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In the mid 1990s, the Reproductive Justice movement was formed by Black and indigenous women as a response to the limitations of the “reproductive rights” movement. Movement leaders argue, “rarely do we find ourselves fighting for just one aspect of reproductive justice such as abortion rights” – SisterSong.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, scholar and writer, joined us to talk about her book Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, her experience being a teenager during the formation of the Reproductive Justice Movement and what she’s reading now to inform this moment.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Catching Feelings by Audiobinger
- Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, Lucy Kang
- Host: Amy Gastelum
- Executive Director: Jina Chung
- Interim Senior Producer: Jessica Partnow
- Engineer: Jeff Emtman
Amy Gastelum: The recent loss of federal protection for elective abortion has caused individual states, and even more intimate communities to grapple with their beliefs and identities.
Some activits say elective abortion is only one piece of a larger conversation about reproduction. The Reproductive Justice movement, started in 1994 by Black and indigenous women argues, “rarely do we find ourselves fighting for just one aspect of reproductive justice such as abortion rights.”
We sat down with a daughter of the movement, Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs to talk about a vision for the path forward.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Hi. Okay.
Amy Gastelum: How are you?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: I’m well I’m well, Yeah, I’m having a really good day so far. How about you?
Amy Gastelum: Excellent. Over in Durham, North Carolina, right?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: That’s right.
Amy Gastelum: I, um, I was thinking like, I know she’s gonna ask me that question and like, what do I say? You know, Cuz I’m not doing great. I. This week, my son had pneumonia. So we’ve been dealing with like 17 month old baby fevers and ER trips in the last week. So it’s been a little nuts, but,
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Oh no. That’s not fun.
Amy Gastelum: But he’s better today and that makes it, and that makes it good.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: I’m glad to hear that.
Amy Gastelum: I’m so excited to talk to you today. Um, totally fangirling over here. And I’m gonna go ahead and read this bio that I sort of like pieced together from your website because there’s so much incredible, amazing stuff that you do that I wanted to highlight some things, but I mean, there’s just no way to get to all of it. Like, it’s so incredible. So I hope you like this bio that I put together. Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs Pauline Gumbs is a queer, Black, troublemaker and Black feminist love evangelist and an aspirational cousin to all sentient beings. She is founder, or the co-founder of several community organizations focused on everything from ending gendered violence to land trusts, to healing work and all things media. She’s a writer with work published in several outlets, five books already born, one in gestation called The Eternal Life of Audrey Lord. She’s a winner of many awards, including a Whitting Award in Nonfiction for her most recent book, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals and many, many others.
I’m not done. Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a teacher, making access to regular folks a priority. She founded Brilliance Remastered an online network and series of retreats and online intensives serving community accountable, intellectuals and artists. I have to ask, does this mean our listeners?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Yes.
Amy Gastelum: Okay, great. So folks can go and get lessons from you via your website. So that’s very exciting. It seems that the uniting theme of all of her work is a passion for the issues that impact oppressed communities and an intimate knowledge of the resilience of movements led by black indigenous working-class women and queer people of color. What do you think?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Yeah, that’s right.
Amy Gastelum: That sound about right? Is there anything I missed anything you wanted to add?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: No. I mean, I’m sure we’ll talk about things, but I like that bio!
Amy Gastelum: Great.
Amy Gastelum: Today we’re gonna be talking about the book, one of your books, one of your babies, that you co-edited with China Martins and Mai’a Williams. This book is really very, truly dear to me. Like, it’s my friend. And the book is Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. And if it’s okay, I wanted to read some praise from Alice Walker that’s at the beginning of it.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: So I was just listening to a recording of Alice Walker, reading her poetry 1979 at the library of Congress. So, yay.
Amy Gastelum: Just today?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Just, just before this. Yeah.
