For me, it comes down to an invitation.
Spill: Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Intimate Scholarship
by Adele Welch
these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris at Macalester College, Spring 2018
“This is going to open me up in a particular way that’s unpredictable,” author-scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs commented about writing and teaching her book of poetry, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. For herself as well as her readers, Gumbs’ reflection is spot on. Spill is a dynamic collection of poetry that asks its readers to celebrate what Black feminism can teach us about vulnerability and intimacy.
“Spill” is a reference to Black feminist theorist Hortense Spillers, whose scholarly writing serves as a direct inspiration for Gumbs’ poems. Spillers herself said that Gumbs’ writing evokes intimacy and “political passion.” How is Gumbs able to elicit unguarded closeness between her audience’s experience and her poems, and her poems and Spiller’s Black feminist scholarship? For me, it comes down to an invitation.
When readers pick up Spill, they are met with 150 short pages of unassuming free verse poetry. While Gumbs writing is personal, she extends an invitation to her readers to consider each scene a place of intimate self-reflection as well. For example, take the following segment of a poem on page 131:
“i am before that. i am not born this morning when you wake up in fear and look frantic for breakfast to belittle, for something to burn and consume. i am before that. present like dew and like steam and like dreams without request. i am not assembled on demand when you suddenly don’t know what to say. i am before that.
when domination wants a name i am old. before my sweat is sold i am gold. i am a circular story retold. i am fire i am root. i am cavernous ravenous proof. so fly that i precede the lie. so bright born the same day as the sky.
so just try.”
I interpret Gumbs’ use of “i” statements as an assertion of her full existence as a human being. She is Black, she is a woman, she is queer, she is more, she is full, and her presence does not live only within the context of oppression. She is “before that.” (Before what? Colonialism, slavery, racism?) At the same time, Gumbs’ repetition of “i” allows readers to situate themselves directly within the poem and apply it to their own lives. While the text is made for Black women, readers of other identities (such as white women like myself) can simultaneously acknowledge its intention and the ways we too connect. Gumbs brings up a sense of collectivity herself by citing the following words by Spillers as inspiration for this particular piece: “the personal pronouns are offered in the service of a collective function” (Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 203).
The first time I read the above poem, I wrote in the margins, “you cannot use me because I am full,” with a specific personal meaning in mind. I do not normally engage with the work of scholars so freely or privately. But Gumbs isn’t just any public intellectual.
Throughout Spill, Gumbs makes Black feminist scholarship into accessible poetry, and vice versa. Her position as a self-described “community accountable intellectual” grounds her work in the public she writes for. It takes a certain level of vulnerability for an intellectual to interrogate who their scholarship benefits, but Gumbs intentionally invites a broad audience to engage with her work. Quite literally, she invites her community to her living room. Instead of working for an institution, Gumbs runs an educational program for everyday people out of her home in North Carolina called “Eternal Sunshine of the Black Feminist Mind.” At the school, her poetry is just as much her students’ as it is hers. That is radical accessibility. That is intimacy.
Another aspect of being a “community accountable intellectual,” I would argue, is to acknowledge your relationship to the thinkers that came before you. Gumbs intended to write Spill not simply about, but with Spillers and her scholarship. She calls her collection of poems a “ceremony for the intimacy” between the two of them. In the same way Gumbs is accountable to her students, she is accountable to Spillers. Therefore, Gumbs upholds the possibilities of mutually liberating relationships between Black feminists of all educational levels and backgrounds. We can all afford to learn from her relationship-based approach to organizing.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Spill is an excellent book that translates Hortense Spillers’ Black feminist scholarship into intimate and accessible poetry. Yet Gumbs’ work is not just a reproduction of Spillers’; it is a fresh and important take on what it means to be a Black feminist intellectual.
So thank you for the invite.