Black Feminist in Public: Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Black Feminist in Public is a new series of conversations between creative Black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.

The self-described “Black feminist love evangelist,” poet, scholar and “queer troublemaker” Alexis Pauline Gumbs is the author of the experimental, poetic and futuristic M Archive: After the End of the World, published earlier this year. The second in a planned triptych from Duke University Press—the first is Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity—Gumbs offers us a vision in its pages for Black feminist theory and practice.

Ms. talked to Gumbs about digital discourse, futurism and her own journey to Black feminism.

Tell us about your personal journey to Black feminism.

I feel like I just was born in a beautiful context of Black women’s writing and creative energy. When I was conceived, my mom was working for Essence magazine; I was born the year Alice Walker’s The Color Purple came out, and I was raised in a household where the poetry and the novels and the choreopoem of Black women were valued. The works of Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni were present for me always, and that obviously has had a major influence on who I am.

My mother is a therapist and also a person working right now to transform the foster care system. She’s a really incredible example for me. My father passed away about two years ago, and he was also a paradigm-shifting person whose last book that he wrote was called Without Apology. It was what he saw as his queer Black feminist book—even though he was a straight, cisgender, Black, West Indian man—so I feel really grateful to my family. I know I’ve impacted my father in terms of his access and his ultimate reading and valuing of Black feminist works.

So, your feminist influences come directly from your family?

Yes. I was also blessed to grow up near and participate in a writers’ group at Charis Books and More— which is the oldest feminist bookstore in North America—in Atlanta, Georgia, where I grew up. That was the place where I learned about Audre Lorde’s work, James Baldwin and June Jordan. I was able to see myself in a legacy that included those people, and in an institution that was actually committed to intersectional feminist creativity and community building.

And then in college, I had a great gift, especially through my mentor-professor-intellectual mother, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and also a really important mentor, Monica Miller, in my life, to deepen my relationship to Black feminist publishing. Farah Griffin is the person who first taught me about Kitchen Table Press. I’m completely obsessed with Kitchen Table Press and with Combahee River Collective and with that incredible energy of our elders, and of our shared beloved Barbara Smith especially. Learning about the work of Kitchen Table Press inspired me to start Broken Beautiful Press in 2002; like Demita Frazier and all the other sisters who created the Combahee River Collective, and Alexis De Veaux, I could use what I had, like my own living room, to create the intellectual, political and creative spaces that I needed.

I see how you’ve expanded these spaces through multiple formats.

When I was in my PhD process [at Duke University], the major experiment of that time was to create with my community in Durham, and that’s how Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind was created, and it continues to be a core source of intellectual accountability—which means that babies, grandparents, people of all ages, people who work in community organizations or the grocery store, in public schools, in all sorts of sectors in our community, are part of this practice of continuing to learn from and create from the legacy of Black feminism.

I remember your voice emerging as part of the radical ring of women of color bloggers, particularly around the time of the Duke Lacrosse rape scandal and the vilification of accuser Crystal Gail Mangum. Could you talk about that work? That particular emergence online is crucial in terms of raising the visibility of Black feminism.

I completely agree. In 2006, I was part of the founding of a coalition called UBUNTU in Durham, a women of color and survivor-led coalition to end sexual violence. It was our collective community response to the Duke rape case—not only the actual event, but also the horrible, discursive violence against Black women, against survivors of sexual violence and against sex workers in our community. We really wanted what we were doing to be available to other women of color survivors who were not in Durham, and that was really what drew us to create an online presence. That was really my first time engaging in the blogosphere.

I really feel that women of color bloggers were and are profoundly influential in what online communication, especially related to progressive politics, looks like today. I think about the circulation of Moya Bailey’s term that she created, misogynoir, or the conversations that have happened on Tumblr over the years, the impact of Black Twitter. I love the work that Black feminists are doing online.

You have also talked about doing work in a post-digital world. What does a post-digital world look like?

I believe what we are able to tap into online—the interconnectivity between us as people thinking together, growing together and also just being on a planet together with other types of beings—is something that goes beyond the digital. It is our capacity to be deeply connected, and our connection through the digital world may evolve us or train us to be able to be profoundly connected to each other across space and time, even without digital technology, even without Twitter or the other forms of technology that are sustained by our remembering and our desire to be connected across space and time. I think about what it means to grow those skills.