Amy Gastelum: Cool! Alice Walker says, “Revolutionary mothering love on the front lines is juicy, gutsy, vulnerable and very brave. These women insist on having their children in a society that does not welcome them, in a world that is rapidly falling apart. Their dream for their children, based on their love of them, encompasses the sorrow and the joy that mothers everywhere, whether human animal or plant feel at this time, a radical vision, many radical visions of how to mother in a time of resistance and of pain.”
There’s a beautiful preface in the book by, professor Loretta Ross.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Mm-hmm
Amy Gastelum: It gives a sort of rich, almost sensorial context to the formation of the Reproductive Justice movement. And in a minute, I am gonna ask you to tell me the birth story of the book. But first, I was wondering if you could tell me and our listeners the birth story of the Reproductive Justice movement.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Oh, absolutely. I mean, so the reason that we are so honored that Loretta Ross agreed to write a preface for Revolutionary Mothering is that we definitely know that that work wouldn’t have been possible, for us imaginable even, outside of the context of a Reproductive Justice movement. And Loretta Ross is one of the founding mothers of that movement.
So reproductive justice is an expansive and revolutionary vision that is about really empowering all of us, but especially the people most impacted by multiple systems of oppression to have autonomy over what happens with our capacity to create what happens in terms of our ability to define and create the relationships that we have, the families that we want, the destinies that we want for our own bodies.
And it’s expansiveness in some ways, is the response of feminists of color, including Loretta Ross, to what they saw as some of the limitations, to the idea of “reproductive rights” in quotes. And so they wanted to create something that really spoke to the multiple ways that our capacity as beings that are part of a species that can proliferate that needs each other to survive, that lives and relates in units of community, beyond, um, the question of access to abortion or not access to abortion, and also that takes into account the histories of, um, coerced sterilization. It takes into account histories of experimentation with birth control drugs on impoverished women in Puerto Rico, all of these different truth-telling imperatives are part of what makes the Reproductive Justice movement exist.
Amy Gastelum: I love an intellectual, I have to tell you that. I mean, you know, I’m a nurse and I don’t know if you know other nurses, but you know, we are very like of the earth. Um, and so like, it is so stimulating to talk to somebody who’s kind of, of the clouds, you know what I mean? Like in a most, in a, in a lovely way, cuz I’m thinking, tell me the birth story and I’m and I’m thinking it was 1994 and these women gathered in Chicago and they ate at Chipotle or, you know, and, and then right, they went back to the south. Right? Yeah.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Yes. Also, there’s a really important essay in an anthology called The Color of Violence that Incite Women of Color Against Violence published, where Loretta Ross writes her definition of Reproductive Justice, which I would refer everyone to. Cuz that is the, for me, that’s the best way to hear that origin story aside from, if you get, if you’re very blessed and get to just listen to Loretta Ross or Billy Avery.
So there there’s, um, Sister Song was really the space to say, like, to sing what Reproductive Justice is, and to roll that out into the world. And Loretta Ross was the founding executive director of sister song, and the sister song conferences. The Let’s Talk About Sex conferences became this catalyzing movement space. One of the things that they did that I love is that they had, uh, mother daughter fellowships to go to the conference. And so my mother and I went to Sister Song in Chicago together. Um, yeah, I, I think that at the core of reproductive justice, Is, and I’ve heard Loretta Ross recently talk about this as like a reproductive futurity is that it is intergenerational, it lives in intergeneration and they have moved that way the entire time, you know?
I mean, So in Atlanta, um, there’s a place called Mother House and it’s really a house. It was the headquarters for the Black Women’s Health Project. And just to give a corner to the story, which really probably only I can tell you, um, when I was a teenage writer growing up in Atlanta, I went to Mother House to the basement to lead a writing workshop and facilitate the creation of a newsletter, like a newsletter about sex for the teenagers and, um, other actually they weren’t, I was a teenager. They were like children like children. They were part of the summer program that Black Women’s Health Project had as part of its initiative, further to be intergenerational conversations about sex and profoundly comprehensive sex education. And so that was actually the first time that as a writer, facilitator, I ever was paid to facilitate a writing workshop, um, which to me, keys into this idea of the Reproductive Justice movement generating our creativity in all these multiple ways. Right. Um, and then the children who, many of them were children of, of these same reproductive justice movement workers just were having these incredible conversations about sexuality and gender and fluidity and justice and autonomy and consent, like all, all of these things. And so it was a blessing to be able to have an intergenerational view on that from a young age.
