Black Feminism Is My Spiritual Practice
What was your last bite?
I might be biting every morning. Right now I am writing daily with prompts made from my favorite phrases from M. Jacqui Alexander’sPedagogies of Crossing. She blows my mind. Her work activates my imagination, my spirit and my senses all at once.
When and how did you come to the realization that you could use writings by black feminists, such as Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Barbara Smith, as sacred texts?
I grew up with a major interest in world religions. I was interested in how people made sense of the world and how they turned back to specific texts and stories to bring them grounding, guidance and peace in the face of change, death and possibility. Black feminism is my spiritual practice because it is the tradition that has given me grounding, guidance and if not peace, certainly passion in the face of change, death and possibility in my life. And the changes, deaths and possibilities I face (and that all of us face in this time) are absolutely shaped by the interlocking oppressions black feminism seeks to obliterate and the multiplicity of being and knowing that black feminism activates. That’s the longer answer. The short answer is that those texts are sacred because they saved my life and I also believe they hold key concepts that could allow us as a species to save our relationship with this planet.
How do you define “queer” and how does queer inform how you approach your activism?
I identify as a queer black feminist and all of those words actually mean the same thing to me. It is profoundly redundant. All of those words for me signify transformation at the root. A queer approach is a transformative approach. A black approach is a transformative approach. A black feminist approach is a transformative transformative approach. My queerness is my belief that love transforms everything. And I am here for it. As a queer black feminist I believe my role is to make space for transformation and to reject the violence of conformity. To make it basic, if the choice is transform or conform, I choosetransform. As an activist, educator, troublemaker, evangelist, prayerpoetpriestess that means that I am remembering and reaching for ceremonies that allow us to transform each other (which takes a lot of love and intention) and also creating ways for us to relate to our ancestors and to the past and the future in ways that shift what is possible in the present. That’s how queerness manifests as a political accountability for me. In my life personally being a queer person interpersonally means that my relationships with other people (romantic and otherwise) are moment after moment of being changed by love, while love changes who I can be and how I can be with others.
Tell us about being a doula and Revolutionary Mothering?
On being a doula: I never really thought I would be a doula, but my mother always wanted to be one. She got involved with the movement to empower people giving birth because of our experience of an unnecessary c-section that she was pressured to have by her doctors when I was born. In order to have a more empowered birth experience when she gave birth to my younger siblings she learned about labor coaches and doulas and birth justice. She always talked about it so wistfully, the sacred role of making space for someone to give birth in an empowered way (whatever that might mean for the person) and to facilitate their bonding relationship with their child. She is a really loving, empathetic person; she is also a therapist now, and one year for Mother’s Day I saved up the tuition for her to be trained as a full-circle doula by the International Center for Traditional Childbirth (a black midwives organization). And then one night, in St. Croix, in the rainforest, with a wonderful black midwife and her daughters, I realized that actually that work of birth warrior facilitation was something that I wanted to do with my mother. I don’t see doula as a profession for me. It’s not something I am hiring myself out to do. It’s a sacred role that I am trained (and always training) to do with my loved ones. It has been so healing for my mother and I to return to birth in a way that turns our wounding by the medical system into a source of shareable power for loved ones who are giving birth.
On Revolutionary Mothering: The book Revolutionary Mothering came out of a conversation that Mai’a Williams and I have been having across continents for a decade about mothering as a revolutionary paradigm for intergenerational radical human relations. When Mai’a first wrote me a letter she was pregnant with her daughter and wanted to use a youth activism workbook I made with mothers she was collaborating with to create a school during a teacher’s strike in South Africa. I was in graduate school and I was researching how black feminists, especially queer black feminists, thought about mothering in the 1970’s and 80’s. I was wondering what was so dangerous about mothering that legislators and media makers were constantly blaming mothers of colors for all the problems of that time period. In the meantime, Mai’a was living in the present and connecting as a mother with mothers all over the world in Chiapas, Cairo, Palestine, Berlin and creating a zine called Revolutionary Motherhood. We started talking about what it would mean to create a book that would connect the presence of revolutionary mothering in our contemporary moment with the legacy of radical feminists of color. China Martens, author of The Future Generation, one of the first mama-zines out of the punk movement, joined the team and brought her insight as a welfare mom and co-editor of the anthology Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind. We are so excited about the book itself, which includes a foreword by Loretta Ross, one of the founding mothers of the Reproductive Justice Movement, a never before published essay by June Jordan on love as lifeforce, many essays by our favorite writers and people who have never been published before on how mothering from the margins offers abundant insight for the changes our world is waiting for.
