Week 5 – Black Feminist Futurities II – Spill

Page Illustration: Cover Art for Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Artist: Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Now There Are Three Ways to Get this Done: Your Way, Their Way or My Way, 2014.


Gumbs, Alexis Pauline (2016). Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Durham: Duke University Press. (Course Text)

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 229-256. New York: Norton (Course Text).

Black Studies for the Digital Soul (2017). Left of Black with Hortense Spillers and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Public Lecture, Duke University, March 22, 2017.

Intergenerational Learning

The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner

Esther Brown did not write a political tract on the refusal to be governed, or draft a plan for mutual aid or outline a memoir of her sexual adventures. A manifesto of the wayward – Own Nothing. Refuse the Given. Live on What You Need and No More. Get Ready to Be Free – was not found among the items in her case file. She didn’t pen any song lines: My mama says I’m reckless, My daddy says I’m wild, I ain’t good looking, but I’m somebody’s angel child. She didn’t commit to paper her ruminations on freedom: With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of potentialities?

The cardboard placards for the tumult and upheavel she incited might have said: “Don’t mess with me. I am not afraid to smash things up.” But hers was a struggle without formal declaration of policy, slogan, or credo. It required no party platform or ten-point program […]

[…] Esther never pulled a soapbox onto the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue to make a speech about autonomy, the global reach of the color line, involuntary servitude, free motherhood, or the promise of a future world, but she well understood that the desire to move as she wanted was nothing short of treason. She knew first-hand that the offense most punished by the state was trying to live free.

How does the radical imagination get cultivated from generation to generation?

This week focuses on this question in a myriad of ways:

  1. History of Black Feminism – we will trace some of the lineages of Black feminist thought across history with a specific focus on some contemporary political projects that originated in Black women’s organizing.
  2. Intergeneration Mentorship – using the relationship between Hortense Spillers and Alexis Pauline Gumbs we’ll investigate the ways in which contemporary movements grow with rather than evolve from past struggles.
  3. The Preservation of Artefacts – pulling on artefacts related to the work of the cross-national chapter-based collective INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, we’ll explore the ways in which their work in the late 90s and early 2000s spilled into contemporary struggles.

We begin, however, with Esther Brown

Saidiya Hartman uncovers and pieces together the story of Esther Brown from police reports, court documents, news clippings, notes from the social workers and probation officers in her life, and files from the women’s prison in which she was detained. Hartman pieces Brown’s story together through these artefacts and in conversation with the social, historical, and political context in which Brown lived.

Through this reading against the grain of the artefacts that she uncovers, she is able to conceptualize the fragments and beliefs about living free that would come to inform Black feminist thought in the coming generations.

As Hartman notes, Esther Brown’s refusal to accept a life of servitude and disrespect, a life tied to patriarchal men, a life that limits her freedoms was seen as dangerous to the authorities of the day – if we think back to Jallicia Jolly’s “The Audacity of Black Pleasure” what has changed?

Hartman notes:

To the eyes of the world, Esther’s wild thoughts, her dreams of an otherwise, an elsewhere, her longing to escape from drudgery were likely to lead to tumult and upheaval, to open rebellion. She didn’t need a husband or a daddy or a boss telling her what to do. But a young woman who flitted from job to job and lover to lover was considered immoral and likely to become a threat to the social order, a menace to society. The police detective said as much when he arrested Esther and her friends.

Saidiya Hartman, 236

Esther Brown’s story is important to this week’s class because it is a perfect bridge between the three topics that narrate the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugivity:

  1. How does movement knowledge get passed down over generations?
  2. How does Black feminist emerge as a synthesis of the personal, social, and structural?
  3. Why must we understand the lived realities of Black women as a form of fugitivity?


Casey Rochetau, “Queen of Swords” Shrine of the Black Medusa Tarot, 2016

Both readings for this week refer to fugitivity as a character of Black feminism and more broadly Black peoples experience in (North) America. But neither reading overtly defines what they mean by fugitivity.

Let’s unpack this term a little here.

As you probably have surmised, fugitivity, is a concept that is derived by Black scholars and activists from one of many forms of resistance to enslavement. The term fugitive refers to one who flees – originally denoting anyone who was fleeing (i.e. a refugee, a wife escaping a violent husband, a community mass exodus in the face of war or famine), the term came to be understood as someone who is fleeing the law.

Why? Well, as you may have guessed, this was as a result of the multiple Fugitive Slave Acts that sought to criminalize the act of fleeing slavery and, in fact, deputized all (white – and many non-white) people to act as bounty hunters returning enslaved people to bondage.

Black people living free, whether they had run from bondage or not, were at risk of being captured and (re)enslaved under Fugitive Slave Acts. Thus, the mere act of existing and living free as a Black person under these conditions was to live in the realm of fugitivity. With the formal abolition of slavery following the U.S. Civil War, these conditions changed but were never fully transformed.

When Hartman and Gumbs speak of “fugitivity,” they are reflecting on the current and ongoing condition of living an outlawed life in a society that seeks your capture.