Amy Gastelum: It’s so cool that you had such a front row seat. I didn’t know that story. And like how neat that it, it really ties into the book I feel like, because a lot of, of the book that, that you co-edited is, um, talking about the actual work of mothering as revolutionary work itself. And so this idea that your mother was taking you to these places, she was raising a revolutionary. I mean, look at you now, you know, like she did the work, you know? Um, and now look at you like putting it out into the world and even bigger, further ways. What’s the birth story of this book?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Yay. Okay. So it goes back to a internet love story. Um, my would-be future co-editor Mai’a and I met on the internet and I think we had been making zines for a long time. We blog. And I think we found each other that way. And Maya was Maya was wanting to use a workbook I had made with these women in South Africa who had taken over an abandoned factory to create their own school with their children. And I was like, what? Who is this person? You know, I was like, this is what you do like? But so Mai’a is an international human rights worker and journalist, and she, while we were cultivating our friendship, she was traveling all over the world and she was organizing with mothers. She was organizing with moms who were part of the Zappatista movement, she was organizing with moms who were part of the Arab Spring Uprising, she was, um, organizing in Palestine and, and in all of these spaces, she was telling me what was going on.
Amy Gastelum: She was finding the moms.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: She was finding the moms. And she already had a really clear understanding that that is revolutionary. And then she started to create this zine called Revolutionary Motherhood. Meanwhile, I am in the archive researching, I’m working on my PhD and my dissertation is called, We Can Learn to Mother Ourselves: the queer survival of Black feminism. And so I’m looking at everything that these feminists of color are saying about mothering in the 1980s, 1970s and 1980s. And so I’m looking through Audre Lourde’s papers, I’m looking through June Jordan’s papers, I’m looking through, um, finding these, uh, a Azalia and the Salsa Soul Sister Gazette, and you know, all of these out of print publications that are basically ancestors to our zines that we’re creating and I’m telling her what I find, right? And so she’s like, this is listen to what happened in Gaza, and I’m like, listen to what June Jordan said in 1977, you know? And at some point we were like, okay, this conversation that we’re having is actually a real conversation. Like we, we are meant to put together this archive and legacy of a revolutionary approach to mothering and contemporary people who are living this and practicing it right now.
So we should create an anthology. This is a, this is our idea. And then we met China Martins who’s our would be co-editor um, at the Allied Media Conference and China is almost a generation older than Mai’a and I, Mai’a and I are pretty close in age. And China is, is like zines forerunner. Like she, and she was the first person to write mothering zines, zines about being a mother about raising a kid on welfare. She was really the first and, um, The Future Generation is the name of her zine. And so we were like, yes, you know, like this is, this is our trifecta dream team.
At the beginning, we thought we were gonna call it This Bridge Called My Baby. And when we sent out our call for submissions, that’s what we said, that we’re creating an anthology called This Bridge Called My Baby. And, you know, so many people sent in essays and poems and stories. And we were like overwhelmed. And we were like, whoa, this is amazing. And we started this process of the intensive work of creating an anthology. And it took like seven years before it actually existed in print. So the reason that we created this book was because we, we really felt that there was something to be said about again, intergenerationally what it means to really, to shine light on a revolutionary approach to mothering.
Right? Cause we’re very clear, like we’re not creating that. It’s something very, very old. it’s really important to us that, um, I mean, we were like over the moon ready to pass out when Alice Walker wrote that blurb because her idea of, Democratic Mother it talks about mothering as a form of being in the world and really as the ethical form of being in the world and that it can include everyone.
