Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind

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Rebellion and Joy: A Review of Spill

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.


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

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A Fluid Public: A Review of Spill

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

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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The Question of Freedom: A Review of Spill

What is the most relevant question to your freedom?

The Question of Freedom

by Kristijan Peev

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


What is the most relevant question to your freedom? – This was the first question that Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs asked at the beginning of her lecture at Macalester College. Her book Spill centers around this question. The question of your freedom. The question of what it means to have freedom. How can you recognize freedom? How can you evaluate and understand freedom? What means are justified in order to achieve freedom? Can someone dictate your freedom? Can you steal someone else’s freedom? Is it ever justified to ruin someone else’s freedom in order to get your own? What does it mean to be freedomless? And since every individual has his/her/their own definition of freedom, how objective can be someone’s subjective opinion of freedom?

Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, inspired by other Black women’s writings, explores the experiences of Black women in various times of uncertainty in their lives. Through her poetic writing, she sheds light on Black women’s stories from the perspective of Black women themselves. In particular, she shares her reconing of what people are capable of, what people have (not only materialistically), how people can take something from other people (such as our freedom) and how can people leave other people, (in ruins and disgust, as if nothing happened). Her book Spill has very subtle ways of approaching many topics and depicting Black women’s reality. She stresses the importance of knowing what you have control over. One of the things that people stress a lot about and consequently struggle to grapple with is the reality of other people’s expectations. Do we have control over other people’s expectations? How do other people’s expectations form their opinion of us? And how are we treated as a result? She also stresses the importance, or the lack thereof, of our expectations of other people.


More importantly, her work encompasses real situations in which people do not always have control over their lives, many times by releasing control due to violence. Those stories show how strong Black women are, something that much of the literature does not acknowledge. And rather than picturing and defining Black women as victims, Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs shows what Black women are survivors and heroines by choosing to live their lives with the resources that they have control over. Her work illustrates that strength and self worth come from within not through the eyes of the others.

Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs welcomes people’s experiences from various walks of life. Her work embodies the interconnectedness of living in a world in which you are not welcomed, in which you are not accepted, in a world in which you are treated as an object, in a world in which because you belong to a particular gender and race you are inferior. In a world shaped by other people’s expectations, which are in turn shaped by generational systematic racism and misogyny. Many stories in which the experiences of Black women are forgotten, unknown or unheard of. And as such the work of Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is of a paramount importance in order to hear and learn more about the various struggles and battles that Black women have fought for so long.

Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ writing is strong and powerful especially for the audience of Black women. I loved her quote “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….before black is bad and broken i am more. i am not coin or token. i am deepest spell spoken. and you are shook.” – I can only imagine how powerful this message can be for someone who identifies with the stories that were described in the book. That is the power of words that intentional writers know how to use and impact people for better. These forms of resistance and resilience are indisputably the best way to not only depict a person’s experience but also validate and acknowledge all the struggle that people have been through as well as their strength and character development in spite of these experiences.


Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Spill is truly exemplary. Her recollection of stories through poetry transcends the simple words used to describe emotions. Her intersection of gender, race, and class in the face of capitalism and other literature show how deliberate she was in creating stories that have lasting effects in a way in which they speak to people. Her stories were genuine and heartfelt and her work empowers.

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


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How She Spelled It: A Review of Spill

It reminds me of how hard it can be to confront ourselves…

How She Spelled It

by Maya Michon

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

afterbrighteststar 3

Collage from the “After Brightest Star” series by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Alexis Pauline Gumbs came to my class, Black Public Intellectuals at Macalester college, last week to talk about her book, Spill, and lead a discussion. She beautifully depicts scenes of black women and girls in her book, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Each section in this book is framed by a different definition of the word spill and within each section, there are numerous vignettes written in prose or poetry that tell some story about a black girl or woman which makes you think about who the woman being portrayed is and the sexual or racial violence that this woman has experienced.