In their highly influential book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten provide us with some criteria to understand fugitivity in the contemporary context:

  • Fugitivity exists in the feeling of perpetual “escape” or “exit” (think about the metaphor of “spill” running through Gumbs’ poems)
  • Fugitivity is the condition by which your public social life is outlawed (think of Jolly’s Audacity of Black Pleasure)
  • Fugitivity means being separate from settling (Leanne Betasamosake Simpson perhaps most clearly explains how Black peoples’ lived realities on Turtle Island are tied to those of Indigenous peoples)
  • Fugitivity means a condition of being perpetually “homeless” in the place you call home

When Gumbs or Hartman theorize Black Feminist fugitivity, they are appealing to the actions, experiences, and desires for freedom that are informed by the conditions of being in perpetual flight from the structures of power that seek to maintain the current social relations. They are building a theory that spans directly from the initial moments of capture (i.e. the origins of the European slave trade of African peoples) and its centrality to defining not only Black experiences in the Americas, but the entire condition and framework for the settler colonial societies that currently assert their dominance on these territories.

Activity 1: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Movements for social justice may seem to arise in novel ways, but they are intimately connect with the organizing, resistance, and lives lived of generations before. The hip hop artist Rapsody released the critically acclaimed album Eve in 2019.  A concept album that is constructed as an homage to Black women that have influenced the life and work of Rapsody, each track seeks to create a sonic and lyrical evocation of the influence of its subject.  These include Nina Simone, Aaliyah, Iman, Sojourner Truth, Oprah, Serena Williams, Afeni Shakur among others. 

In this activity you will watch two videos. The first, titled "Oprah" featuring  Leikeli47 and the second titled "Afeni" featuring PJ Morton (named after Afeni Shakur, former Black Panther and mother of the rapper Tupac Shakur) show very different angles to Rapsody's self-conception and how these women influenced her analysis. 
Rapsody, Oprah, featuring Leikeli47, 2019
Rapsody, Afeni featuring PJ Morton, 2019
1. Try to pick up on the multiple references to fugitivity shared among Black women in both the Oprah and Afeni videos.
2. Try to reflect on the intergenerational knowledge and links to various Black women in history in each video.
3. What are some parallels to the chapter on Esther Brown? 
4. How does this video relate to the way in which Alexis Pauline Gumbs structured her set of poems around the work of Hortense Spillers (especially how they discuss it in the Black Studies for the Digital Soul video in our required media for this week). 

Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Spill


BIO: Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer black trouble-maker and a black feminist love evangelist. She walks in the legacy of black lady school teachers in post slavery communities who offered sacred educational space to the intergenerational newly free in exchange for the random necessities of life. As the first person to do archival research in the papers of Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Lucille Clifton while achieving her PhD in English, Africana Studies and Women’s Studies at Duke University, she honors the lives and creative works of Black feminist geniuses as sacred texts for all people. She believes that in the time we live in, access to the intersectional holistic brilliance of the black feminist tradition is as crucial as learning how to read. (Retrieved from: https://consciouscampus.com/talent/dr-alexis-pauline-gumbs/)

As noted above, Gumbs is invested in the work of intergenerational learning – linking the work of such notable Black feminist as Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Lucille Clifton with contemporary movement work. Spill, her work of poetry inspired by the theory and analysis of Hortense Spillers provides us with one example of how Black feminist theory is passed down, interpreted, and re-engaged by younger generations of activists and organizers.

Below I include two poems in Gumbs’ collection. Within the frame or reference of “searching for artefacts” – I think it it useful to reflect on what these two particular poems express in terms of the act of learning from our ancestors and forebears.


This first poem can clearly be read as being about child birth. Drawing on the dominant metaphor of “spill”, Gumbs reflects on the building of a relationship with her unborn child and both her fears and hopes for the child’s future. It is a reflection on the commitments and process by which Black women pass knowledge to each other.

The poem can also be read as an allegory – similar to the way in which Common tells the story of hip hop through the song “I Used to Love H.E.R.” (below). If the role of the mother in this poem is thought of as Black feminism and the unborn child as being Alexis herself, we can also reflect upon the process by which the theory, practices, and experiences rescue the poet from the world she confronts. Here, “first time i thought i was drowning in a world that needed you in it or it would disappear,” can be also understood as a nod to the way that Black feminism has refused the erasure of Black women from history – the same practice by which Saidiya Hartman combs through the archives. And, as we know about Gumbs, she too is invested in rescuing the concepts, theories, and writings of an earlier wave of Black feminists.

The poem format, like music lyrics, allows the author to encode multiple meanings (and multiple possible interpretations) in a work. It is meant to both inform, but also evoke a feeling, something that is not always possible in academic scholarship. For Gumbs, and many Black feminists, the notion that one’s politics must be deeply embodied in their lived realities – means that the ability to make their work “felt” becomes all-the-more important.

Common, I Used to Love Her, 1994

Gumbs draws on both the written tradition of poetry and the oral tradition of spoken word to engage in her political work. Here she presents her poem “Mixed Use” in spoken word format (content warning: racial and sexual violence).

