In 2003 Hortense Spillers, the prominent Black feminist scholar from Memphis published a “long-awaited [and most celebrated] collection of major essays” called Black, White, and in Color, which explores the relationship between race, gender, and (primarily) African-American literature. Thirteen years later, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a queer, Black scholar, poet, feminist, and activist living in Durham, North Carolina published a work produced “after and with” Black, White, and in Color called Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity.
Spill, seemingly a simple book of poetry, provides an analysis of the experiences of Black women through an exploration of the nuances of Black feminism. It bends the poetry genre into a way of communicating literary thought and providing artistic fulfillment to the reader. Exploring “black feminist literary criticism, historiography, and the interactive practice of relating to the words of black feminist thinkers” through a poetic lens, Gumbs bends the genre of literary criticism and translates the grievances of ancestral beings, the oppressed souls within all of us. Through the spiritual force of this book that, in the name of Black feminist fugitivity, elicited sounds of urgent affirmations from my mouth and pen, Gumbs speaks to the “gathering women,...the rainmaking women,...the rage-taking women,...the wide-eyed women, the undrowned women,...the fast-ass women,...the fall-in-love women,...the freaks,...the walk-out women,...the black-eyed women,...the wiry women”...and me. Not yet a woman, Gumbs spoke to me, she spoke to my Black, and she spoke to my woman, translating for them, acting as a spiritual liaison between me and them, she introduced me to myself. Gumbs and her book truly embody the meaning of spill, “to flow over the edge of its container.”
[Gumbs] asserts that as Black women and fugitives we face an inverted world where “good” and “bad” often blur, similar to that of blood mixing with pineapple upside down cake. “[S]he absently slices her finger, adding red into the yellow, and cries. and what did they ever do? It hurts. and what did they ever do?”
Gumbs explores poetry as a genre that is not just [or merely] pleasure or literary analysis, but also a medium for spiritual awakening. Her advocacy for connecting to the spiritual parts of ourselves and of those who came before us really seeps through her writing, so I could not refrain from placing some of her writings in a spiritual context. In the author’s note, Gumbs mentions that she intended to “take specific phrases from particular essays in Black, White, and in Color out of context, and then [she] realized that [she] could never take them out of context. Or that context couldn’t take them at all.” She asserts here that even the “black women writers” Spillers “didn’t write about” came through as she “turned [the] phrases,” or that some interpretations are as representative of the author’s message as the actual writings.
The subtitle of Spill, “Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity” reflects how Gumbs extracts ideas from Spillers’s work and quite literally brings them to life. Additionally, this subtitle revolutionizes the use of the word “fugitivity,” which captivated me as a young Black woman and feminist. Fugitivity holds special meaning for those identifying and submerged in Black and woman. As a Black person, my ancestors went from being forced fugitives to forever fugitives in a society that refuses to make space for us, causing us to wander and run, lost. As a woman, my ancestors have been fugitives from the tyranny and oppression of men. But Gumbs uses her words to extract the power a Black woman draws from within and around her to combat all that causes her to run, to be a fugitive. Using this interpretation of fugitivity, I found that Gumbs reached beyond the intellectually limiting dichotomy of good and bad, integrating negative and positive connotations to create a richer interpretation. She asserts that as Black women and fugitives we face an inverted world where “good” and “bad” often blur, similar to that of blood mixing with pineapple upside down cake. “[S]he absently slices her finger, adding red into the yellow, and cries. and what did they ever do? It hurts. and what did they ever do?”
Not yet a woman, Gumbs spoke to me, she spoke to my Black, and she spoke to my woman, translating for them, acting as a spiritual liaison between me and them, she introduced me to myself.
Gumbs explores all the nuances of being a woman, addressing and combating both society’s assessment of us, defining us by what we do with (or what is done to) our bodies or dismissal of us as inferior despite infinite evidence that demonstrates otherwise. But Gumbs also shows us that to explore women you must also explore men’s relationship to women. In the only section title using the pronoun “he,” Gumbs explores “What He was thinking.” “[H]is pants actually fell down. the belt in his hand less powerful than the laughter in her eyes...and he knew in one blink that fear was not respect. it was what was left over when love done left.” I had a hard time determining whether power in this verse manifested as domestic abuse or if it just represented a general statement about male dominance. After further consideration of the subtitle: “Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity,” I contemplated the possibility that the man referenced in the poem could symbolize anything that requires us to be fugitives."
I often assume that poems possess at least some autobiography, even if they are not completely based on the author’s personal experiences. I came across a verse that reminded me of Gumbs’s aura—she is a family friend, and I’ve spent time in her home. “[W]as that a book? A mug of tea? A paintbrush? How did they get there into her sight but out of her reach?” All of my memories of her home include both a book and a mug of tea. Yet, contradicting my assumption, I encountered accounts of heterosexual relationships. Gumbs, a “self-described queer black troublemaker,” even referenced queerness in one of her poems: “we gave up straightness and guess what? nothing was missing.” This duality of queer personal experiences and heterosexual experiences possibly originating from the “invited voices and settings that [Gumbs] can’t claim to have invented” adds even more complexity to a work already spilling over with brilliance and rich artistic expression.
I found myself drawn to the relationship between the words of these two women—Spillers and Gumbs. Spillers’s essays are deep Black feminist theory and critique; Gumbs’s work is a revolutionary manifestation of Black feminist literary criticism—allowing the reader to interpret her poetic interpretations of Spillers, to find their way into the openings they both created.
Gumbs’s reflection of the effect of Spillers’s work on her, accurately describes the feelings Gumbs’s writing inflicted upon me:
when I turned these phrases, doors opened and everyone came through. All the black women writers Spillers wrote about and didn’t write about… the project took over and offered scene after scene out of time and invited voices and settings that I can’t claim to have invented. It is either that I was craving these scenes and these voices or they were craving me and we met up at the hot spot called Black, White, and in Color.
Blending my love of Black queer feminist authors with genre bending and analytically complex poetry, Gumbs’s work inflicted pleasantly unfamiliar feelings upon me that I cannot “claim to have invented.” Spill transformed me from a reluctant bystander of theory and poetry into a willing and enthused participant. Reading her words and hearing her voice in my head, Alexis truly spoke to a part of me still sleeping, allowing me to open my eyes to the strengths that lie within and around me, especially the strength of words. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Spill is an offering for all seeking an unpredictable and experimental journey of Black feminist artistic expression and self-discovery.