Yvonne Welbon, an award-winning filmmaker and founder of the Chicago-based nonprofit Sisters in Cinema, interviews Alexis Pauline Gumbs, cofounder of the Black Feminist Film School, as part of a larger trans-media project on the history of queer Black lesbian media makers, SistersintheLife.com. Gumbs speaks about Black feminist practices of education and filmmaking, delving into the founding and inspiration of the Black Feminist Film School and its mission to “create the world anew.” She explains her “community accountable practice” that is connected to traditions of Black intellectualism, her position as provost of a “tiny Black feminist university” that she calls Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, as well as how she and her collaborators have been inspired by QWOCMAP (Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project).
The interview is with Alexis Pauline Gumbs is part of a larger trans-media undertaking on the history of queer Black lesbian media makers. The project includes the anthology Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making (Duke University Press, 2018), coedited by Yvonne Welbon and Alexandra Juhasz; a documentary currently in production; and a website, sistersinthelife.com, where this and other interviews can be found. Our summer intern Alan Vision, a junior at Vassar College, contributed two key questions to the following interview.
yvonne welbon: Tell me about your contribution to the anthology Sisters in the Life.
alexis pauline gumbs: I am so proud to have written the last essay in the book because my contribution is all about the future—the futures that are made possible by my generation of Black feminist filmmakers who are thinking about Black feminist film as a site of intervention into how we think, how we communicate. The essay is based on my interviews with two people I think are so brilliant in this field: Kebo Drew, one of the major forces behind and within QWOCMAP [Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project], and Sangodare Akinwale, aka Julia Roxanne Wallace, who is the cofounder with me of the Black Feminist Film School and really the central visionary behind that project. QWOCMAP is a space that trains and supports queer women of color to make their own films, and it has profoundly influenced what Black Feminist Film School is and how it exists. It has been crucial to my process and work.
To be able to offer parts of those conversations, and some context around what that means for the book Sisters in the Life, felt like exactly what I should be doing as a Black feminist scholar who is interested in these conversations. I bring the two of them together and they articulate what's at stake—which is everything, right? The way that Sangodare says it's about “creating the world anew.” The way that Kebo says, “What is our mission? World domination,” a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but basically saying that we can change the whole world and that QWOCMAP's vision is that if the visions of queer women of color media makers get out there, everything will have to change. Intergenerational accountability to Black feminism is a key element of that. Community accountable practice is a huge part of how those visions get made real, and I loved being able to write about that for the book.
alan vision: You have a PhD from Duke University, and you've established the School of Our Lorde, a night school in your living room based on your archival research on Audre Lorde. Can you talk about knowledge—specifically the different spaces where we receive knowledge and why there's a need to create alternative spaces?
apg: My understanding of Black intellectual practice has always been very expansive, and that's because of my family of origin, especially my parents. Our living room was filled with books by Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange and Angela Davis, and that's just regular, right? For everyone's living room? My dad bought me Pan-Africanism for Beginners (1992), Black Panthers for Beginners (1995), Malcolm X for Beginners (1992). These things are important. That's what they told me. At the same time, my parents had a strategy of hustling to get me scholarships to go to very elite schools where there were not a lot of Black people, and where the texts that were valued were not the same texts that I already knew were valuable, because they were valuable in our home.
They didn't explicitly say, “There's education and then there's education,” you know what I'm saying? But that was obvious from my experience, because I understood that just because something is not represented or valued in a particular educational space doesn't mean it's not valuable. And actually, there is nothing but educational space, right? I was raised to regard the car as an educational space because we're in the car. The park is an educational space when we're in the park. Any time you're around a family member, that's an educational moment. You're learning something. That's something I love and admire about my parents, because that's the way they live. It's not just that they wanted their kids to think that way, but they themselves were constantly thinking: this is an opportunity to learn, this is an opportunity to grow. And so they highly valued access to elite educational spaces, too. They strategized how all of us siblings could have access to those spaces.
