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Multitudes and a Black Sense of Place and Movement: A Review of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity by Alexis Pauline Gumbs




Reviewed by Sasha Panaram | @SashaPanaram | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


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 rebellious.


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 themselves.


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 left behind.

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.


A Review of Alexis Pauline Gumbs' "Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity"

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