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Feminism, Durham-style: Alexis

November 17th, 2009 · 7 Comments

Note: This post is Part Two of a series on young feminists or activists below the Mason-Dixon line, since I feel we didn’t allot the South quite enough time on our original road trip. Feel free to suggest a series on your own part of the country–email nona [at] girl-drive [dot] com

n107807_32923777_2634Alexis Pauline Gumbs, of BrokenBeautiful Press, is a 27-year-old activist, educator, and “queer black troublemaker.” She is one of the many passionate, take-no-shit Southern women doing feminist work and making an impact in her community. She is also plotting her very own social activist multimedia road trip, along with partner Julia Wallace—The MobileHomecoming, an intergenerational community documentation and education project focusing on black queer women (check out the trailer after the jump). Born in New Jersey, and a former resident of Florida and Atlanta, Alexis now lives and loves in Durham, NC, where she is a PhD student in English, Africana Studies and Women’s Studies.

How did you first become involved in feminist/activist work? Has it always kinda been part of your life, or was there a moment or impetus?

My grandparents were part of a popular revolution in Anguilla…the Caribbean island that my dad’s side of the family is from. Some of my first books were Pan-Africanism for Beginners, Malcolm X for Beginners. I think my first direct organizing work was when I was part of a community action program in Atlanta, called VOX, a newspaper created by and for teens here. We started doing crosscutting youth organizing work: kids in private and public schools, homeless teens, folks in group homes, at refugee centers in youth detention centers. So I think of that as the beginning for me.

Oh, and we created Epiphany when I was 15, a young women’s writing group that is still in existence.

Is the concept of feminism useful to you as a “movement,” or more as a lens? Is it necessary to label yourself “feminist”–or does just the work matter?

That is a big one. I definitely identify proudly as a black feminist—I think of that as my primary political and intellectual identity. I think identifying as black feminist, as opposed to feminist unmodified, has to do with realizing some of the serious co-optation of the term feminism by the mainstream, along with some really racist and transphobic and classist reproductions of some of the narrow definitions of middle class white feminists.

It has actually only been within the last couple of years that i realized that there were people who identified as feminist who weren’t anti-racist. Up until that point all the white feminists i had worked with understood anti-racism, queer liberation as an integral part of feminism, so i thought that was the norm. But it turns out….unfortunately it’s not.

True, but I think our generation is much more likely to think of feminism in an intersectional way.

I hope so. But actually I’m not sure about that. I think there is definitely a diverse set of feminists who practice intersectionality and invoke the lesbian feminists/feminists of color/trans feminists before us, but I also get very sad when I hear young women say when they hear the word “feminist” they think of Hillary Clinton. And I have only realized recently that the term feminist is being deployed without a critique of capitalism by a pretty large set of folks.

What’s the feminism like in Durham?

Durham is my favorite city in the US! It’s a beautiful place—a majority people of color city with tons of creative people, really great food, beautiful trees, a great dance community, great intergenerational connections, and just an amazing space of movement and community building. I wrote a chapter about it in the AK Press book Abolition Now called “Freedom Seeds: Growing Abolition in Durham NC.

There’s a longstanding feminist history here. Southerners on New Ground was founded by an interracial group of lesbians in Durham. So was Feminary, this cool quirky feminist publication that used to come out of Durham in the 70′s. Even the YMCA is an explicitly anti-racist feminist place in Durham and I think the major space for feminism (by which i always mean anti-racist intersectional feminism), came out of UBUNTU, a women of color survivor-led coalition to end gendered violence. I’m one of the co-founders.

So you live in this dynamic city, and you’re doing most of your educational and activist work in the South. How is Southern feminism distinctive?

I think that the South has movements right now that are sustainable visionary and transformative in ways that are cutting edge. This is true for many reasons, including having deep movement histories and the way that foundation funding disproportionately does not reach communities in the South. I think that Durham is the furthest along city I’ve seen in terms of creating sustainable holistic systems that not only critique oppressive systems of power but also present viable livable and sometimes quite luscious alternatives. I’ve also seen similarities in New Orleans and Detroit.

Funny you say that–New Orleans and Detroit were the two cities that made the most impact on me on Girldrive. Both claim feminist concepts and activism very deliberately because of their political and economic situations. Do you think the future of gender-based activism lies in red states, and cities who have reached crossroads economically/socially?

Well, I do think that the South has built stronger community networks that have impacted cities elsewhere. For example, folks in DC and NYC have used the model of healing as direct action that we developed during the Day of Truthtelling in Durham to respond to violence against trans women of color. But I think that gendered violence, the prison industrial complex, economic oppression, racism, etc. are huge problems in all kinds of cities.

So I’d say yes—I do think folks are paying attention to the South with good reason. But I also think that community looks different in different places and so folks still have to directly engage their own conditions and create what they need. I think grassroots activism and bigger policy change have to be connected, and I think that demonstrating alternatives–for example that survivors of sexual violence can create safety without depending on prisons and police–definitely changes how people feel about prison funding and sentencing policies.

I really want to hear more about your road trip project. Tell me how it got started.

Basically my partner and I LOVE older women—intergenerational relationships, especially mentoring relationships with queer elders, have been a huge contribution to both of our lives. This past April, while we were creating a documentary for the We Are One Women’s Conference, we had this idea. We really want to document the resilience of the visionaries in our communities and to create family in intentional ways.

We have been noticing the costs on both ends of intergenrational disconnection—i.e. queer kids of color get kicked out of their houses and don’t have anywhere to go and plus have the burden of thinking they are making themselves from scratch. Or queer elders of color who often don’t have the same familial, religious or state support systems that other elders sometimes have access to. These people are somewhat abandoned and those of us who could benefit from the lessons they learned are seeking them!

So the idea is to use media to amplify the stories of the visionaries and also to do REPLAY EVENTS of specific practices of resilience, whether it was group poetry, drum circles, softball games, shared childcare at events, women’s dances– whatever practices of resilience they created–we’ll do them again with intergenerational participation, so that whole communities have the memory of this queer history in their bodies!

Amazing. When is this getting started?

We’re starting the trip in June, and we’re finding women mostly through word-of-mouth and the site. The funding for the project is really collaborative…we have a lot of partners because it’s a film project and a movement-building project and a multi-media educational project. The ecology of the project is very polymorous.

Perfect! the process mimics the goal.


Check out a video for The MobileHomecoming, above!

Tags: Generations · Redefining Feminism · Southern Series

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 julia // Nov 18, 2009 at 6:52 am

    Love the article!
    Love the insight!
    Love the project!
    Love the lex!

    Thank you

  • 2 Lisa // Nov 20, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Full of beauty and inspiration.


  • 3 cripchick // Nov 22, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    alexis is huge factor/force behind why i came to call myself a feminist. glad to see this interview!

  • 4 manju // Nov 23, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    yay, lex! you rep for the bull city so beautifully, lovebird.

  • 5 Adele // Nov 28, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Always inspired and incredibly grateful for Lex and Julia in this world!

  • 6 Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist’s Mind // Feb 11, 2010 at 7:41 am

    [...] Alexis told me that there’s a fierce community of feminists in Durham, NC, she wasn’t playing. Thanks [...]

  • 7 What’s wrong with this mainstream feminist picture? // Mar 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    [...] feminism. They ignore the young women of color doing feminist work nowadays like Stacyann Chin, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Rinku Sen, to name a few. Not to mention the ones who paved the way for women writers and [...]

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