When reflecting on your younger self, where does that self reside within your body?
Does that self guide your wild and uninhibited risk taking or are they quiet and suggestive? Describe them, what they would wear if they came to speak with you today, and what they would say to you.
I think she’s in the pit of my stomach wearing a costume like X-Men’s Jubilee. Confetti goes everywhere when she speaks. She is explosive because she knows that everything is true. Everything I believe about change and freedom and love and she’s throwing sparks, confetti and bubble in the face of the part of me that has stopped believing. She says “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!!!!” and stomps around laughing at the older part of me who sometimes feels like she’s just going through the motions. The thing is, other people can see her too and she never lets me get away with #adulting for long. She always wins.
Write a 200-word lecture titled “Resurrecting the Feminine and Embracing Play.”
lord don’t make this bathtub overflow with afterglow. my downstairs neighbors may have prayed for rain or something else to stop my pacing but at this point my racing heart don’t know how not to scream about this. a grown woman baptized in her own hands is supermarket reading material extraterrestrial waterbirth evidence that stranger though I get, I am known inside myself. a deep space black of waiting stars floats beneath a galaxy of soap. if someone asks i’ll say I slipped and hit my head on heaven. my hand phoned home. not between lovers in this in-between space but between the celestial folds the abundant grace of the base of my own heavenly body. oh. one small step for the first kind. nobody better come in here but me but if somebody asks I will softly explain that years are not measured by light they are measured by water. and I am wet as I want to be and was eve made the flood and how great. praise the mother of opposable thumbs.[i]
[i] “only a thumb’s thickness away from a great little flood” Hortense Spillers, Black, White and In Color, Introduction, 3.
Watch this: https://youtu.be/0qDtHdloK44. Respond in only single words that you “mine” / “collect” from the poem or the comments section.
broken god fingertips/ fly/ shaking you open/ you you you you
There’s a popular quote by Nina Simone where she states that “the duty of the artist . . . is to reflect the times.” How do you do this and not get up in dualistic thinking and/or narratives of victimization?
Maybe another way to say this, is the duty of the artist is to be present. I take that duty very seriously…especially as a time traveller. How can we be present when we (the artists or the people who are present) are pathways for everything that has ever existed? I think Mary Oliver said poetry is ethical. Poetry is the possibility of saying the right thing at the right time to the right person. Poetry is that practice of being present with all the available everything. And knowing, as an artist, how and when to offer it to the moment. Is that not a reflection of the times, that depth of presence so deep that it transcends the times? As we know, Nina was in conversation with many of the greatest thinkers of her time, and she created work that remains haunting and necessary. Which is to say, I don’t think her statement is limiting at all. I think it’s a challenge. A daily, hourly, eternal challenge.
What symbols do we need to reimagine the future?
Circles. Circles ’til we get there.
What have you been examining lately, and why?
I have been examining Cassandra Wilson’s voice every morning. For more than a month. Because she has a singular voice, and yet multitudes come through it. I want to be available to who all she is bringing through. Who? All.
In a recent reading at The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, the poet Annie Finch, defined magic as “the art of changing consciousness at will.” How would you define black girl magic? How do nurture this 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 bybreathing, dreaming, eating well, sleeping well. And witnessing. There is black girl magic everywhere. It’s not “at will.” It’s at “you think I won’t?”
Kore Biters Womanifesto: Please add two-three approaches, recipes, directions and/or practices for transgressive and transformative behavior that you believe every woman writer should incorporate into their lives and writing.
Remember, the ancestors are watching.
Don’t worry. All that remains of the ancestors is love.
Come up with a writing prompt that incorporates a mantra and movement.
Perfect bind: Find a way for the character’s hands to meet and hold each other. Don’t make it easy.
A queer black troublemaker, Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a black feminist love evangelist and an award-winning writer and educator in Durham, North Carolina. She is the founder of the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind Intergalactic Community School, and featured in Best American Experimental Writing 2015 and many other publications. Alexis is the co-editor of the anthology Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines and the author of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity
Kore Biters is a monthly interview series that highlights the writing and literary activism of women writers who are transgressive and transformative. by Arisa White and Imani Sims.