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Mixed Use”, 2010

Take notice of the ways in which Gumbs’ voice and tenor develops an affectivity that draws you into the story. Her analysis hinges not just on the words spoken, but how they are spoken – the process matters just as much as the outcome.

Thinking about her tenor and tone, take a moment to read aloud the following poem. How would you situate the affect in the poem? What words would you emphasize? What is the core message and feeling Gumbs’ seeks to illicit from the reader?


Background Image: Paul Bulai, Unsplash 2021

This poem seems to be situated in a moment of rebellion in a Black neighbourhood that is undergoing a process of gentrification. We gather this from the lines: “it was the strange blue light of irrelevant police. as if aliens had landed and retail had run to meet them.” Here Gumbs is possibly referring to the way in which gentrification in Black communities ostensibly brings forth more policing in order to protect the retail stores that move in to neighbourhoods once white gentrifiers have come in to the area.

Nonetheless, there is a reclamation taking place. Here Gumbs gives us the lines, “it was night by the time the people remembered to be wild. or maybe they thought the moon a more militant god than sun. or maybe like everything else rebellion waited until the chores were done. or maybe they finally remembered what darkness was and broke the streetlights.” These lines speak to the awakening of a spirit of Black joy that seeks to reclaim the neighbourhood for themselves but is deemed “wild” by the newcomers.

The final stanza of the poem sees our protagonist witnessing this moment of radical Black joy and “her mouth tasted like zinc, it was her own blood” is used as double-entendre to signify literal blood of biting one’s lip in glee and the metaphorical blood of family and the joy in seeing one’s people in celebration.


ARTEFACT #1: Audio Recording – Report Back by Ruth Wilson Gilmore – at INCITE! Conference on the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, 2004

The first artefact that I selected is an audio recording that is hosted on the website Soundcloud. The recording features the voice of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, an abolitionist and Professor at the City University of New York. I chose this artefact to begin to think about INCITE! because it is relatively innocuous and yet it speaks so much to the ways in which Black feminism has influenced social movement culture.

The recording is from a 2004 conference hosted by the organizing INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence around the theme of “the Non-Profit Industrial Complex”. This conference was very important in the history of social movements in the United States (and in Canada), calling into question the success and limitations of seeking to engage in social change work through non-profit corporations and charities.

In the clip, Gilmore is heard “reporting back” a process by which one person is designated to summarize key themes in a discussion of a break out session to the entire delegation of a conference. Gilmore, identifies five themes that discussion participants agreed represented the tenor of their discussions:

  1. Confronting and educating funders
  2. Live the change
  3. Rethinking the relationship between pay and activism
  4. Building a base
  5. Dismantle white supremacist capitalism, but need to subsist

These themes would come to form part of the foundation of the widely read book edited by INCITE! in 2006 titled The Revolution will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. This book and this conference gave words and analysis to experiences of women of color trying to engage in social justice work as social service, social work, and other community-based organization workers. The conference also began to shift the relationship between social movements and non-profits (what are called 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States – and in the clip above). This more antagonist or distrustful shift in relations is derived precisely by the analysis that “the revolution will not be funded” which, as Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted notion suggests, means that “the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house”.

ARTEFACT #2: Stop Police Brutality Printable 4″x 6″ wallet card. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, c. 2000 or 2001

The second artefact that I dug up is a printable pdf of a wallet-card that was made by INCITE! The front of the car is presented below and the back of the card can be read here. The card is from circa 2000 or 2001 and it was distributed by members of INCITE! to young women of colour who participated in their programs and/or lived in neighbourhoods across the US in which INCITE! organizers lived. This included delivering stacks of these cards to allied small businesses, community organizations, or neighbours.

The card provides the holder with both an analysis that explains why police brutality happens to women of color and trans people of color and gives legal and practical instructions on what to do if the card holder comes into contact with the police.

This project came out of a longer campaign by INCITE! that sought to address gender-based inter-community violence outside of the law. These practices with community based accountability and violence-intervention would later come to be referred to as transformative justice. The notion that we ourselves have the tools to deal with violence within our communities and that the use of the police to do so often brings about more violence, incarceration, and exploitation of communities of colour.

ARTEFACT #3 – Digital Flyer, “Abolition Feminism” Celebrating 20 Years of INCITE! 2020

The third artefact that I am presenting is a digital flyer that was sent to invite people to a 20th anniversary conference organized by the Interrupting Criminalization Initiative at the Barnard Center for Research on Women celebrating 20 years of INCITE!

As you can see the flyer notes that the theme of the conference is “Abolition Feminism” and the speakers list advertising the participation of Angela Y. Davis, Beth Richie, Mimi Kim, Nadine Haber, Cara Page, Shana Griffin, Kiri Sailiata includes an intergenerational assortment of Black women and other women of color. These speakers, some of whom are long time members (and co-founders) of INCITE! are asked to speak to the theme abolition feminism precisely because it is a political landscape that was developed through the work of INCITE! in collaboration with racialized women across North America. While this is a celebration and commemoration event, there is only a small “looking back” component, and instead, the speakers are asked to forward an analysis that is relevant to the current moment (and would become even more central to social movements during the uprisings that took place a couple months later following the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department).

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