Marquis Bey interviews Alexis Pauline Gumbs, author of the poetry collection Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Read an excerpt from book here.
Marquis Bey: So I want to begin, if I may, expressing to you how utterly thankful I am that you wrote Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Though I identify, and am identified, as a cisgender Black male, I, like many other Black (male) feminists, have been deeply edified by Black women. And it is to those Black women you dedicate your book, those “Black women who make and break narrative.”
For the past year I’ve been thinking about fugitivity, and more specifically its relationship to the legacy of Black feminist theorizing—theorizing, of course, not in the sense of stodgy elitism but, as Barbara Christian has said, “more in the form of the hieroglyph.” It seems to be that force, that analytic, that mode of inhabiting the world that refuses to succumb to hegemony. For me, to think about fugitivity, and more specifically a Black feminist fugitivity, is to take seriously those conversations in the kitchen, those side-eyes saturated with subversive meaning, those moments of, as you might say, spillage. And this is what Black feminism is and has done: it is a kind of living that is so immersed in refusal and subversive song—different names for love, perhaps—that it acts as a potent site for change.
What you’ve done in Spill captures, necessarily incompletely, the uncapturable. You bring us indirectly to a kind of mosaic of knowledges gleaned from Black women. You demand readers to sit with these scenes of Black feminist fugitivity, and in that sitting we are stirred, forced to be subjected to the scenes of the constitutive underbelly of our worlds. I wonder, then, if you could begin by saying more about the Black feminist fugitive impetus behind all of these scenes, behind your writing, behind your thinking, and, indeed, behind your—and other Black women’s—living.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs: First of all, what a beautiful description of the kitchen table legacies from which Spill emerges. As I often say, Black feminist theory and Black feminist poetry are complicated, but not more complicated, never more rigorous than living as a Black woman in a world structured around the organizing concepts of slavery and rape. The Black feminist fugitive impetus behind all of this for me is that the systemic reality of the world we live in is an ongoing lie, enforced by violence at every turn. And it’s a lie that Black women contradict in our being and doing and are punished for every day. It’s also a lie we retell ourselves and the people around us in the hope of mitigating pain. So the fugitive impulse behind our daily being, behind my writing and thinking and living is the fact that underneath all the lies (including the internalized lies I tell myself about myself), there is freedom. And that freedom is asking me to live in accordance with the reality that love came first and still comes first and last, that a love that I can only describe as as Black as the universe that holds the stars and the planet and as feminine as change herself created everything. Answering that freedom in the midst of the afterlife of slavery is, as my late mentor Cheryll Greene would have said, “more than a notion.”
That’s what every scene of Spill is. That’s what every moment of my life is. Freedom wanting to be free. Life wanting to be life. Love wanting to be love. In the midst of structures and narratives (and in my body, all my overdetermined flesh) that are afraid of all of it. Am I preaching? Does all of this sound essentialist? That’s because in this moment I’m trying to describe the notions that constitute Spill. Spill itself doesn’t do that. Spill, like living as a Black woman, is more than a notion. More than an ocean. More than what we’ve had to do to make this make sense to us. It presents scenes that are different every time, experienced through characters that are not the same character across the text. It asks the reader to confront the possibility of freedom through a specific moment that may or may not relate to specific moments in the experience of the reader. The thing is that life cannot be contained, even by our understanding of it. Or our critiques of the problems with our understanding of it. But still, if you ask me what the fugitive impetus is, it is love, it is freedom, it is older than me, it has not stopped, despite all of the physical and ideological structures we could mention. That’s the necessarily incomplete part. The escaping isn’t easy, but it always escapes.
MB: Your last sentence—“The escaping isn’t easy, but it always escapes”—is really profound. The necessarily difficult escape is something that seems to be critical to understand. It also seems to be the texture of living at the nexus of Black and woman or of living with and dwelling with and through Black feminism. Could you maybe say more about what living Black feminist fugitivity might look like, feel like—or even think like?
APG: Well, the short answer would be…no. I hope the scenes in the book are examples of what living Black feminist fugitivity might look, feel, or think like, but I don’t think of the book as prescriptive. Although “Black feminist fugitivity” and other phrases like “Black girl magic,” for example, have some different energy around them, they both defy and escape all our elaborations. Black femininity exceeds description either way. As I have said elsewhere (when asked to explain Black girl magic): “If I could define black girl magic, I wouldn’t. Just watch. That might be one of the first rules of black girl magic. Black girl magic isn’t the type of thing to be defined. Given the opportunity to conform, it transforms. And there is so much opportunity to conform. How do we nurture it though? Love. Loving our own selves, loving the selves of each other. And the other selves. I nurture black girl magic by breathing, dreaming, eating well, sleeping well. And witnessing.”