And, um, there’s a line in that essay where she says, mothering is an instinct, yes. But it’s also a skill. It can be taught. And she believes that everyone should learn the skills associated with mothering because that’s what we all need in order to actually shift into a life giving, sustaining relationship to community, planet, life itself.
And so we wanted recognition for all of this revolutionary labor that we’re naming as revolutionary mothering that has been happening for generations and without which certainly the three of us wouldn’t exist as who we are, or maybe at all. And it’s possible to think that maybe life wouldn’t exist, right.
There are these constant acts of life-giving care. They are transformative and, and revolutionary because they exist right up against these forms of oppression that have seemingly done everything to eradicate them.
Amy Gastelum: Wow. That’s quite a birth story.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Yes. Thank you for asking.
Amy Gastelum: Well, I have to tell you, like, the reason why I, I reached out to you recently about, about doing this interview and talking about this book that was published in 2016, you know, it’s not like there’s like a time, a timely stamp on this or whatever, except that there is, because I, I have to tell you, I was raised in central Indiana by lesbian pastors. So, Protestant. Right? So while I don’t practice religion anymore, um, I have this tendency that I think is residual from my raising that is during times of stress or confusion, like to go to text, you know. Protestants love their Bible study. I gotta tell you that. I don’t know if you knew that, but Protestants,
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: I do know that. Yeah.
Amy Gastelum: Uh, they love their Bible study. So, um, I don’t really turn to the Bible, but I, I go to my bookshelf, and I feel like all of our different states and communities are, are pretty much trying to decide who they are I mean, I have not heard the word abortion so much ever in my life before being discussed openly. So I wanna know, are there other things that you think people could be reading right now as they’re kind of grappling with whatever is happening in their communities?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Mmm. Oh, what a great question. I mean, of course people we’ve mentioned, right. Alice Walker is somebody who to always read, but I would say, especially her essays. When we think about abortion, she’s somebody who’s been very open about the fact that this is a part of her experience and her early politicization as a young woman, a young college student, and she has this expansive perspective that I draw on over and over again. So read more Alice Walker, June Jordan. Definitely. So, and I’ll just say the, the essay that we were so honored to print in Revolutionary Mothering is called The Creative Spirit in Children’s Literature. This is a place where June Jordan makes a proclamation that love is life force. And this is a talk that she gave at a conference about children’s literature at Berkeley in California in 1977. And the first sentence is just love is life force. That’s it, the end, you know, like that’s everything right there. And she goes on to offer this incredible expansive definition of what creativity is, what creation is and how it exists within all species. And then she talks about the accountability of what our intergenerational conversation is, right? So what’s at stake in children’s literature for June Jordan is what is the possible conversation we can have between generations. And she just goes deep into like, what is it? What are the fears that, that brings up in adults? What’s disrespectful about not talking about certain things with young people.
Amy Gastelum: And, and before we get away from it, I do wanna, if it’s okay. I wanna read like, just a very short piece from The Creative Spirit in Children’s Literature, this, um, essay that you’re making reference to, if it’s okay. June Jordan says, “and it seems to me that love that is serious and tender concern to respect the nature and the spontaneous purpose of other things. Other people will make manifest a peaceable order among us such that fear conflict competition, waste and environmental sacrifice will have no place.” It’s like, that’s everything. Like, what else is there?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: That’s everything right? It’s everything that we need. Like, if we would do this one thing. if we would do this one thing.