Gumbs has described this book as a love letter to Hortense Spillers, an under-cited black feminist. However, she is not writing about Spillers or her work, she is more writing with her work. Gumbs read Spiller’s essays in Black, White and In Color and pulled out “portals,” which were phrases within her work that “exceed their explanatory function and invoke more than the workings of her (already nuanced and necessary) arguments” and wrote short scenes about these portals.

My favorite scene that I read was in the third section, “How She Spelled It”:

“first she would have to clear the table. put away the brightly colored miscellany on the central surface of her lying life. first she would have to admit the table was there before she was. first she would have to sit at the table and watch relationships fall apart and the table stay together. first she would have to trust that a table can be strong enough for a question. she would have to sit there wondering how a table got to be stronger than her. she would have to move that kitchen table to her office and meditate on that. how much love does wood absorb. she would have to ask the oldest tree she knows. how do you turn paper into food?”

Although I can’t say for sure what this passage is about, it reminds me of how hard it can be to confront ourselves and ask ourselves difficult to ask questions about ourselves and what is holding us back.

When Gumbs came and spoke to my class, she described her book as a “freedom oracle,” meaning that each page could help answer some question of freedom. She asked us to write down a question pertaining to our own personal freedom, a question that if answered, would help us be more free individuals. For me, this was very hard to do — both to think of a question and to write it down.


I feel lucky that the question that I asked pertaining to my personal freedom did not have anything to do with basic needs like food and shelter or safety and security because I know, that for some, their needs are more basic than mine.

The line “first she would have to trust that a table can be strong enough for a question. she would have to sit there wondering how a table got to be stronger than her” embodies exactly how I felt when she asked me to write down my question. My question had to do with the fact that I struggle with a lot of insecurities, and I asked “How can I better overcome my my insecurities?”

Even before Gumbs told us to write down a question, when I was reading Spill for the first time, that line spoke to me because sometimes I feel weak, like this character did, when I have to ask myself hard questions. Being insecure is not something I like to talk about with to other people or even write about on paper.

After we wrote down our questions, Gumbs had us write down a number, any number between one and one hundred and fifty, that we associate with our question. She then called on students who raised their hands and asked them to share their question and their number. She opened her book to that page number, read it, and explained how the text on that page helped answer the students question, as Spill is a freedom oracle. She also gave some background on each scene she read, and it was really interesting to see how one short line in Spiller’s work could open up such a complex, interesting story. Although I didn’t raise my hand and share, I think that Gumbs would have turned to the page that my favorite passage was on, had I shared. Overall, I enjoyed Alexis Pauline Gumbs coming to my class and I am glad that she did.

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

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Spilling on Spill (and Spillers): A Review

When I finished, I did a shimmy.

Spilling on Spill (and Spillers)

by Maxine Freeman

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


She scrawls words across the page, the ink spilling from her veins and over her fingernails. “The shapes she makes” are round and full as she winds together lives across time (Gumbs 19). She even rhymes. Each ink drop is a “leak of her love” (Gumbs 12).

This is the kind of textual engagement Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ invites her reader into in her new book Spill: scenes of black feminist fugitivity. Gumbs uses vivid imagery, rhyme, and other poetic language to build narratives about Black women’s suffering, strength, and ultimately, liberation.

Spill is not simply a book of poetry, however. It is also a queer, feminist theoretical response to the work of literary critic Hortense Spillers. Gumbs’ explains in an opening note to her book that Spillers’ writing moved her to render scenes from history and life stories. In Spill, she connects the personal struggles of Black women in situations of domestic violence or bullying to the fight for liberation against slavery and racism.

Gumbs’ expression of love for Spillers’ work redefines the possibilities for scholarly criticism; she is commenting on Spillers’ essays in Black, White, and In Color inasmuch as she is painting the stories these essays inspire her to imagine. Spillers inhabits each page of Spill. Gumbs’ phrasing is a direct response to Spillers’ and an endnote for each page reminds the reader of the conversation Gumbs is having with Spillers’ text. As Gumbs’ labor of love unfolded before me, I, too, was prompted to write in response, energized by the richness of the language and Gumbs’ apparent care for both Spillers and the resilience of Black women.


