayed unshattered” (89). Over the course of the book, this woman is able to escape and find her own way. Her strength, however, does not exist in isolation. Gumbs attaches her character to Black women before her, cave women conceived in the core of the Earth and born from a “slaveship womb”, reciting “the same prayers her bright ancestors carried to Brazil” (50; 129). When this woman frees herself from her husband, she is participating in her lineage through her own experiences of bondage, resistance, and liberation.
Much of Gumbs’ language alludes to the struggle of Black women during slavery. When she mentions slave ships or journeys to Brazil, she is recalling the transatlantic slave trade that abducted Black people from Africa to the Americas. These involuntary passengers included the Black women that preceded Gumbs and her characters. She tells a story of a woman whose hands are so hot they steam, and when a white man tries to rape her, she burns his member until it shrivels into nothing. Gumbs tells the reader this power comes from the spirit of Black women past; this woman’s lineage invigorates her to end her rapist’s (and master’s?) lineage (41). Many Black women faced violent mistreatment at the hands of their slave masters; they were shackled to white men who did not recognize who these women were: daughters, mothers, full beings. As these women experience physical and sexual abuse, Gumbs shows their brilliance, fortitude, and even superpowers. Then, she tells us, they run.
Gumbs also draws connections to historical figures or mythologies who worked for Black liberation. She dedicates one poem to Harriet Tubman and another to Phyllis Wheatley, two mothers of Black women’s resistance (39; 63). In another poem, Gumbs references a “well-used blackened pot…in Africa”, a cauldron in the deepest, darkest cave (132). The tone of the poem is foreboding, and I was reminded of the story of Mr. Yacub, who in Nation of Islam mythology used eugenics to create an evil white race. The story of Mr. Yacub features prominently in Malcolm X’s autobiography, who converted to the Nation of Islam during his time in prison.
Years later, Malcolm X decided that it was not that white people were inherently evil, but rather the white supremacist society that inculcated them from birth with hatred and prejudice. Gumbs also comes to the conclusion that the cauldron “was not where the evil was”. Instead, it was the ladle, which was used as a knife to harm others rather than to mix the pot (132). Gumbs’ engagement with historical Black liberation movements contributes to the thread that ties her work to Spillers work and to the work of the many Black activists (especially women) who came before her.
Reading Spill is like swaying to a gentle beat. I was delighted by Gumbs’ invitation to immerse myself in her language and her celebration of her very life and breath. When I finished, I “did a shimmy”, shaken by the beauty of the tapestry Gumbs weaves (Gumbs 100). I would recommend Spill to anyone interested in the work of Hortense Spillers who might benefit from a more accessible, poetic, story-focused interpretation of her theory. As much as Spill is influenced by Spillers, however, it also stands alone: it’s a book of wonderful, rich poetry born out of Gumbs’ love for her community.