MB: Yes, I got you. This Black feminist fugitivity, as manifested in something like Black girl magic, refuses summation, refuses being captured in a definition. What else did I even expect as an answer to my question?
I wanted to highlight a couple quotes from Spill that both enraptured me and resonated with two other thinkers. You write: “i am before that….i do not arrive. i stay,” and further down, “before black is bad and broken i am more….i am every blackened letter pressing on the book. and before that.” And these two quotes reminded me of Fred Moten, who writes about fugitivity as an “anoriginal lawlessness,” a before that is chaotic, refusitive; a modality, if you will, that rests to the side of and disruptively fissures ontological claims. Too, it reminded me of the poet Saul Williams, who in “Sha-Clack-Clack” says, “I am not the son of sha-clack-clack. I am before that. I am before. I am before before.”
So there is this Black/feminist/fugitive force that exists, or rather moves, before the designation of Blackness as abject and evil. It is an escape that always, and already, escapes prior to historical erasure, the Law, or the racializing iron fetters of enslavement. And for this knowledge, you cite folks like the inimitable Hortense Spillers, the aforementioned women who make and break narrative, the “quiet, the quarreling, the queer.” These Black fugitive women—are they not embodied manifestations of the destruction of the world? Or maybe a radical recalibration of it? What do these women do—for us, for themselves, for history, for the future? Perhaps Black feminist fugitivity threatens to render us and our world unrecognizable to us. And that is precisely what a new world, a radically just world, might be—the unknown. But I don’t know. What are your thoughts?
The nods to Saul Williams and Fred Moten are definitely there. I encountered Saul Williams’s poem in what I think of as a Black feminist fugitive context. I was collaborating with a cherished mentor and mother figure of mine named Nia Wilson to create a program for an organization in Durham, North Carolina called SpiritHouse. The program, called “Choosing Sides,” used poetry to connect young people in our community who had been involved in or close to folks involved in criminalized street organizations (or in police parlance “gangs”) to a revolutionary history in which Black folks have organized for liberation in organizations that have been very much criminalized by the state and accountable, as it were, to the streets. (I am thinking about Sylvia Wynter’s discussion of “the street” and “street language.”)
We were especially inspired by the role of street organizations, and the collaboration between young people in street organizations and relatively privileged Black students—I myself was a relatively privileged Black graduate student at Duke University at the time—in the founding of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party. Our program was hosted by an educational center created by another black woman, Martina Dunford, who sought to respond to the blatant targeting of Black children in the Durham Public School system with 365-day suspension, a punishment that made it almost impossible for suspended students to ever catch up with their grade level or return to school. Imagine being suspended in October and then trying to come back to school the next October. Not only would you, of course, be a year behind, but you also would start that next year out of sync with the schedule. Brilliantly, Martina Dunford created a program that would be an alternative to school where suspended students could keep on track with their academic work in order to be able to return to school and hopefully finish. SpiritHouse collaborated, using the poetry and self-expression program that we designed and implemented as space for these students in particular to learn about the Black radical tradition and to reflect through their own poetry on meanings for their own lives and actions beyond their pathologization by the school system and the police.
So for us, that scene in SLAM where Saul Williams offers “Sha-Clack-Clak” was important and resonant. Watching that scene together spoke to the students, who could directly identify with being the person at the back of the classroom fighting against or enduring a violent gaze in normative educational space. Nia’s idea to have it be one of the first films we watched together was very effective. The “before that” that the students thought about made space for them to think about who they were beyond the behavior diagnosis that had been made at school, the profiling of the police and everything else. But for me, that “before” is very connected to a Black maternal recuperation and displacement that is happening in the poem. If you rephrase in order to focus on what sha-clack-clack, that sound of bondage might mean. You would turn “I am not the son of sha-clack-clack” into “Sha-clack-clack is not my origin point,” “Sha-clack-clack did not give birth to me,” “Sha-clack-clack is not my father” (as Spillers would say…maybe), or more to my point, “Sha-clack-clack is not my mother.”
