Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind

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Devotion: A Review of Spill

My reaction to ​Spill​ speaks to the aspects of academia that Gumbs challenges, in her book and in her daily life.

A Visit from a Community Accountable Scholar

by Anna Klevin

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

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Gumbs at University of Arizona.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs taught the entirety of our Wednesday night class seated cross legged on a tabletop in front of a projection of a collage of Ida B. Wells. Over the course of three hours she completely changed the way I thought about her most recent book, ​Spill: Scenes of Black feminist fugitivity.

Spill​ is far harder to categorize than any other text we’ve read. Each page contains one poem, or “scene”, that tell the story of an unnamed woman in various stages of an escape. The poems are broken up by various formal definitions of the word “spill.” Like a good Macalester student, my eyes were trained to find the political commentary during my first read through. Some poems evoked familiar scenes of Black protest. At first I dismissed the prose which I perceived as more personal to be less substantive. Overall, I initially struggled to see the book as a whole as a political text.

Gumb’s class cameo helped me understand how ​Spill​ is subversive and political ​because ​her academic public (people like me) will not immediately understand its political character. My reaction to ​Spill​ speaks to the aspects of academia that Gumbs challenges, in her book and in her daily life.

Spill​ is both an academic and spiritual devotion. Instead of engaging our analytical brain, which academia usually targets, it introduces an emotional dimension to theory, breathing life back into the jargon and all the alien features of academia that drive a wedge between Black academics and their publics. She folds in the experiences of historical figures like Rosa Parks and Mamie Till without explicitly naming them, making their famous experiences both palpable and universal.

The genre bending of her book parallels her life path, which is by all accounts unconventional for an academic. After finishing her PhD she turned down positions at universities, opting instead to take an enormous risk: she founded the ​Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind in her home community of Durham, North Carolina. She calls the organization a “transmedia- enabled community school (aka tiny black feminist university) and lending library.” In class she recounted the great uncertainty and excitement she felt investing in her community, who paid her living expenses while she got the school off the ground.

Gumbs does not aim to produce new knowledge ​on​ this subject, or improve on the work of her informants, as the academy expects of a PhD. Instead, in her words, she writes not ​about,​ but with ​Hortense Spillers.


This language challenges the way we think about the development of Black intellectualism. In this class we’ve studied feuds between public intellectuals like Richard Wright and James Baldwin, pointed out generational, religious and class differences to rationalize their conflicts, and tracked their personal evolutions. The result is that we subconsciously or consciously derive a linear progression of Black intellectualism. I think Spill pushes back against this tendency by publishing a work that is guided by the words of an academic who is much older than her. The book is a physical artifact of the main goal of her school: “​the intergenerational practice of describing and accounting for how we are transformatively interconnected.”

In another stand against the status quo in academia, ​Spill​ gives credit where credit it due to those women who laid the groundwork for her studies, in the form of an appendix listing which of Spiller’s quotes inspired which scene. Academics have always stolen and/or appropriated the work of Black women intellectuals at a high rate. Gumbs explained that her meticulous citations are a pointed retort at the throes of academics who devalue the contributions of Black women, as well as a form of compensation for Spillers.

Spill​ makes the academic intimate, with jives with the subject of Spillers’ scholarship in a roundabout way. When Gumbs and Spillers appeared in a TV interview together last year, they discussed the latter’s research about how intimacy was robbed from enslaved families. Under slavery, sexual encounters were tightly coupled with brutality because plantation owners often fathered slave’s children. Needless to say that White men’s assault on the Black female body and the resulting association between intimacy and violence that Black women harbored did not end with the formal abolition of slavery. ​Spill ​speaks to this. The last two sections depict black women wrestling with new-found freedom, which entails the rediscovery of stolen intimacy in the broadest sense of the word.

It won’t surprise you that the class environment Gumbs created was more intimate than any I’ve I’ve entered here. She lead us in an activity in which she put her book to use as an “oracle” to advise our personal questions related to three themes: freedom, possibility and accountability. At first I wondered: how can a book about Black female liberation be ​my ​oracle? But much of the oracle’s advice rang true, a testament perhaps to the innate humanity of her book, but more likely to the breadth of her life experience, as someone who straddles disparate worlds. I am grateful to have ​Spill​ the book as a memento of her too-short visit.

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


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Intimate Scholarship: A Review of Spill

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.



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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.