Black Feminist Love Evangelist, Poet, Activist and Scholar: Interview with Dr. Alexis Gumbs
I know many smart and even brilliant people, but few that I would bet on winning a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ award one day. I believe that Dr. Alexis Gumbs could have that in her future. A true renaissance person and visionary, she is almost single-handedly exposing the general public to black feminist concepts in multiple media and innovative ways. She is the creator of the ‘Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind’, a multi-media all ages community school based in the wisdom of black feminist literary practice. Alexis is a literary scholar with a PhD in English, Africana Studies and Women’s Studies from Duke University and a widely published poet and essayist. She is also a community activist and co-founder of the Mobile Homecoming Project, an experiential archive project documenting generations of “black LGBTQ brilliance”. Alexis was named one of UTNE Reader’s 50 Visionaries Transforming the World in 2009, was awarded a ‘Too Sexy for 501-C3’ trophy in 2011 and is one of the Advocate’s Top 40 under 40 features in 2012.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Alexis on my community based participatory research project with African American mothers and their adolescent daughters regarding their communication about health and sexuality. On this project I got to experience her creativity, knowledge of arts based approaches to community engagement and interdisciplinary training and learn from her. Those lessons have stayed with me.
I recently caught up with Alexis to talk about her new poetry book and current projects. I’m so happy to welcome her to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.
101 Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive came out of an exercise that I designed for myself after listening to Diane Di Prima reading her poem “10 Things That Are Not True About the She Wolf.” I thought to myself…what an interesting exercise. What would it mean to write 10 things that are not true about Oprah, or Condoleeza Rice? Those were the first two poems that I wrote for the collection and I found that there was something liberating about writing out things that were not true about women who are so famous that they seem to be universally known.
Usually I spend my time writing things that I believe to be true about women who are not famous by any stretch of the imagination, so this exercise flipped my practice inside out, but ultimately I found it to be a way to offer some love, breathing room and space in my relationship to women who I often critique (especially Rice). At first I found myself wanting to push back against the media’s pretense of explaining and knowing these women through surveillance and stereotypes, but ultimately I had to admit that I was pushing back even more on some of my prejudgements of these highly visible black women.
As a black feminist I do feel that it is my responsibility to find a way to love and respect all black women, even those who make decisions that to do not align with my politics and those who I feel are different from me in very significant ways. I found the exercise of writing 10 things that were not true about each of these women to be a way to access love for these women based on the very fact that I do not know them, and I do not know what might be behind some of their decisions and self-presentations. That piece of every person that cannot be known is the possibility in them and is the reason they must be honored and cherished for what they might do, who they might become, who they might already be that no one could have ever predicted.
–Much of your work stems from the legacy of African American feminists who were writing during the 1970s and 1980s. Why are their words important to your creative life?
I was born in 1982 and I feel everyday the consequences and liberations of what it means to have been born into a world which black feminists were transforming and rearticulating in urgent ways. When I first started reading their words as a teenager they gave me so much permission to believe in a world that could change in significant ways and to believe in the people around me as the energy of those changes. I have been using Audre Lorde’s words as epigraphs to my own writing since high school and I continue to find a starting place, a jumping off point and a challenge in her words and the words of other black feminist writers that helps me to clarify and awaken myself as an artist.
-You are a scholar, essayist, teacher, blogger and activist. You manage to pack a lot into 24 hours! How do these different activities feed into each other and you?
I wake up really early, but I take a lot of naps. 🙂 For me research, writing for long-term and immediate audiences, designing educational rituals, and building community are all components of an ongoing act of love. I see my whole life as an opportunity to honor my ancestors and love my communities in the best ways I can. And my challenge to myself is to find deeper and clearer ways to do that daily.
–You advocate a DIY approach to publishing and encourage other writers to explore self-publishing. What have been some of the benefits and challenges of this approach?
I strongly believe that multiple layers of publishing are important for creating the world of words that we deserve. Self-publishing is a lot of work and it has the intimacy of hand to hand exchange. A self-published work can stay very close to the author and bring the author very close to audience. Sometimes we literally touch hands. Sometimes I write your name on an envelope and lick a stamp. Sometimes I do layout myself and have to look at my own words sideways and upside down. I think self-publishing and book-making are forms of intimacy that I will never give up. In addition sometimes the urgency of particular words towards a particular audience in a particular moment requires skipping over the long process of traditional publishing. At the same time, I am reaching a point in my work where I need to enable my words to travel much further than my long arms can stretch. For that purpose other publishing methods that require more time and more people become helpful too.
–What’s the next project that you’re working on?
Oh there are so many projects. One project that I am very excited about is a retreat in an eco-village in Jamaica called “Soon Come” for writers like me who are of Caribbean ancestry in diaspora and who find it a creative challenge and imperative to connect back “home” to the Caribbean. I am also in the process of getting feedback on a book of essays, a book of Toni Morrison inspired poems, a workbook inspired by the Combahee River Collective Statement and more!
–What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?
Write first. Wake up and write first.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer black troublemaker, a black feminist love evangelist, a prayer poet priestess and has a PhD in English, African and African-American Studies and Women and Gender Studies from Duke University. Alexis was the first scholar to research in the Audre Lorde Papers at Spelman College, the June Jordan Papers at Harvard University and the Lucille Clifton Papers at Emory University and is currently on tour with her interactive oracle project “The Lorde Concordance,” a series of ritual mobilizing the life and work of Audre Lorde as a dynamic sacred text.
Alexis has also published widely on Caribbean Women’s Literature with a special interest in Dionne Brand. Her scholarly work is published in Obsidian, Symbiosis, Macomere, The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Literature, SIGNS, Feminist Collections, The Black Imagination, Mothering and Hip Hop Culture, The Business of Black Power and more. Alexis is the author of an acclaimed collection of poems 101 Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive and poetic work published in Kweli, Vinyl, Backbone, Everyday Genius, Turning Wheel, UNFold, Makeshift and more. She has several books in progress including a book of poems Good Hair Gone Forever, a scholarly monograph on diaspora and the maternal and an educational resource called the School of Our Lorde. She is also the co-editor of a forthcoming edited collection on legacies of radical mothering called This Bridge Called My Baby.
Alexis has been living in Durham, NC for almost a decade and has been transformed and enriched by holistic organizing to end gendered violence and to replace it with sustaining transformative love. Locally she is a founding member of UBUNTU a women of color and survivor-led coalition to end sexual violence, of the Earthseed Collective a black and brown land and spirit reclamation project and the Warrior Healers Organizing Trust, a community accountable foundation practicing organic reparations and transforming blood money into blood relations.
Find out more about Alexis through her multiple blogs and online communities: