Spill is grounded in the respect and love of one Black female intellectual for another. It is the ultimate feminist prose
Black Feminist Love in Spill
by Anya Ptacek
these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris at Macalester College, Spring 2018
Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ collection of prose titled, Spill may be the young author’s debut publication, but it carries the wisdom and experience of a veteran poet. Spill is an assemblage of thought primarily based on the work of acclaimed Black female academic, Hortense Spillers. On each page, Gumbs uses a singular quote from Spillers book of essays, Black, White and in Color, as well as others to reflect on a wide range of topics relating to the oppression of Black women. The end result is a work in which Gumbs cites Spillers literally hundreds of times—provoking readers to recognize how widely under cited Black female academics are.
Simultaneously, Gumbs up-cycles dense academic work into gorgeously crafted prose that is both confident in its own message and intensely empowering. This allows for a much wider audience to experience Spillers’ work. Gumbs uses a similar format in her newest publication, M Archive in which she cites Black female intellectual M. Jacqui Alexander’s book, Pedagogies of Crossing, on every single page.
Growing up, Gumbs was largely inspired by notable Black female figures, such as Ida B. Wells, who taught her the value of pursuing your fate no matter the odds the world places against you. Gumbs admiration of strong Black women is thoroughly evident throughout Spill which is grounded in the respect and love of one Black female intellectual for another. It is the ultimate feminist prose—constructed from a history of strong, insightful Black women. Accordingly, Spill is not just a well- written contemporary work of literature, but a statement piece. It is an evocative performance art, encapsulated and preserved for eternity in beautifully arranged prose.
Gumbs summoned the power of Spill when she came to visit and teach my American Studies class this past week. She referred to the work as a “freedom oracle,” a term which I simultaneously did not understand and felt as though granted too much power to the book. Gumbs had each student reflect on their most personal inhibition and come up with a question, which, if answered, would free them from that inhibition. She then asked students to volunteer in sharing their questions and subsequently provide a random number between 1-100. Gumbs would read the passage that was on the page of the given number and that passage would answer the student’s freedom question. At the start of this exercise, I was unsure of Gumbs ultimate intention. Was she trying to show us that her writing could be the solution to any of our issues?
The objective of this activity was lost on me until she answered the first question by reading a passage of “Spill”. It was then that I came to the realization that Gumbs was not trying to show us the power of her own work, but rather the collective knowledge of Black female intellectuals. When Gumbs refers to Spill as the “freedom oracle” she is ultimately referring to it as an incredible reserve of knowledge and understanding that has resulted from centuries of Black suffering and oppression.
The format of Spill very much reflects the thought behind the work in the powerful way it presents each new page. Each page contains a new thought, a new scene that has neither a beginning nor an end. Instead, each scene is left open ended, as if stuck in the middle. This format would appear to be disjointed if it were not separated into sections, each referring to a different definition of the word “spill.” These definitions provide a concrete train of thought for the reader to follow throughout the book without feeling overwhelmed and lost by the open-endedness of each page. The result of this is an organized chaos—there is no single storyline to follow yet the structure of the work guides readers and is ultimately very comforting.
For such a young author, Gumbs has already accomplished substantial feats. Her presence in person and on paper is that of respect, admiration, respect, and wisdom. It is as the words of her opening poem inspire,
“…fire is blazing the brash blues women the black-eyed women
the wiry women with guns
the fire is becoming the sun
our work here is not done”
Gumbs, in this instance, is both the author and subject of her work. It will be a pleasure to witness Gumbs develop as an author with her upcoming publications as well as her inspiring work as a fierce activist.