Gumbs’ poetry illustrates entrapment, escape, and flight. Her stories are simultaneously about one woman and about a multitude. One woman faces abuse from her husband but continues to fight and write; “she ate glass and her lips stayed unshattered” (89). Over the course of the book, this woman is able to escape and find her own way. Her strength, however, does not exist in isolation. Gumbs attaches her character to Black women before her, cave women conceived in the core of the Earth and born from a “slaveship womb”, reciting “the same prayers her bright ancestors carried to Brazil” (50; 129). When this woman frees herself from her husband, she is participating in her lineage through her own experiences of bondage, resistance, and liberation.

Much of Gumbs’ language alludes to the struggle of Black women during slavery. When she mentions slave ships or journeys to Brazil, she is recalling the transatlantic slave trade that abducted Black people from Africa to the Americas. These involuntary passengers included the Black women that preceded Gumbs and her characters. She tells a story of a woman whose hands are so hot they steam, and when a white man tries to rape her, she burns his member until it shrivels into nothing. Gumbs tells the reader this power comes from the spirit of Black women past; this woman’s lineage invigorates her to end her rapist’s (and master’s?) lineage (41). Many Black women faced violent mistreatment at the hands of their slave masters; they were shackled to white men who did not recognize who these women were: daughters, mothers, full beings. As these women experience physical and sexual abuse, Gumbs shows their brilliance, fortitude, and even superpowers. Then, she tells us, they run.


Gumbs also draws connections to historical figures or mythologies who worked for Black liberation. She dedicates one poem to Harriet Tubman and another to Phyllis Wheatley, two mothers of Black women’s resistance (39; 63). In another poem, Gumbs references a “well-used blackened pot…in Africa”, a cauldron in the deepest, darkest cave (132). The tone of the poem is foreboding, and I was reminded of the story of Mr. Yacub, who in Nation of Islam mythology used eugenics to create an evil white race. The story of Mr. Yacub features prominently in Malcolm X’s autobiography, who converted to the Nation of Islam during his time in prison.

Years later, Malcolm X decided that it was not that white people were inherently evil, but rather the white supremacist society that inculcated them from birth with hatred and prejudice. Gumbs also comes to the conclusion that the cauldron “was not where the evil was”. Instead, it was the ladle, which was used as a knife to harm others rather than to mix the pot (132). Gumbs’ engagement with historical Black liberation movements contributes to the thread that ties her work to Spillers work and to the work of the many Black activists (especially women) who came before her.

Reading Spill is like swaying to a gentle beat. I was delighted by Gumbs’ invitation to immerse myself in her language and her celebration of her very life and breath. When I finished, I “did a shimmy”, shaken by the beauty of the tapestry Gumbs weaves (Gumbs 100). I would recommend Spill to anyone interested in the work of Hortense Spillers who might benefit from a more accessible, poetic, story-focused interpretation of her theory. As much as Spill is influenced by Spillers, however, it also stands alone: it’s a book of wonderful, rich poetry born out of Gumbs’ love for her community.


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Spill​ and Modern Black Feminism: A Review

All of the racism, sexism, and oppression has finally caused the pot to boil over.

Spill​ and Modern Black Feminism


by Matthew Hepston

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

mobile homecoming film projects 1

I found that reading ​Spill​ by Alexis Pauline Gumbs was a very interesting experience. It truly was unlike any other book I have read before. I have never read a book where every single page tells its own story, and not only that but deep, poetic, and impactful stories. Each page describing a situation where women, particularly black women, however I feel as if many of these scenes could apply to all women, are facing oppression and wanting to escape it. Each situation is unique in many ways but they all tell a common story. As Gumbs writes they all tell the story of black feminist fugitivity in a way that uses poetry as a different way to think about it.

