even the womb of a black woman is criticized
Labor, Movement and Freedom in Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity
by Abby Massell
these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris at Macalester College, Spring 2018
Spill interrogates what it means for black women to experience fugitivity outside the scope of incarceration and enslavement. Alexis Pauline Gumbs offers black women first and a more generalist audience second, alternatives to these two confines. Alternatives include the physical space to be taken up and the freedom of choice to be made: “she would draw the face she wanted. and then wear it. yes she would.” (52)
In the very first pages of the book, Gumbs writes, “the technician had looked for phallic signs and failed. so he said it’s a girl.” (12) This quote and the birthing imagery used throughout the first section sets up the very first rejections of the black female body even as it is newly brought into the world. Before, even the womb of a black woman is criticized, launching Gumbs’ radical challenge for the rest of the text for black women to reclaim and recast the fugitivity assigned to them at birth.
Gumbs’ emphasis on the physical valuing of black women over the intellectual valuing of black women invokes the gendered analysis of early Christian belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, provided the flesh to the son of God, and God, the father, provided the spirit. The physical gift of body, while important to the creation of Jesus, late antiquity Christian scholarship narrates, possibly degrades a woman’s necessity in child rearing. While her body is needed to make the flesh and carry the child, after the gestation period, her body is a mere vessel for more important life. So for Gumbs to ask, “does she matter? is it money at her middle is it mystery or mud. is it meaning or mistake. is it proof of passed-down blood? are her birthing hips a blessing her bewildered brain a dud.” is to consider both the position of black women and black girls borne from them, taking it a step beyond the Mary parallel (14).
The imagery that dominates the second two sections of Spill in particular is of hands and feet. Hands are described working and crucial to the everyday affairs Gumbs describes throughout the book. Notably, wrists are also of use to these descriptions, used to write on and spread things with. The hand imagery notates the physical labor prevalent throughout this story and both comments on the physical labor Gumbs would like to free black women from, and the physical importance of hands to a body and body’s abilities reclaimed.
Alongside, Gumbs draws attention time and again to feet. Feet in Spill are usually described against sharp or rough surfaces (26-28). If we understand feet to symbolize freedom of movement, and in that, freedom of choice, smooth feet encountering jagged edges of glass or rough patches of ground conveys the difficult yet radical action of venturing out and roaming (36).
Ultimately, emphasizing these physical features of the body integral to work, movement, touch, and connection to one’s surroundings is one way Gumbs demonstrates the rebellion and joy key to redefining fugitivity in Spill.