The Fiery Feminist
by Bonnie Hoekstra
these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris at Macalester College, Spring 2018
There are many definitions of spill. Probably too many. The most common definition however, is “to cause or allow (liquid) to flow over the edge of its container, especially unintentionally.” This translation means that if something spills, the container in which the liquid was held, was not big enough. So in some ways, spilling something is a small act of defiance, to refuse containment. The liquid refuses to stay within its boundaries and when given the opportunity, it flows out and wreaks havoc on your carpet and your mother’s serenity. It stains, seeps into the floorboard cracks, and demands immediate attention. In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ novel Spill: Scenes of Feminist Fugitivity, the author weaves the various definitions of spill into her poetry. Each definition frames a section of the book and highlights how black women exceed and disrupt the parameters in which they are held. Spill is a declaration of defiance that celebrates the perseverance and steadfast existence of black women.
Examples of such declarations, come from the experiences of many black feminist writers, but one particularly notable account was that of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, who spilled her son’s horrific murder to the nation. Who unapologetically demanded that the public see the atrocities carved into Emmett’s face. Gumbs also dedicates pieces to Harriet Tubman who embraced a life wrought with the perils of fugitivity, and who made it her personal mission to bring freedom to the enslaved. She illustrates centuries of suffering and resilience and pays homage to those who came before her. Spill celebrates and commemorates the legacy of female fighters and activists with an “ancestral kiss”, but maintains the importance of the individual and the reality of everyday black women (Gumbs 34). She creates a space for a community of black feminist writers, activists, theorists, artists, mothers, singers, and people. Spill is a place where the lives and thoughts of many converge, but identities are not lost. Each page is a scene from a vast array of black female voices that conveys a personal message. She includes thoughts of suicide and experiences with domestic violence and rape and fearlessly showcases the vulnerability and fear of black women. Her words illustrate the struggle to overcome numerous forms of oppression in a heteropatriarchal, capitalist, racist and basically all the “ists” and “isms” of society. She features intimate descriptions of women- “their bold black feet,” the “resilience of their sweet brown flesh” and their unshakable courage. Alexis Gumbs creates recognizable poetry that resonates with everyday black women. She writes with the women she cites, not just about them. Instead of merely rehashing their experiences in her own words, she brings their voices into her work and writes in a way that maintains their raw and original emotions.
Unlike the way history recalls the events of the past, Gumbs constantly cites the voices of black women. She protests the historical pattern in which black activists and individuals were ignored and silenced. Women worked in the trenches of the Civil Rights Movement yet they are rarely remembered for their contributions. They organized sit-ins and protests, published literature, and rallied many black citizens in the fight for equality and Gumbs honors their impact. Not only does she reference their work in Spill, but she also made the conscious decision to not capitalize the noun I. Instead, the author consistently uses the pronoun i to emphasize the importance of the individual. Gumbs denies the collective function of the uppercase I which she believes signifies a collective identity. A lowercase i speaks to the individual. And Spill is intended to allow the reader to apply their own perspective and integrate their own life to the context of the poetry.
This brings us to the oracle bit of Alexis Gumbs’ work. Although I do not personally believe in prophecies, I will withhold that belief and simply describe how freaking cool it was to find out that the book functions as an oracle. Just as the author intended, it really is possible to apply one’s own perspective to the text. All you have to do is ask it a question related to freedom, possibility, or accountability or pretty much any topic for that matter, think of a number between 1 and 150, and boom prophecy. After reading the book and then discovering this information, it made the whole thing make a little bit more sense. Alexis Gumbs created a piece of literature that effectively allows for the reader to insert themselves into the text and bring their own experiences to the table. Spill simultaneously celebrates the legacy and resilience of past black feminists and connects them to those more modern. Spill encourages people to endlessly spill their stories and celebrate those that have already been told.