We had that access, and at the same time we had an approach that's a lot more expansive than what those spaces offered. I feel so grateful for that, because I've never been in a situation of feeling like if something was not taught to me at school it wasn't part of my learning process. I was very aware that relationships to educational institutions are always strategic, and particularly strategic for Black people. That's what my parents believed. So educational institutions have always been part of my strategy and continue to be so. I've never said that those institutions would then shape my destiny. My destiny was something handed to me by people in my own family: my parents, my grandparents, all the aunties, all the uncles, but also Black intellectuals who've been doing their practice wherever they've been doing their practice.
When I think about that, I think about people like Anna Julia Cooper, one of the first Black women to ever get a PhD and whose teaching settings were similar to mine. She had an incredible impact on Black high schools in Washington, DC. She created an educational institution for adults that met in her house. That's the type of legacy I think about. But I also think about Black intellectual practice in terms of, say, Nanny of the Maroons, and what she knew about plant medicine. I think about it in terms of every DJ ever—what they think about and what they do with sound. I think about my role in Black intellectual practice in a very expansive way, and so my use of educational resources has always been about my desire to be with generations of visionary Black people. That's my use of those institutions. That's my use of archival access. That's my use of the way that being in a PhD program gave me access to my own time. It's always about being with Black visionary folks across time and in place. So that means that across time, I get to be reading and rereading these texts that I think are important.
My strategic relationship to educational institutions and to scholarship funding started when I was two years old and has now become different types of funding—in my case, consulting-type funding because I work with educational institutions in that way. As I said, it's about being with visionary Black folks across time and in place: across time, meaning that I want to be able to look at archives or sit and talk with people and think about the texts that allow me to be with this tradition through the lives of the people who have given their lives to it, and in place, in that it gives me access to my time so I can be in community and be a resource and be resourced with Black organizers who are visionary in this time. For me in particular, SpiritHouse in Durham, North Carolina, is that Black visionary space that I participate in, and it's all profoundly connected. Black Feminist Film School is one part of a constellation.
Another part is what I call Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, a Black feminist university of which I think of myself as provost, because anybody who knows anything about educational institutions knows that the provost is the person who matters. The provost makes the decisions about what courses exist and don't exist, about what happens and doesn't happen, about what's valued and what you do or don't get credit for, and what funding there is to hire who to do what, right? That's one of the things I learned in college. The provost was the target of all of our ethnic studies activism when I was in school. So now that I have my own school, I'm the provost.
Black Feminist Film School came out of seeing what was happening and not happening in film schools—in particular a film school that Sangodare was enrolled in. Sangodare should be the one to tell the story of that transformation, but what I saw was that we needed a way and a space to talk about a Black feminist legacy in filmmaking and what a Black feminist process of film production would be. And so my role is more on the discursive side. Like, what does it mean for us to screen films, and ask, Is this a Black feminist film? What makes a film a Black feminist film? Is it the way it was produced? The director? What happens in the film? Who's in the film? This is so that people in this moment who say “I'm a Black feminist filmmaker” understand that they're in relationship to tradition. They may depart from or continue certain aspects of that tradition, but they don't feel the weight of having to invent what Black feminist filmmaking is; they participate in a conversation that can support, or challenge, or infuriate, or inspire them.
And then what does it look like to look with a critical Black feminist lens of filmmaking at an institution that has been shaped within capitalism and that could potentially operate otherwise? There's something called the “master shot,” right? How would it feel different on a set if we called it the “mother scene”? The place where you can see everything, the generative place. These are some of the discursive things we're thinking through. Then there's also the matter of what does it actually look like when you make a film with our community? How do we make visible the ways that filmmakers like you, Yvonne, for example, and other people we admire, created film sets that were educational spaces? That was a process of community building that included all sorts of breaking bread together, resource sharing as an alternative world, and you can see it evidenced in the film. And it is also far beyond the film itself. How do we learn and get trained so we don't assume the only way to make film is what's in the film school textbooks, how Steven Spielberg does it? No shade to Spielberg, but you know what I'm saying. We have our own tradition of practice that's already Black feminist and already so inspiring. And so Black Feminist Film School came out of our desire to know about that, to think about that. We need to be able to share that with one another and make critical decisions. We need a process to ask: How can we be together? How can we be together across time, and also in place, through what we do and how we create?
