Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Nonfiction


Whiting Awards 2022

Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Photograph by Sukia Ikbal Doucet.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is the author of Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals; Dub: Finding Ceremony; M Archive: After the End of the World; and Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, and is the coeditor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. Her writing has appeared in publications including Make/Shift, Left Turn, The Abolitionist, and Ms. Magazine. She holds a PhD in English, African and African American Studies, and Women and Gender Studies from Duke University and is the cofounder of Black Feminist Film School, an initiative to screen, study, and produce films with a Black feminist ethic. In 2020, she was awarded the National Humanities Center Fellowship for her book in progress, The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde: Biography as Ceremony. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.


From Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals:

The scientific community believes that the Caribbean monk seal is extinct. The last verified sighting was in 1952, a couple of years before my father was born. Turns out, one of the very first things Columbus and them did when they got to the Caribbean was to kill monk seals. Six of them. Immediately upon arrival. They say the Caribbean monk seal, born Black and proud, was never afraid of the colonizers. And, in fact, they remained curious and calm. And the colonizers continued to use their own methods, which were fear-based and not calm at all. And genocidal.

The oil in the blubber of Caribbean monk seals literally lubricated the machinery of the plantation economy. Without it nothing could function. It is said that some plantations in the Caribbean required hunts for monk seals every single night, so that the machinery for processing sugar cane could be smooth the next day.

I cannot say that my father was a Caribbean monk, though there were a few transplanted and held in the New York Aquarium before he was born. They believe that, by the time the Caribbean monk seal was placed on the endangered species list, it was already extinct. I cannot say that Clyde Gumbs, who died of prostate cancer, diagnosed too late, was a Caribbean monk. I cannot say he was a monk at all. I can only say he had very few earthly possessions. And he wore the same outfit every day. I can say, yes, he had habits and rituals. I can say, when he lived in the Caribbean, he observed the sunrise and the sunset every morning and evening, squinting through a small digital camera. I can say, yes, he was curious and calm. And some people took advantage. I can say he was born Black, but I cannot say that he was never afraid. What he died from, the opposite of a healthcare system, a machine that turns Black death into sugar. Yes. I can say it is genocidal.

Sometimes, usually in Haiti and Jamaica, people swear they see a Caribbean monk. The scientific community believes this is impossible, saying they are probably hooded seals out of range. But if you happen, by some miracle, to see him, will you tell him I say thank you for being Black and curious? Thank you for being calm and brave. And that I honor you for continuing to be who you were, no matter what they tried to turn you into, despite their hunting every night. And say I love you with a sweetness, not of sugar but of salt that won’t dissolve. I love you with a Black outliving empires in your name. Sun rise. Sun set.