Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind

‘Learn Not To Write Your Name in Vain’: A Review of Spill

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Gumbs actively places Black women at the forefront of their own artistic story, rather than putting the Black collective or men in front.

Constructing Black Liberation through Poetry

by Chester Polkey

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


What are the intersections between academia and community development in Black life? How should Black feminist thought be constructed in a poetic sense? Finally, why is it important to acknowledge both Black history and beauty to empower the struggle for Black liberation? Scholar Activist Alexis Pauline Gumbs answers these questions in ​Spill: scenes of black feminist fugitivity ​as an artistic response to Hortense Spillers’ ​Black White and In Color​. In this review, I examine Gumbs’ conception of the Black Public Intellectual through highlighting the relationship between ​Spill​ and her own community work in Durham, NC. Next, I analyze Gumbs’ construction of a non-linear narrative to demonstrate her belief in the complexity of Black female identity and everlasting Black strength and fortitude. In summary, Gumbs successfully illustrates the resistance and beauty that flows between and through generations of Blackness by documenting the emotions and stories of past, present, and future Black women.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a Public Intellectual in that she connects her academia and theory to non-traditional audiences. After receiving her PhD from Duke University, Gumbs founded two community-oriented organizations: The Mobile Homecoming Project and the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind. Both of these collectives were created with the intention of drawing on Black Feminist and LGBTQ authors to inspire Black women from all ages, sexualities, and educational-levels. Gumbs touches on subjects from Marxism to Black Feminism in film. Through writing ​Spill​, the Duke-graduate proudly highlights the community structures and the collective history that has sustained Black people, and specifically Black women.

​ ​In the chapter “How She Spelled It,” Gumbs uses the metaphor of a table to represent the eternity of black history and identity. Gumbs writes, “she would have to admit the table was there before she was … she would have to trust that a table can be strong enough for a question” (Gumbs 24). The table highlights the recognition that community struggle should receive; those who choose to enter the struggle for Black liberation must recognize the background and history of the Black collective.


To students of Black intellectualism, the “public” usually represents an overwhelmingly White and middle-class audience. In this sense, Black leaders speak on behalf of their Black community and translate a range of issues for White ears to understand. In Gumbs’ case, her dedication to developing alongside her local Black community ​and​ her literary eagerness to concentrate on solidarity rather than individualism demonstrates her progressive praxis, or her commitment to turn the theories of underutilized Black Feminist intellectuals into action and teaching for fellow Black women. Her community programs and her academic writings merge, influence, and inspire each other. By making theory accessible in both content written (Black women solidarity in ​Spill​) and organizational measures (physical outlets for discussion and reflection), Gumbs performs an anti-racist and anti-capitalist form of poetic expression and pedagogy. These themes of community and liberation are reflected in Gumbs’ non-chronological style and content choices.

Each chapter of ​Spill ​begins with two things: 1) the chapter name and 2) one of the many definitions of the word “spill.” Her chapter introductions play a role in bolstering the perspectives of Black women and demonstrating the multi-faceted nature of Black women. Gumbs chose to organize her chapters by theme rather than by any chronological order. The scholar makes “she” the subject of the five first chapters before bringing up a “he,” “we,” or a “them” (the witnesses). Gumbs actively places Black women at the forefront of their own artistic story, rather than putting the Black collective or men in front. In a world where men constantly receive the spotlight or women consistently sacrifice their gendered rights to improve the lives of all people, Gumbs produces a text that tells the story of women first and then everyone else second.


Additionally, the different definitions of “spill”, at a simple level, explain the theme selected for the chapter. However, at a more significant level, the different definitions of spill showcase the variety of emotions, struggles, and expressions of Black women. Gumbs writes chapters like “What She Did Not Say” (62) which highlights Black emotional resistance and “How She Left” (32) which illustrates White ignorance from a Black perspective. Not only are Black women the primary subject of the text, they are also shown to be full of emotional complexity and depth. Like her educational work with the Durham community, Gumbs puts the emphasis on Black voices in ​Spill​. As a Black intellectual, Gumbs continues to center her work around the community for which she advocates: Black women.

In ​Spill​, Alexis Pauline Gumbs paints the emotions of the general, anachronistic Black women, but she also pulls in references from the past, present, and future. In doing so, the reader sees a constantly rotating circle of Black pain, struggle, and freedom. Gumbs specifically references historical poets like Phillis Wheatley (63) and anti-slavery advocates like Harriet Tubman (39) to showcase Black resistance, complexity, and personal liberation in a non-contemporary age. Modern social movement organizations, like Black Lives Matters, also receive indirect recognition. Gumbs writes, “Their children are learning to dismantle the state” (135). Additionally, by comparing contemporary social justice to children, Gumbs shows appreciation to both living elders and centuries-old ancestors for their knowledge and previous progressive action. Finally, Gumbs includes a liberated, alternative world for Black women in multiple poems; “when she breathed her people felt free” (100). Gumbs’ inclusion of history and future serves to show the Black community’s long life-span and to illustrate the continued power of resistance and emotion.


Like her spiritual mentor Ida B. Wells, activist-scholar Gumbs attempts to spread a gospel of Black liberation through unusual means and unusual formats. Through both her academic work and community activism, Gumbs successfully redefines the “public” in Black Public Intellectual as a Black female collective. In ​Spill​, Gumbs writes “learn not to write your name in vain” (121). Now, Gumbs is teaching others to do the very same.


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

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