Amy Gastelum: Like, live like this. Yeah.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Yeah. I think that, um, I can never get too much of June Jordan. So, um, I turn, I turn to so many, I turn to Angela Davis. I turn to my dear sister, Adrianne Maree Brown. I turn to WITA E Maisha. I turn, of course, to Loretta Ross. Um, so I’m, um, Creative Writing Editor at the journal Feminist Studies, and there’s a resource on the Feminist Studies website that’s in response to the Supreme court decision that we decided to create, and it kind of chronicles because, because this is an issue that is in the journal all the time. Um, but it chronicles is an archive going back. It’s 50 years that this journal has existed. Um, you can look at that to give kind of a, a long view of how feminist thinkers have been writing about this over time. Um, there’s so much, there’s so much reading to do.
BREAK: Amy Gastelum: We’re jumping in to remind you that you are listening to Making Contact and an interview with Dr. Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs Pauline Gumbs. Visit us online at radioproject.org where you can join the conversation with a comment. And now, back to the show.
Amy Gastelum: You know, we’ve talked about reading, we’ve talked about holding workshops. Is there anything else that you’re doing, um, to find hope right now, or kind of, um, manage your self and your community?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Hmm. Yeah, I think, I mean, the writing is the main place where I’m like, okay, this is I’m responsible for this. But the other things on a smaller scale has just been more, more reaching out, you know, like I, and I have kind of had to get over it. And even me being like, oh, nobody wants to really hear from me or, oh, I can’t, you know, like, let me stay within the boundary of not, uh, reaching out even to people I do know, or like my own friends, you know, like that’s, that’s been a thing that I’ve struggled with. And now I see I’m like, oh, that’s complicit in the forms of isolation, that those who would harm all of us want to exist so that we don’t acknowledge our collective power, right? And, and act accordingly. And, that’s definitely been a way. I am, you know, I am not a nurse, but, I’m like a major distributor of just raspberry leaf to people, you know, like it’s just, um, I’m like this will help, you know, I have my little peppermint raspberry leaf tea.
Amy Gastelum: Your tinctures and and your, your witchy brews.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Tea, you know, all, all of that. And, and also just that practice for myself, you know, I mean, it’s tied to what Loretta Ross is talking about. This legacy of us taking care of ourselves and each other and learning what that takes in relationship with the natural world. Right.
Amy Gastelum: Mm-hmm taking care of yourself is revolution, taking care of your children is revolution. Um, as a mom of human babies, it doesn’t always feel that way cuz it’s, it is work that is unseen and unappreciated by capitalism completely. Um, and so it, it, you know, all your moms out there, keep head up, like you’re doing it and to all the people who are doing mothering work that isn’t to human babies, that it’s important work too.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that, that, that’s one of the things that our dream for Revolutionary Mothering includes it’s to say that the exact isolation that you’re talking about where capitalism pretends to not value the labor of mothering because it needs, it requires it.
Amy Gastelum: Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Um, that is what we wanna shine a light on all of those acts of care, the disgusting, you know, someone spitting up on you, you know, all those things are happening. Those are, those have such revolutionary potential. And what would a world be like where we valued that in such a way that the actual labor oven wasn’t wasn’t isolated
Amy Gastelum: Mm-hmm
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: And that is in fact, dangerous to capitalism. Um, it’s certainly dangerous to any system that would wanna disempower anyone, but particularly disempower women because yeah, there’s too much love. There’s too much love and creativity. And when we collaborate on it, that’s some powerful. That’s it. love is life force.
Amy Gastelum: I love that. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time. And
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Yes. Yes. Yes. So thank you so much for having me. I, I, it’s great to meet you. And I also just wanna honor what you’re doing, how you’re using this platform, how you’re using your own perspective and expertise to create this really supportive and transformative space. I’m grateful for
Amy Gastelum: Thank you for saying that. I’m grateful for you. You have a wonderful day.
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs: You too.
OUTRO: That’s it for Making Contact today. I’ve been your host, Amy Gastelum. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please review us on Apple Podcasts and share it on social media. On instagram we’re @makingcontactradioproject. On twitter we’re @making_contact. To learn more about us and to access other episodes for free you can visit us at radioproject.org. Until next week.