The invention of the Internet is based on drum rhythms, so to create in-person djembe drum rhythms and praise poems and ceremonies is a different way to connect offline. All of that is beyond the digital, but our investment in the digital is teaching us how to connect with each other.

Your most recent work, M Archive: After the End of the World, feels both prophetic and Afrofuturistic. Could you say more about why you made this work so experimental and why you set it in the future?

I think the primary experiment for me was the practice that I had of daily engaging with M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing. Her book is incredible, but I would say, for me, the spiritual core, and the major intellectual breakthrough that I find is the way she talks about the Middle Passage. She talks about it as an event that impacts on energy and on all of the elements on the planet. She explores this history as a continuum, understanding that at every moment in history, there’s a crossing that’s undertaken. Jacqui suggests the crossing is never undertaken once and for all, that it’s something that actually continues through time, and when I started to write M Archive, I didn’t say, “oh, I want to write a book about the future.” I just knew that I wanted to engage Jacqui’s work every single day for at least a year—and as I did that, I found myself thinking, “oh, this is actually providing a counterpart to the ancestral perspective that I often look at in my work.” I’m saying: “What about those people in the future? What is their wisdom to offer to us in this moment?”

It surprised me doing this book. Things that I thought might be in the far future actually have caught up with us. They happened sooner than I thought.

What are those things that are happening now?

I was writing this book during the Obama presidency. It seemed like we were moving in a positive ecological direction, but then there was also my Black feminist critique of seeing underneath and behind that, such as the very serious forms of violence and ecological degradation and stripping away of civil rights of different groups of people that have happened already. Halfway through the Trump presidency, we are seeing these developments that I never would have personally predicted from the vantage point I had when I was writing this. I really thought that some of these scary things were far into the future.

What is your overall vision for your planned triptych?

M Archive is the second book in the triptych. The first book is Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, which was a different experiment, but with a very similar structure, engaging the essays of Hortense Spillers, again, on a daily basis, which took me to these scenes of Black women’s lives mostly from the slavery era till now, and so it’s interesting that in M Archive, it was more futuristic. The third book in the triptych is called Dub: Finding Ceremony, which is in production right now. Dub as in dub poetry. It’s also short for W, because it’s in honor of Sylvia Wynter.

I see. It’s a double play on words.

Exactly. Also, the music style, and so it engages Sylvia Wynter’s work.

Sylvia Wynter is incredible, and I think a major part of her project has been to look at the origin stories of colonialism and of the definition of the human that we’ve been dealing with since then, and where that came from, and it’s this intellectual history project that she has done and is doing. By engaging her work every day, I ended up with a very profound and ancestral and intimate process of unraveling my own origin stories that have to do with my heritage, my Anguillan heritage—and I know you have a small island heritage, too.

Yes, from St. Kitts and Nevis. Anguilla used to be part of that three-island Caribbean grouping.

There is also my Jamaican heritage, my Shinnecock heritage and also my identity as a Black woman intellectual; and what it means to be a daughter or a sister or a granddaughter in relation to this tradition; and also just some family stories that have been passed down and that unravel in the way the text works. So it emerges as something like a ceremony of listening.

Sylvia Wynter writes with the idea that the ceremony must be found after humanism. Each section of this book is a potential ceremony for folks to practice. The triptych overall is based on my deep investment in the projects of these three Black women theorists: Hortense Spillers, Jacqui Alexander and Sylvia Wynter. I wanted to be transformed by their work, beyond explanation and beyond the idea of mastery, and it has changed my entire life. I knew that I wanted to take on their work in an intimate way.

What I really appreciate about your work is the way that you think outside the box and engage in metaphysical ideas. There’s an idea that Black feminism is more on the ground and action-oriented and less theoretical and intellectual. I appreciate the complexities you bring to this work.

Black feminist intellectual legacy is powerful, and I just think about the love and the labor of it over generations. Part of the performance of M Archive is citing one Black feminist theorist over and over on every single page of a book that’s hundreds of pages long. This is part of my prayer, my gratitude, my libation—and my reminder that I don’t think Black feminist theorists have been cited enough or given the credit that they deserve. This is an intellectual legacy, and the three theoretical workers I engage with, and even beyond just these three people, is tied to the everyday of our lives, to our interpersonal relationships. It’s definitely tied to the forms of political action that we can imagine.

There’s no need for it to be siloed within the university. There’s no need for it to be only legible and accessible within the academic marketplace. It has always belonged to all of us.

I think that connection is crucial.


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.