Her style of writing captures the reader’s attention and makes them think about feminism in ways unique to Gumbs. Her use of historical references, memories, and dreams blurs the line between past, present and future, making it a book that can be connected to all black women, or any woman, of all ages alike. The most powerful aspect of the book was the fact that the women throughout the book were not compliant or submissive; they were outspoken and refused to be captured into societies that were so full of hate, and that it was the fact that they refused to let the hate define them, that set them free. The pages command your attention in the way that it brings together the old and the new ideas about black feminism. Her stories are powerful! The stories show how strong black women really are, “​believe they can fly. are willing to fall. trust the resilience of their sweet brown flesh more than they fear to break their only white bones.”​ ​ ​I found this line to be incredibly empowering and ​Spill​ is littered with lines with similar tones. This novel is meant to promote black feminism and it does a great job in doing so.


Another strength of the book is that every single page really makes you think. Each page is its own story and oftentimes the stories were less than half the page, and sometimes as short as a quarter of a page. This meant there was no background information given and you were jumped right into it. A lot of information is inferred and the rest the reader has to figure out on their own. It is a short book in many ways, in pages and in words per page, but it took me as long as it would to read a book of twice its length because I found myself rereading almost every page several times to really understand it thoroughly.

I also find it incredibly interesting how Gumbs uses the word Spill. Not only is it the title of the book but it is also found at the beginning of every section of the book where Gumbs prefaces each section with a different definition of the word to spill. I interpreted spill as representing everything literally spilling over. All of the racism, sexism, and oppression they have faced has finally caused the pot to boil over and as a result releasing powerful black feminists. People who are strong enough to fight the oppressors and change the social structure of the world for the better. I also believe that there are countless other ways it could be interpreted that is intentional, Gumbs designed it that way. This is evidenced by Gumbs giving us in her book more definitions to the word spill than I knew even existed!

This was a very empowering and unique book in so many ways. I can only hope that its influences spread through this country that so badly needs it.

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Freedom Oracle: A Review of Spill

What might be limiting us, what might strengthen us, what might be the answer to leading a life of freedom, possibility, and accountability?

Lukas Matthews

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



I’ve always had trouble with the stark contrast between academic theory and real-life, in- your-face realities of the world. The main instance of this is in my unending struggle with political theory. I never quite understood how one could write about the world without actually having lived or known it. Then there’s Alexis Pauline Gumbs. I take inspiration from her book Spill: Scenes of Black feminist fugitivity, which takes on a life of its own as a work of narration, theory, and affirmation. In simple terms, Hortense J. Spillers’ Black, White, and in Color essays gave Gumbs inspiration for Spill, and her poetry reflects that source. Spillers’ collection of essays plays to the timelessness and unending work required of dedicated writers, perhaps particularly when diving into centuries of literature, art, and academic institutions. However, Spillers is quite inaccessible to the non-academic, simply because that is not the public she intends to write for. The work Gumbs does to retool Spillers’ theory and critique in a wholesome form, an embodiment of an—and many—actual human beings is simply remarkable. From Spillers, Gumbs weaves in first-person narratives of feminism, motherhood, community, belonging, pain, oppression, searching, hopelessness… the spectrum of human pleasure and pain is encased in Gumbs’ words. Staying true to Spillers, she upholds the observation that Black writers must retool the language that they inherit, and likewise continues a tradition of idiomatic language and writing that Spillers belongs to. This means that the reader is not meant to anticipate, but rather to be surprised by the discontents between the present sentence and the preceding one. For Hortense Spillers, this meant selecting words as a political act, meant to surprise the reader and to underscore the inherent racism of academic discourse. I believe Gumbs

works to emulate the same purposefulness in her language. Although it might not be in an effort to directly confront racist academics, I believe a similar push to de- and reconstruct language for Gumbs’ public is evident throughout Spill. For example:

“her fingers rake the dirt pull the roots eat the hurt under her
nails. enter earthworm. enter snails. center trails led by the
sweetest decomposers. cue the music start the rain press the
chest in to stain the housedress half-life. hold the trowel hold
the hoe hold the spade this will by played out by hand now…” Spill, pp. 59

Capitalization is also an intentional component of Spill—as Gumbs notes, sometimes the personal “I” is capitalized when meant to refer to herself, while a lowercase “i” is meant to create space for a more relatable narrative for any public.