yw: Let's talk a little bit about the way you structured that essay and why you included so many voices.
apg: With academic credentials, academic publications, peer-reviewed presses, there is an expectation and a performance of mastery and of expertise, right? By putting “PhD” next to your name, without saying it, you're saying, “I am an expert in _____.” That's what the process is designed to do. It is designed to give you specialization and expertise on something that you then are an authority on, and so then you author it, right? You write about it. But that reproduces certain separations and isolations that I'm not interested in. I got to learn from an earlier generation of scholars, particularly self-identified ethnic studies scholars, who talked about feeling isolated from the communities that inspired them as they became scholars on the topics they're scholars in. I got to see that at an early age and then make certain decisions about how it doesn't necessarily have to be that way for me.
So what that looks like in terms of that particular essay is, yes, writing about things and giving context is one of my skill sets. But really, the purpose of it is to make space for the voices of people I see as the visionaries and leaders who are doing this work. You know, the people who are making those films, the people who are, in Kebo's case, creating a space for tons of filmmakers to do their work and express their vision. They've learned so much through that process. It's not for me to say exactly what it means because they're also interpreting it all the time, right?
Your invitation to be part of the book was really huge. One reason I was so excited was that it was an opportunity to be in conversation with all these other people who are in and writing about Sisters in the Life, about this film tradition. I was also excited for the possibility to be with my generation of people who are visioning around this. Kebo is half a generation above me, and I see her as such an example, somebody I look to. In terms of Black Feminist Film School, we see Kebo as somebody who has been so amazing. It was an opportunity to be with them and listen to them with accountability, knowing that I'm going to help transmit this, via this book, to people who are interested.
So: an opportunity to listen with accountability. To listen, understanding that I'm going to help transmit this to people who don't get to sit and talk with people I get to sit and talk with all the time, who maybe are of a different generation. I was so excited to be able to offer a window into what blows my mind all the time: these conversations with people who are creating the world anew. I didn't want it to be me paraphrasing what they talk about because there's a poetics in how they say what they say, and that's pretty much the whole point.
yw: Can you say more about QWOCMAP and the work that they do?
apg: QWOCMAP is so amazing! It's such an inspiration for me, and I know it's an inspiration for so many people. There are so many stories to be told that queer women of color are holding, that they know they want to tell and can tell. And QWOCMAP makes it possible for that to actually happen. They have a process that they walk people through and assemble crews so their vision can be fulfilled, and also so that queer women of color can gain skills around media making that will empower them to be able to tell their stories and support their communities to tell their own stories forever.
That's why it's like a global scale. When Kebo says it's about world domination, that is so true, and it's very much grounded in and accountable to generations of Black feminists. Madeleine Lim was the founder, the person who reflected on their own film school process and thought, “We gotta create something different, and it's possible to share these skills. It's possible to create an actual phase change.” If you think about it in the environmental way, it's about creating another way for people to learn filmmaking. Mad was going to the same festivals as you, Aishah Simmons, and others, all of whom were informed in their filmmaking processes by Marlon Riggs. Mad's inspiration came out of the same place that our inspiration comes from: a set of filmmakers and films that were so clearly in conversation with one another and also with Black feminist texts by writers like Audre Lorde or June Jordan. That informed not only a desire for another form of filmmaking but also the understanding that the same impulse that led Lorde to say, “Your silence will not protect you” (and we're going to use poetry to change the skeleton architecture of our lives, as she says), could be applied to film.
What you see coming through QWOCMAP are beautiful films, intimate personal experiences. Films about somebody's ancestor altar and what it means for them. Stories that are small and others that are huge. QWOCMAP has made it possible for hundreds of films to be made, and then they have their own film festival, and so the whole community gets to view those films. For instance they've been doing trainings with organizations that respond to sexual violence, training whole groups of survivors to make films of their own stories. Its impact is incredible and so strategic and so smart and so based on that love, that understanding that if we tell our stories, we are transformed and our communities are transformed.
yw: Where could someone who read your essay in Sisters in the Life go if they wanted to dig a little deeper, go a little further?
apg: There's a few places. QWOCMAP'S website is a great resource. Black Feminist Film School has a website, and some of Sangodare's lectures are there, and roundtables about some of the films that have impacted us and influenced us. You can also see Black Feminist Film School on Tumblr. That's a place to continue sharing things that we think are amazing and awesome: much larger than what we ourselves are up to.