As you note, this is very resonant with Fred Moten’s theorization of ante-origin, and Fred Moten is a major influence on this book and all my work. He was on my dissertation committee at Duke and even before that his writing was useful to my own exploration of Black maternal meaning. What is so important about that work for me is the fugitive positioning it allows. Spill is not written from a perspective that merely watches Black women respond and respond to multiple forms of oppression. It is written from a perspective that demonstrates how all these forms of oppression, all these discourses and traps, all the lies and lashes are in response to the threatening, pre-existing, creative Blackness that Black women not only emerge from, but also nourish and perpetuate as the most obvious purveyors (but not the only purveyors) of the dark feminine energy capitalism can’t stand.
It is very similar to the refusal in the poem by Williams. I am before that. Except that as Hortense Spillers would guide us to note, the way back cannot follow patriarchal norms. “I am not the son of sha-clack-clack” might want to imply that I am in fact not the son at all, I am the father. I am the father of my own destiny. Spillers and Moten both trouble this form of reaching back to a known origin point, maybe Africa. Instead I am interested in that particular moment in Spill in listening to she who is called sha-clack-clack herself. Sha-clack-clack as the misnaming of the mother, added in with the list Spillers offers in the beginning of “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” Sha-clack-clack as the mispronunciation, the inappropriate stalling of a Black woman’s name. And how many of my sisters have names that do start with “Sha–”—lifeforce in the Yoruba language, an invitation to breathe in any tongue? What if “before that” came and told us who she was, where she was, how she was today? Where would the conversation lead then?
And yes. It is a threat. It is the threat the world we think we know (the world we know to think) is built to deny and evade. Is it working? What is dangerous, what is fugitive about Black women is the evidence of a life more guided by a relationship to that dark feminine creative energy that precedes and forever exceeds capitalism and other forms of violence. Who is being punished, ridiculed again and again in this society? The person who cares more about Black life than anything. Cares more about Black life than about being understandable. Cares more about Black life than about being compensated. Cares more about Black life than about respectability, even Black respectability. Cares more about Black life than about how much it hurts. Cares more about Black life than about what is sold to us as life, defined against Blackness. And the life you live when that relationship is first and last, on purpose, or by accident, whether you are a Black woman or not, is a Black feminist fugitive life.
MB: I love the reversing of “I am not the son of sha-clack-clack” into “‘Sha-clack-clack’ is not my origin point”—and further still that “‘Sha-clack-clack’ is not my mother.” In a word—or, in your word—this is a rearticulated instance of being other mothered, of creating “a rival economy and temporality in which Black women and children would be generators of an alternative destiny.” And this perhaps resonates with your question, “what if ‘before that’ came and told us who she was, where she was, how she was today?” If “before that” came and shared with us who, where, and how she was, would we even be able to understand? Or is that (mis)understanding sort of the point?
How, then, to care about, nurture, love Black life over all these other things that tout themselves as more appealing? What might it do to us and to the world? I love this question, if only because it implicitly (and explicitly) makes Blackness and Black life the thing which is to be and should be loved; it implies “Why aren’t we [and of course, who exactly is this ‘we’] loving Black life over being compensated, understandable, over respectability [politics], etc.”
APG: Right. And what do we admit, who do we reveal ourselves as, what do we risk if we say that we are loving Black life more than makes (Enlightenment) sense? Sylvia Wynter is still here with me, speaking about the potential of the so-called void. And for me it is important to remember, as Audre Lorde always asked us to remember, that not all of this is happening on the conscious level. What Freud called the subconscious, Audre Lorde called the “non-european consciousness.” And the questions become more and more specific. When am I not loving Black life over being compensated, understandable, respectable, sensible…whatever? And how does it show up specifically?
So the scene you mentioned is one of the scenes in Spill that is explicitly confrontational. Spill has been teaching me about my own fears, and the ways I protect myself from how frightening my love for Black women is, not only to other people, but also to me. Where are the spaces where I, an out queer Black feminist in a relationship with another queer Black woman, with a life designed around the love of Black women, still with all of that protect myself from the necessary danger of the love of Black women? Spill taught me to look in the mirror and ask myself that question. Just this morning I realized that I have a pattern of not calling, not talking on the phone socially with people I deeply love. People whose voices I really love to hear. Especially Black women. Now to be clear. I’m definitely not talking socially on the phone with people who are not Black women either! But why would I generally deprive myself of the sounds of the voices of Black women who I am connected to across time and space? Why would I limit most of my engagements to work-related conversations or typed affirmations of love over social media, when that’s not really in line with who I say I am, who I actually am, or what my body wants?