Another vital extension of Gumbs’ effort to make Spillers and Black feminist writing in general more accessible to a wider public is her push to present Spill as a freedom oracle. In our discussion we were most fortunate to have her replicate the oracle for our class. How this worked was that in the three themes of freedom, possibility, or accountability, we were asked to write a question. What might be limiting us, what might strengthen us, what might be the answer to leading a life of freedom, possibility, and accountability? Some students shared questions related to financial stability, to resolving nation or worldwide racial violence or to promote healing, and similar lofty questions. Then we were asked to think of a number, which corresponded to a page in Spill that would provide some guidance or a response to our question. While I cannot speak personally for the students posing questions, it seemed as if the oracle arrived at meaningful contributions for each and every question that was posed. We repeated the exercise with her book M Archive, which without even having read it yielded fantastically meaningful results! In her educational program Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, she has understandably found a loving community in Durham that feels the strength of the oracle and similar activities enough to support her livelihood.


Even having read through Spill and parts of Black, White, and In-Color, it can be difficult to grasp the awesome force of the words on the pages. What Gumbs does with Spill allows the word to speak for itself naturally, through individual reflection and through community-oriented processing. The retooling of language, the imagery, and the purposefulness of grammar combine to form a powerful collection of poetry that rightfully asserts itself as a valuable addition to the work of Black feminist theorists such as Spillers.


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

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The Universality of Black Women’s Freedom: A Review of Spill

To say your book is an oracle is not the most humble thing to proclaim.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs and the Universality of Black Women’s Freedom 

by Kendra Roedi

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


Upon entering the room, she has already distanced herself from the word “intellectual”, before explicitly telling us she wouldn’t call herself that. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is sitting cross- legged at the front of the classroom. She asks us, “what percentage of you is present right now?” The students respond with numbers admittedly low. She understands, and forces us to be more present not through bringing our full selves into the classroom, but by bringing someone else in, spiritually. While she exudes an energy much more typical of the poet she is, or an organizer, what was perhaps the most subversive thing she did as an intellectual is that for the first two and half hours, she was the one asking us questions.

Spill, she explains to us, functions like an oracle. Sitting in the back of the classroom I’m still barely present despite the activity to counter it, and as someone that doesn’t buy into even astrology, I’m skeptical. Also, to say your book is an oracle is not the most humble thing to proclaim. However, it is this type of colonial thinking, that someone does or doesn’t have certain rights to something, the creation of fugitivity, that Gumbs is displaying and attempting to counteract in her book.


In the last twenty minutes of the time she spent with us, Gumbs explains some of the ways in which she is trying to combat the silencing and isolation of Black women behind the devices she uses in Spill. For instance, in addition to prefacing the book acknowledging the influence of Hortense Spillers’ on her work, she goes on to cite Black White and in Color 125 times, counter- acting the fact that Black women are extremely undercited. Gumbs also explains how her usage and lack thereof of capitalization, particularly her capitalization of “I” denotes collectivity in the sentiment or message she is illustrating. Throughout her book it is clear she wants to emphasize collectivity, particularly among Black women, through the mainly present tense form of speech that is relatable amongst everyone to some degree.

It is the fact that everyone can get something out each page that makes the book work like an oracle. One of her first tasks or us was to find what the question in our life is to our freedom. The question that needs to be answered, or solved in which you can be free. She then asked us to associate a number with it, that we were to then use to find the page in her book that would provide us some insight. I was initially skeptical of the magic of the book, but still struck with the question. We often think about the obstacles in our life but in no context of how we can be free of them, or what the true question of our freedom is in the long-run.

