Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals

IssueApril - May 2021
Review by Jessica Poyner

In this book, Alexis Pauline Gumbs dives deep into the world of oceanic and freshwater marine mammals, stripping away the white heterosexual lens usually used to examine their lives by David Attenborough-types.

Instead, from a black feminist perspective, Gumbs reveals a world where co-operative forms of childrearing, rest and queer love are central to existence. Each short chapter explores how we survive and build loving lasting communities with each other.

I initially found this book challenging to get into. The prose is poetic, at times sermon-like, and weaves together many different threads – from the author’s ancestral heritage of Shinnecock native Americans and enslaved African-Americans, to resistance to violent border regimes.

I needed to slow down my usual speed-reading and use Gumbs’ thoughtful musings and facts about marine mammals as plunge points for my own reflections and googling.

Undrowned is a sure-fire way of dreaming sweet dreams of striped dolphins, rolling in intergenerational pods of up to 1,000, and miouroung, or southern sea elephants, lying snuggled together for a month to moult.

Gumbs looks to striped dolphins, who share out care work, to probe the societal push towards the nuclear family.

In a time of huge change, the miouroung teach us the importance of resting together to have the capacity for our collective movements for social change.

This is particularly the case for black women and femmes who are often loaded with community-survival care and movement work, with no one looking out for our space to rest and recuperate.

What would it look like if we took the onus off each other to individually demand time to rest? If we acknowledged that historically (and currently!) the right to rest is so gendered, racialised and classed?

The last segment contains activities on each chapter for individuals and for groups. It lends itself well to an organising group’s bookclub, as a tool for building trust and centring black feminist politics.

Overall, though I found the sometimes quite abrupt change of thought and flow challenging, I found Undrowned a useful and deeply comforting way to ground myself in a time where the need for us to be flexible and compassionate to ourselves could never be higher.

As it turns out, marine mammals can tell us a lot about how the peace movement needs to evolve.