Review of Gumbs’ “Nobody Mean More”

Alexis Pauline Gumbs. 2014. “Nobody Mean More: Black Feminist Pedagogy and Solidarity”. In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.). The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 237-259). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

In this chapter, Gumbs offers us a beautifully written discussion on the politics of solidarity from within the imperial university. She uses a palimpsestic approach to do so, hence mixing the form and the content to demonstrate the links between poetry, solidarity and the critical discourses on becoming and relating as decolonizing tools. A palimpsest is an old document on which the original writing has been erased and replaced by a new one. Hence, I think that what Gumbs means when she says she is using a palimpsestic approach, is the fact that she uses archives of writings of Audre Lordre and June Jordan, both very important black feminists form the 60s/80s decades, to make a link between the possible analogies of both these experiences and contemporary issues (and analogies, there are!). She is then trying to think about what it means to be, or to become, nobody in a university whose purpose is to produce assimilated bodies consenting to empire. This is not an argument that she is making, but rather an observation, based on the requirements one has to fulfill in order to climb the hierarchical stair of the academy, but also the transformations one as to go through in order to fit in those spaces. We can talk of a phenomenological process of discipline, à la Foucault (2014), where one is shaped and is shaping others relationally. She argues that Lordre and Jordan’s teaching was queer because “it interrupted the reproduction of existing norms for a new population of students perceived as deviant to the city and to higher education. They practiced what Glissant would call a “counterpoetic” approach, using spaces designed in service of the colonial project to protest that same project, with varying levels of success” (242). In that way, they refused to contribute to the policing and management of the postindustrial underclass, when they were hired specifically to teach them English composition, or rather composition in the sense of moulding those “new bodies” entering en masse higher education and colleges in order to assimilate and participate in the imperial society, “the lettered city” (Rama 1996).

In order to contextualise the work of Lordre and Jordan, Gumbs frames their experiences in the wider context of population control (or racial management, as we read earlier in Pulido’s chapter) that happened simultaneously through the education system and the prison industrial complex (including police brutality). Why? Because the racialized population in New York, for example, where “not at all composed” (243) and related to the state through protests and education. Hence, to order the disorder, the administration of the city created an open admission policy that changed the demographic of the schools (even the Police School, leading to the employement of Lordre), but also of the prisons. Because “integration” in the imperial society or schools does not come without a cost. And more often than not, it comes with police brutality (and other kinds of policing and disciplining) in order to impose the public ecology to the “deviant bodies”.

Gumbs discusses different specific event or experiences where the poetry of both teacher created space for new pedagogy and for anti-imperialist solidarity work. I sadly will not have the space to write about all of them, but I would like to underline one part. It is the murder of 10 years olds Clifford Glover, in 1973 in Queen, by Thomas Shea, a white police officer  who shot him in the back while saying in his radio “Die you little motherfucker” (245). Shea was later acquitted in his trial. That story (nearly made me cry) led her to write the poem Power and to reflect on police brutality, loyalties and relations, when she herself teaches in the school that formed Shea. But “what is composition in the face of genocide?” (246), says Gumbs. A powerful answer will come from Lordre’s solidarity work during the Grenada’s US invasion. Gumbs reflects on it in a very inspiring way : “It does mean recognizing when we are nobody and when we are somebody in relationship to imperialism” (251), because relations of (and to) power are incredibly complex.

Gumbs is calling for dialogic discourses of the construction of race, where she privileges “becoming black” vs. “being black”, because it acknowledges the process and distances itself from the discourses of purity and of an “official narrative” (255). That opens for a politics of accountability of black women to Lebanese and Palestinian in front of US imperialism and colonialization, because “Becoming Palestinian is an acknowledgement of the fact that the discourse through which racially different groups of people become expendable is a discourse with a shared precondition” (255). It also opens the door to Jordan’s creation of Black English classes when she argues that the act of poetry can “produce the people” (253) and (try) to overcome centuries of traumas and structural violences.

Their proposition is to work toward the creation of new ways of relating, not mediated through object, but rather through poetic and magic, being able to create a “we” and to moving toward home, as in a collective transformation of being and relating. What does that mean for anthropologists today? Like I said in my previous review of Oparah on this website, it means that we have to transform ourselves in “negative workers” (Schepper-Hughes 1995), but also that we actively (materially and discursively) challenges the relations of power in which we are embedded, by being race, sex and class traitors. As Ignatiev (1997) once put it, “the point is not to interpret whiteness, but to abolish it”.  That doesn’t mean to be able to “check our privileges” or to police ourselves into the politically correct way of writing and speaking. This discussion is not meant to gain more social capital by gaining activist, ally or purity points, but like Gumps argues it is “to enable the becoming of the world we want to share” (251). Concretely that means inventing new ways of being, of becoming and of relating to (interpersonally and structurally), but also to oneself. For scholars and anthropologists, it also means creating knowledge production tools that are accountable and reflexive. This is not an easy path, it takes time, and implies a lot of pain, hard work and discomforts – and we are not even sure of potential results -, but I do believe that the path is worth it since alongside it we may learn and experience incredible adventures and friendships.

Work Cited

Foucault, Michel. 2014 [1975]. Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de La Prison. Paris : Gallimard.

Ignatiev, Noel. 1997. “The Point is not to Interpret Whiteness but to Abolish it”. Cambridge: Race Traitor – Journal of the New Abolitionism.

Pulido, Laura. 2014. “Faculty Governance at the University of Southern California”. In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.). The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp.148-165). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Rama, Angel. 1996. The Lettered City. Durham: Duke University Press.

Schepper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The primacy of the ethical: proposition for a militant anthropology” Current Anthropology 36 (3). 409-420


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