Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind

How She Spelled It: A Review of Spill

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It reminds me of how hard it can be to confront ourselves…

How She Spelled It

by Maya Michon

these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris at Macalester College, Spring 2018

afterbrighteststar 3

Collage from the “After Brightest Star” series by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Alexis Pauline Gumbs came to my class, Black Public Intellectuals at Macalester college, last week to talk about her book, Spill, and lead a discussion. She beautifully depicts scenes of black women and girls in her book, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Each section in this book is framed by a different definition of the word spill and within each section, there are numerous vignettes written in prose or poetry that tell some story about a black girl or woman which makes you think about who the woman being portrayed is and the sexual or racial violence that this woman has experienced.

Gumbs has described this book as a love letter to Hortense Spillers, an under-cited black feminist. However, she is not writing about Spillers or her work, she is more writing with her work. Gumbs read Spiller’s essays in Black, White and In Color and pulled out “portals,” which were phrases within her work that “exceed their explanatory function and invoke more than the workings of her (already nuanced and necessary) arguments” and wrote short scenes about these portals.

My favorite scene that I read was in the third section, “How She Spelled It”:

“first she would have to clear the table. put away the brightly colored miscellany on the central surface of her lying life. first she would have to admit the table was there before she was. first she would have to sit at the table and watch relationships fall apart and the table stay together. first she would have to trust that a table can be strong enough for a question. she would have to sit there wondering how a table got to be stronger than her. she would have to move that kitchen table to her office and meditate on that. how much love does wood absorb. she would have to ask the oldest tree she knows. how do you turn paper into food?”

Although I can’t say for sure what this passage is about, it reminds me of how hard it can be to confront ourselves and ask ourselves difficult to ask questions about ourselves and what is holding us back.

When Gumbs came and spoke to my class, she described her book as a “freedom oracle,” meaning that each page could help answer some question of freedom. She asked us to write down a question pertaining to our own personal freedom, a question that if answered, would help us be more free individuals. For me, this was very hard to do — both to think of a question and to write it down.


I feel lucky that the question that I asked pertaining to my personal freedom did not have anything to do with basic needs like food and shelter or safety and security because I know, that for some, their needs are more basic than mine.

The line “first she would have to trust that a table can be strong enough for a question. she would have to sit there wondering how a table got to be stronger than her” embodies exactly how I felt when she asked me to write down my question. My question had to do with the fact that I struggle with a lot of insecurities, and I asked “How can I better overcome my my insecurities?”

Even before Gumbs told us to write down a question, when I was reading Spill for the first time, that line spoke to me because sometimes I feel weak, like this character did, when I have to ask myself hard questions. Being insecure is not something I like to talk about with to other people or even write about on paper.

After we wrote down our questions, Gumbs had us write down a number, any number between one and one hundred and fifty, that we associate with our question. She then called on students who raised their hands and asked them to share their question and their number. She opened her book to that page number, read it, and explained how the text on that page helped answer the students question, as Spill is a freedom oracle. She also gave some background on each scene she read, and it was really interesting to see how one short line in Spiller’s work could open up such a complex, interesting story. Although I didn’t raise my hand and share, I think that Gumbs would have turned to the page that my favorite passage was on, had I shared. Overall, I enjoyed Alexis Pauline Gumbs coming to my class and I am glad that she did.

Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity is available at Duke University Press. 

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