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
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.