I tell myself that I will call everyone later so as not to be distracted from the work I am doing. I favor typed communication because it is contained. If I call up a friend on the phone, will I ever allow myself to hang up? Will I even be the same person? Will I ever work again? The love of Black women is actually that transformative. And I know it. So I will call everyone later. After the work. But when is later? When is after the work? As Barbara and Beverly Smith taught us, “there is no reason to expect that either we or our movement will survive long enough to become safely historical….” So when is later? So just this week I made a structured commitment to pick up the phone. Not just to wait and hope for phone calls to interrupt me, but to interrupt my own workaholic, internalized-capitalist ego-protection by calling Black women on the phone, to be present, to be transformed, to love Black life more than anything.
I share that, not to beat myself up or to dishonor all the ways that my life is organized around love for Black life and Black women especially, but to specify your question. I don’t think anyone who bothers to read this will be a person who has never chosen the love of Black life over anything ever. Probably most of the people who read this would be better served in capitalism by using this time to do something other than reading these words. But they are still reading. So the question is not really for the “we” who never choose loving Black life over safety. The reality is more insidious than that. The question is for those of us who do love Black life, when don’t we? How don’t we? What are the limits to our love? And whatever they are, they cost too much. They cost everything.
I decided to write a book published by an academic press where every footnote refers to an essay by the same Black woman. Every single one. I decided to turn in a bibliography to a press named after a plantation owner without one citation to a text or song that is not by a woman of color. Not one. And that may seem brave to some people reading this. But compare it to the daily punishment jobless Black mothers face just for insisting that their children eat. The punishment a homeless mother gets for sending her child to a public school in a zip code the state doesn’t want her to access. Compare it to the punishment Black public school teachers are getting right now for teaching to Black children instead of teaching to white supremacist tests. It doesn’t compare. But those citational choices, in their starkness, are appropriate to the role the book called Spill played in my life, a role that is not over. This book is teaching me how to love Black women first and last and every day deeper. This book is teaching me not to expect to be or see the same person on every page. This book is calling me out and in and, one by one, dismantling my cherished self-protections.
MB: And, as it always seems to do, as it always, perhaps, must, we come to love, radical love of Blackness—or perhaps love, period, since, we might say, to commit the act of loving Blackness is what love is. And that is what is allll up in Spill: a profound, unwavering, deep love for Black women. And it is this love—this radical/Black/fugitive/feminist love, all of which may simply be different words for one another—that is the force we seek to express in all of our actions, thinking, theorizing, living. And, moreover, that love must be boundless. As Brittney Cooper says, thinking with and through Black feminism, “Love No Limit.”
APG: For sure. The love is boundless and my hope is that Spill can make a different relationship to Black feminist theory possible that is less “about” and more “with.” I have found myself writing about Hortense Spillers’ work again and again across my intellectual life. It would be even more accurate to say that I reference Spillers again and again to help me write about the intersecting systems of oppression that are relevant to everything. But Spill is an experiment into what it would mean to write with Black feminist theory. And with this Black feminist theorist in particular. And the book may be boundless, but, of course, it is not formless. In Spill I am very interested in vernacular storytelling forms, poetic ritual, in rhyme and rhythm. I see Spill as in experiment in what happens when one engages literary theory with the ethic of a very old Black ritual practice of using aesthetic to invite spirit, to time travel and to reconnect. On a tangible level the limit-crossing that I think Spill makes possible is a level of complexity and accessibility that will speak to a range of people who do or do not think of themselves as participating in “theory.” Or maybe I should say Spill is a libation activated by a drum call that will call people who read Spillers as frequently as I do and people who have never heard her name into the same transformative space. All of them as experts to the extent that they can commit the act of loving Black.
MB: And this language of “with” rather than simply “about” is really what struck me most as I read Spill. It was edifying, life-giving, generative, interrogative of my own positioning and biases and oversights, in many ways, because it spoke with Black feminism—indeed, it spoke with my mother, grandmother, aunts, cousins. Knowledge, again, coming from the kitchen, the living room, the spaces that are “as quiet as it’s kept.” Black feminist fugitive knowledges that are akin to those “unspeakable things unspoken.” And in all of this knowledging, this life-giving, this interrogation, I felt the most profound sense of love. So perhaps, then, I want to thank you for writing and living and thinking and speaking with and through Spill and Black feminist fugitivity: for loving Black. It is the call we must, if we are to change things, answer.