Other places to dig deeper? I would say one of the greatest resources for us is a roll call at the very beginning of Julie Dash's book about her film Daughters of the Dust (1991), created by Toni Cade Bambara along with her daughter Karma and with the crucial help of Zeinabu irene Davis.1 The book talks about the making of the epic film, and the roll call lists so many filmmakers—those who were part of the community of practice and fought, those who made a film like Daughters of the Dust possible. That list of filmmakers, that roll call of names, was huge for us to see. The work that Zeinabu Davis is doing around the L.A. Rebellion is likewise something that everyone should look at and something that's definitely informed us in our practice.
There's also Kara Keeling, who was curating, for a while, manifestos about film, especially queer film, in a journal called GLQ. And Sangodare along with Kai M. Green wrote something called “Tranifest: Queer Futures,” which is this beautiful “tranifesta,” as they say, about what it means to be Black folks making film from a place of queer love.2 That's one of my favorite texts ever, so that's something I would recommend, too.
yw: Any final thoughts about your contribution to the book?
apg: Gratitude. I was so grateful when you asked me to be part of this project, Yvonne. It wouldn't be possible without you, not only because this is a book you co-conceived and coedited and created, but also because you are one of the people who made it possible for us to even understand that we were in a tradition of Black feminist filmmakers. You came to our very first inaugural Black Feminist Film School event and were one of the speakers. You have always been open to mentoring us in what we do. So I feel a lot of gratitude for being able to be part of the conversation.
This tradition is visionary, it's future facing, and it's so affirming and validating to understand that we are part of it. It's one thing to see things that you think are great and think, “I'm part of that tradition.” It's another thing when those great people who have made that tradition say, “You're part of this tradition.” That's what happened through that invitation, and it's so beautiful to see the book and look at all these chapters about the legacy and all of this amazing work. To come at the end of that is a tangible way of understanding that this is what makes us possible. And at the same time, there's something after that that we're helping to make possible. I'm so grateful for that.
av: A lot of your work as a writer and academic relates to wellness and wholeness in such a fractured world. Why there's a lot of suffering and pain. I'm wondering: What is something you think people don't realize about the world, or life, or peace?
apg: I think we don't know how loved we are. A lot of people don't realize that they are loved at all or how much they're loved. I know that has been the case for me. To understand that even before I was born or had any thoughts about who I was, there were generations of people hoping someone would exist like me who would resonate with what they were doing. That's such a profound feeling of love. I think it's a question of tapping into that. In the educational work I do there is a lot of gratitude practice, but there is also dedication practice—someone dedicating their participation to someone they love. Because the act of remembering whoever it is—grandma, such-and-such mentor, your niece—in the world who loves you opens us up to be able to learn something new.
Let's be open enough to learn something we don't already know, which is different than restating what we do know in order to do whatever is useful. I'm instrumentalizing love, because love is already the whole point. I don't think there's any way that I can do the intellectual work I'm doing as a community accountable intellectual without that piece of it. It's not like, “Don't worry, you can be falling apart, completely disconnected and dissociated, and we can still live into the possibility of Black feminism.” We can't. It is part of what has made that tradition necessary, but at the same time, our ability to be present in this moment is everything. There is nothing else. So if I'm not able to be present with you in this moment, that's it. We missed it. And so I'm just gonna have to try again to be able to be present in the next moment. But it's not something that is separate from, or incidental to, or just cute. It's not an accessory to our liberation, it is actually our liberation. Either we're loved and we're present with one another or we're not, and that's what's been at stake the whole time. That's what people have lived and died for across centuries. So I never forget that.