Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind

A Fluid Public: A Review of Spill

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While reading Spill​, you (the reader), are both the public ​and​ the content – but only if you choose to be so.

Spill: A Collection of Vignettes with a Fluid Public

by Alexander Komanoff

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

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Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ ​Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity​ opens each of its ten sections with a different definition of the titular word: some meanings define “spill” as a free-flowing verb, while other definitions include more rigid noun forms. Whatever the denotation, these short definitions act as the sole appearance of a narrative form within ​Spill​; each section is shaped by a different word meaning. Any semblance of a beginning, middle, or end is eradicated by the book’s format: a collection of richly detailed, beautifully written vignettes that offer a window into the everyday thoughts and occurrences in the lives of black women. Every vignette starts and ends in lowercase letters, and there is no seeming order to these scenes save for their relevance to the preceding phrasal definition.

While ​Spill​’s lack of narrativity was initially off putting, I’ve grown to appreciate the structureless nature of Gumbs’ vignettes – ​Spill​ itself is an experience of personal reflection and identification made inherently possible by this absence of order. Different iterations of the word “spill” carry us, the readers, through each section. Additionally, these definitions give us permission, as the audience, to permeate and exist within Gumbs’ vivid and intense realities.

A fair amount of the scenes in ​Spill​ involve an indistinct figure – a “she” or “he” – both taking stock of the experiences they’ve been through and detailing their existence in the present moment. Take, for example, Gumbs’ vignette on page 59 of ​Spill​, in which she describes the process of sowing one’s seed of toil and suffering into the ground. The scene ends with the hauntingly moving proclamation of “remember everything you learn will soon out-green you. remember. everything you forget will grow” (Gumbs, 59). Throughout this poem, the subject both recollects and inhabits these dual processes of growth and decay. However, by the end of the scene, the subject in question has switched from “her” to “you”, which further goes to illustrate the fluidity and multiplicity of the situations that Gumbs weaves throughout ​Spill​.

 

The ability of the reader to identify with ​Spill​’s various vignettes is paramount to the purpose of Gumbs’ book. At the outset, my journey through ​Spill​ was especially confusing; I kept trying to pinpoint a singular, continuous character to latch onto and attribute a pretense of narrativity. However, it was not until I read the text for a second time, coupled with the wonderful in-class presentation given by Gumbs, that I truly understood the inherently personal qualities of the vignettes. Within ​Spill​, the readers are not witnessing a story about someone else as much as they are experiencing a story about themselves, at the places where Gumbs’ scenes evoke empathy. It could be so that a reader identifies intensely with the subject in a poem on one page, while failing to connect with the subject matter of the adjacent poem. This was the case for me with the scene painted on page 136 of ​Spill​, where Gumbs details the familiar feeling of all-consuming, self-generated stress and exhaustion. I was truly able to envision myself as the waking subject of this particular vignette, yet I was wholly unable to relate to the female subject of the scene on page 137, in which Gumbs questions the relationship between one’s self and one’s greater historical existence.

Throughout our Black Public Intellectuals class, we have constantly sought to identify the various “publics” that each intellectual is writing their work for. Richard Wright, for example, wrote ​Native Son​ for an almost exclusively middle-class, white audience. ​A Raisin in the Sun​ is a more tricky case: Lorraine Hansberry’s play was different in that the predominant theater audience was overwhelmingly white, yet ​A Raisin in the Sun​ drew large numbers of black people as well.

 

As with every text we’ve read thus far, we must seek to identify the public that Gumbs is writing for with ​Spill​. This task is given particular nuance by the collective process of self-identification with Gumbs’ vignettes that permeates the book itself. The subject matter of Spill​ concerns, by and large, the real and conceptualized realities of black women on both day-to-day and more drawn-out bases. The different sections of the book are each framed with questions (“where did she go” and “how she knew,” among others) that pertain specifically to the experiences and positions of black women in contemporary society. However, while Gumbs’ work has an explicit scope of black feminism, ​any​ reader can thoroughly resonate with her poems. This is shown throughout the book in many ways – one noticeably being the fact that Spill​ contains a mixture of lowercase and uppercase Is. The lowercase Is are meant to represent any reader in an individual sense, while the uppercase Is invoke a more collective perspective.

When compared to the other works that we’ve read in our Black Public Intellectuals class, ​Spill​ is unique with respect to its desired public and the content of the book. While reading Spill​, you (the reader), are both the public ​and​ the content – but only if you choose to be so. Many of the other course texts thus far have separated the content from the desired public, yet Spill​ is different. By having readers that either identify or do not identify with Gumbs’ various imagined realities, ​Spill​’s public is unusually fluid. While ​Spill​ can (and should) be appreciated for its vastly fascinating and gorgeously detailed vignettes, its most remarkable achievement comes from its transcendance of a singular, fixed public.

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

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