I was also surprised that she instructed a majority-white classroom to do this, and called on willing students to share their question, and she would read aloud the poem on that page. The message I take from this is that Black women’s freedom is everyone’s freedom. Separately, it acknowledges the ways in which the current obsession with identity politics leaves out the things we experience collectively, and how poetry and literature can transcend that.


Spill is the first book in Gumbs’ trilogy of books examining freedom, possibility, and accountability, respectively. It is the universality of these themes, emotions, and questions she poses in Spill, all clearly aimed, though, in the context of Black women that we point our attention towards them, that the fugitivity of Black women is on full display.

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Uncovering Black Invisibility: A Review of Spill

Why are you struggling to form words? Can’t you breathe underwater, talk through water?


Spill: ​Uncovering Black Invisibility

by Julissa Molina-Vega

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


91ksidzx9mlWritten by a young, accountable community intellectual, ​Spill​ is written as an ode to black women. The book speaks of seeking freedom from oppressive situations that further racism and sexism towards black women, and Gumbs’ poetry portrays definitive literary criticism. Her syntax style throughout each scene breaks the norm of a narrative having a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, she elects to share the meaty middle moment to hit us with the most powerful climax of each story. ​Gumbs ignores the expectation that narratives should also have a coherent, developing character throughout the story. The absence of a single character allows the scenes to belong to former fugitives, recent slaves, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers. The characters each share an individual story to combine together into a novel that teaches the reader about a wide spectrum of hardships and circumstances of black women.

Inspired by Hortense Spillers’ ​Black, White, and In Color​, Gumbs cites phrases from Spiller’s work in order to set an example of citing black feminist writers and theorists from whom her ideas are inspired. Instead of writing original thoughts, Gumbs demonstrates how writers can write with each other and expand their stances. By adding her insight to their thoughts, she strengthens the ideas. The collaboration allows further investigation into the topic and deeper understanding of fellow writers and their perspectives.

With that being said, tie a rock around your ankle and jump off the dock. Next, explain to me how you feel. Why are you struggling to form words? Can’t you breathe underwater, talk through water? Gumbs’ poetry takes a similar scene and incorporates the pure hell black women of all generations have been through. When they’re drowning, they’re dying. Opening their mouth and screaming results in a quicker death. Gumbs relays countless moments of domestic violence, abuse, or personal entrapment, where the men, the racist, the sexist, or just white society is the rock pulling the woman down. If she shouts for help or tries to get away, the only person harmed is her. Any attempt to escape her reality will prove fruitless. Instead, black women are taught to stop trying to escape the inevitable and to persevere through the life they were given. Gumbs describes ways for women to imagine their position in the world, to expand the parameters in which they can move, and make themselves be heard and acknowledged. Despite the fact that they “are not born. we are made” (129), they are determined to fight in a world that was not made for black women. A world that pushes them to run and lose themselves. A world where the reflection in the mirror is a stranger staring back. A world with constant thoughts of: “how did you get here” (71). Oppression keeps black women from flying, from finding their identity away from man, from loving, and from finding meaning and purpose.


Gumbs describes a powerful scene where “now that she has dropped the frame of what she thought she was making onto the floor where bare feet sacrifice and smile…no picture frame could contain her now” (28-29). The stress of fitting into the frame causes the pain growing from the depths within the woman, poisoning her thoughts and heart. The pressure surrounds her and begins to squeeze, until she feels like she can’t breathe. She reaches a point when the pain hits the highest note, and she loses her mind. The moment when she shatters the picture frame and lets the pain and anger she had inside of her go. But the release of the shards around her reminds her she is still alive. A reminder that there’s still something to save: herself. This scene is powerful in the way it describes chasing after an ideal that will never be achieved, no matter how much effort is put in. The woman cuts herself from the glass, but smiles at the realization that she is free from the suffocating standard of fitting into the picture. The cuts represent the sacrifices and pain she went through. The damage is done, and now she has to clean up her mess and herself as society and men do not allow her to express her anger. Women can never complain. Instead they must hold it all inside of them until they explode in private. Then, they must pick themselves up and restore the appearance of being normal and happy. Women are required to endure the endless, destructive cycle of inferiority and maintain the house’s appearance within society.

