Multitudes and a Black Sense of Place
and Movement: A Review of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity by Alexis
Reviewed by Sasha Panaram | @SashaPanaram |
with thanks to NewBlackMan (in
Wednesday, January 4, 2017.
“how did i spill out everywhere?”
I first encountered Alexis Pauline
Gumbs’ Spill: Scenes
of Black Feminist Fugitivity mid-air just recently departed from
North Carolina but not yet fully in New York. Spillage mediated my reception of
this book as I watched from my aisle seat people spill onto the plane and into
each other, baggage slip in and out of overhead bins, and drinks tumble in the
wake of turbulence.
Although I hardly like reading on planes, the
setting – the suspension – seemed suitable, even desirable, as I made my way
through a text that reconfigured what it meant to move and move freely as a woman
and person of color in this day and age. For once, separation from land was not
just welcomed but wildly liberating and momentarily, even a little bit
Written by a self-avowed queer Black troublemaker
and Black feminist love evangelist, Spill reads like a love letter or an
ode to Black women and girls – past, present, and future – seeking relief or
more aptly, freedom from oppressive structures that perpetuate racism and
sexism. Indebted to the inimitable Hortense Spillers and her work in Black,
White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, Gumbs
demonstrates what happens when you stop writing about a theorist but instead
write with them, through them, for them and the visionary worlds they create.
According to her, “[t]he difference between about and with
has to do with intimacy, conspiracy; maybe we can call that love.”
Arranged as a collection of scenes or witness
accounts that offer brief but biting glimpses into black women’s daily lived
and imagined realities, Spill invites readers to reckon with themselves
as flesh and bone, as mind and spirit, as always already present and eternally
elsewhere and otherwise.
Gumbs creates vignettes where both the women
depicted in her poetry and the readers of her text must simultaneously ask,
“what is she doing here?” (14) and “how did you get here?” (71). Each section,
framed by a different definition of spill, points to how black women exceed and
explode the parameters in which they are said to operate showing again and
again how they make and remake themselves in an ever-changing world. The
question “was she possible?” not only resounds throughout Spill to
facilitate a marveling at the triumphs and resilience particular to
#blackgirlmagic, but also gestures to what Gumbs describes as black women’s
“prismatic possibilities” (101).
Yet this poetic collection deals as heavily with
the past as it does with the future. With sections dedicated to Harriet Tubman
and Phillis Wheatley, Gumbs pays homage to ancestral mothers who embraced fugitivity in their movement and in
their writing not just as mechanisms of escape but as ways of life; ways of
staying alive. Functioning as that which is “like an ancestor kiss” or a deep
embrace, Spill memorializes these figures in such a way as to suggest
their enduring legacies in those who come after them (34).
But equally important Gumbs shows us how to do the
same be it through pouring libations, performing a “mantra in the name of the
mothers,” writing and rewriting the ancestors into history, invoking their
time-honored lessons, and more (103).
Hers is a text that teaches us how to live with and
live out Black feminist literary criticism; to view the field as a series of
conceptions and a calling.
In this way, Spill is not just a poetic
collection where art meets criticism or where art is criticism. Instead, it is
an intricately woven, poly-vocal, ever-expansive map that details and gives
rise to new and old black feminisms instructing us how to live and move
with(in) these proliferating epistemologies.
For this reason Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s 2014
drawing, Now There Are Three Ways to Get This Done: Your Way, Their Way or
My Way, which depicts a map being spewed from the mouth of a figure with
two heads, three faces, and multiple breasts, is an apt cover for a book
inspired by spillages. Said differently, this drawing originally created for
the Tituba Black Witch of Salem Drawing Series not only conjures the magic that
the series and Spill allude to, but it also gestures to the ways that
maps, like the one spewed from the figure’s mouth, cannot contain or
accommodate black women. And the ways that black women rewrite and remake maps
In its representation of multiple realities and
skepticism of land (“she no longer needs the ground”), Spill acts as an
extension to Hinkle’s drawing calling for new ways of imagining the world and
black women’s place in it (102). There is no right way to be according to Gumbs
and therein lies the challenge and the limitless possibilities.
By the end of Spill it is clear that Gumbs
is not interested in having a seat at the table to recall Solange’s latest
album unless she can first understand how she and that table came to be or as
she says learn “how a table got to be stronger than her… how much love does
wood absorb” (24).
The table was not made for her and neither was the
world. But this is less of a challenge or detriment for Gumbs. Spill
takes this as a cause for celebration – an occasion for rejoicing – because it
necessitates doing the work necessary to live with, learn from, and love one
another. It means spilling endlessly and forwardly in a world already spinning
and not stopping to pick up the pieces, but instead marveling at the traces
Main picture - Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, The Sower, 2015; India ink, acrylic paint, and polyfilm on wood panel, 11 x 14 inches.
Sasha Panaram is Ph.D. student (ABD) in English at Duke University. A
Georgetown University alumna, her scholarly interests are in African diasporic
literature, black feminisms, and visual cultures.