Furthermore, the common metaphor and reference to sandpaper is a subtle way to connect the excerpts and the idea of invisibility. Having these images of being smooth and sanded-down promotes the notion of erasing qualities that people call attention to: can’t be too beautiful, can’t be too ugly. They need to be in the middle: smooth and plain.​ ​Invisible women are safe and Gumbs shows that as she uses invisibility as a major theme throughout the book, “it was no superpower that made her invisible to them, that made it possible for her to move from room to room without them knowing her sequence” (41). Women go throughout their day without being noticed by anyone. The fact that the house is clean, food is ready, and clothes are washed are the only indications that black women exist. Smart, resourceful women have strategies to avoid punishment and placate their man. It takes strength to stay and fight for their life. Doing what they’re asked for correctly avoids repercussions, but doesn’t guarantee a fist-free night. This is a cycle that has repeated for centuries and continues today. Women need to stand up and demand more. End the suffering, pain, and heartache instead of breaking like glass and sanding themselves down. I believe that Gumbs paints these painful scenes with the intent of empowering women to realize their sad reality and fight for a change.

Most excerpts have an element of desperate hope, “she imagined the blue of her bruises spreading daily on his insides until his muscles could not take it and his bones grew weak and bent…receipt for how her life was spent” (22). ​Besides writing about black women’s limitations and their inferior position within society, Gumbs also addresses a man’s relationship to a woman: male dominance and the domestic violence occurring behind closed doors. ​In these scenes, there is a longing for freedom and an accumulation of hate felt radiating from the pages. Women are hurt and suffering. Despite it all, women still have strength left within them. Black women cannot escape the burden beaten into their shoulders, but they are fighting to live and see another day. Mentally strong, black women find a coping mechanism or vice to help erase their flawed reality to make their day-to-day life a little easier; until their less than perfect world transforms into an almost pleasant life, where some days they can even smile.

Throughout the novel, Gumbs supplies us with clear imagery that exudes powerful emotions that rightfully enrage the reader. Nobody deserves these situations or this pain, but many do experience it. The usage of lowercase letters eliminates emphasizing a particular pronoun or subject. “i” is not Gumbs, “i” is everyone: you, me, your next door neighbor, the past and present. The images, paired with not focusing on a particular journey, allows the reader to realize the extent of the problem: how widespread this issue is. Gumbs gives a voice to the survivors and support to black women. Her books gives us a wakeup call as well as hope that the informed future will change its actions and treatment of black women: empower them, not enslave them with invisible chains and expectations.


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

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Divine Memory and the Laurie Carlos Oracle

Laurie Carlos BlueLast month, as my first public work as Winton Chair at University of Minnesota, I was honored to listen to and love with many people in Laurie Carlos’s community of impact in the Twin Cities. Adriana Foreman made this beautiful video of one piece of that work, a circle called Divine Memory and the Laurie Carlos Oracle.

To open the circle and to deeply invite the gathered community to bring Laurie through I breathed, sang, moved, told and listened in the forms of my own recent ancestors Clyde Gumbs, Joseph McKenzie, Cynthia BrownTawnya Palmer and Chuck Davis.

So much gratitude to Zenzele IsokeSigne HarridayMankwe NdosiShaVunda BrownTalvin WilksJoi D. Lewis, and everyone gathered for embodying the oracle that day. Thank you to so many more for allowing me to listen to you all week. JunaudaErinBeverlyKimShannon, Mire, Eleanor, you were definitely there in spirit. In that mundane classroom on a snowy day, you taught me how deeply, how unconditionally, how beyond death, we are always in the presence of love. The impact of Laurie Carlos is nowhere near over in the Twin Cities and on the planet. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And more soon.