Deep dives, deeper breaths: A review of “Undrowned– Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals”

Written by R.B. Brooks

When I was in grade school, I had visions of becoming a marine biologist when I grew up. After a few too many shark horror movies and a realization that being a marine biologist in the Midwest isn’t the most lucrative career, that dream eventually faded. What didn’t go away was the childlike allure to marine creatures. For young folks, especially queer folks, there’s a particular resonance with the ways marine life are speculated about without being fully understood. A relatability to being indescribable, even after many attempts to capture our experiences with not-quite-right language and oversimplified terminology.

In “Undrowned– Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals,” Alexis Pauline Gumbs captures the feeling of being called out of name, grappling with ways oppressed people are both mistreated and commodified for manufactured worth, and also how we persist in our existence in spite of and influenced by all sorts of obstacles.

Gumbs jumps into this work invoking ideas and questions about breathing, a common reflection throughout the book. She says “conspire means to breathe together” and it is ironic to engage this work during a time where our entire planet deals with an ongoing pandemic that threatens our airflow, lungs, and ability to breathe. In fact, when I received the advanced copy of this book in November 2020, I had full intentions of committing to a review shortly after I got it, but that got interrupted when I contracted COVID-19. Finishing this book and recovering from the illness coincided at the end of December and offered an even deeper meaning to her opening question “What is the scale of breathing?” 

The writing of this book is so methodical, including the cadence Gumbs uses in which she intentionally mimics (and in some ways mocks) the tone of guidebooks and interjects poetic practices to interrupt the drab, passive pace of scientific writing—staking claim to the power of naming and deciphering. She approaches the speculation of marine mammal behavior not as a matter of studying objects but as a means of understanding kin and the connection between human and non-human life. Each chapter is framed as a lesson, offering mantras or sayings to embody the larger teaching. Readers are invited to engage with the book based on what’s salient versus engaging in any particular order. 

The way Gumbs relays stories of marine mammals in a matter-of-fact way causes readers to face a mirror and realize that what we’ve justified doing to these creatures, we absolutely have done unto ourselves. Captivity, colonialism, disappearance, exhibition, etc. No institution or realm of life is left unexamined throughout the book—education, wellness, relationships, Blackness, parenting, beauty, gender, food, travel, and so many other facets of existence are considered as the lessons unfold. These accounts do not serve to externalize, romanticize or make mystical the life of marine mammals. Gumbs also does not outright accuse, condemn, or damn our species for what she frames as betraying our own self-interests, but she does make an inarguable case for not disassociating ourselves from non-human species. 

However, Gumbs does insist that we are wise to give marine mammals space for our collective preservation. She speaks of several species that have historically been misunderstood by conventions of animal classification, where humans have filled in guesses where there lacked data or projected behaviors onto creatures who couldn’t possibly comply with our perspectives on how the world works. She talks about the migration of mammals, the alleged extinction but then surprising resurgence of certain creatures, and comments on how privacy and evasion are strategies for those who do not wish to be seen. 

Indigneous and ancestral knowledge are honored in several ways. Gumbs honors her own lineages by weaving late Black feminist thinkers into her storytelling, mapping constellations of ancestral roots onto her melodic musings of the past, present, and future. She also positions marine mammals as being more than just relics from earlier times, but as storytellers carrying insight on our global history. By interweaving this historical context, Gumbs documents the trajectory of our evolution and adaptation. She goes beyond saying “this happened and that’s that” and reaches for the why of what has happened and what it means for our current moment. 

Through big questions such as “what if the path to conservation of any species remaining on the planet is demilitarization?,” she invites us to reckon with the byproducts of colonialism, capitalism, anti-Blackness, and other manifestations of white supremacy that threaten our sustained coexistence on this planet. She offers hard, humbling words that could be even harder to ruminate on during this pandemic, but that are all the more necessary. We are encouraged to take ownership of our role in a climate catastrophe and in the kindest way possible she tells us that the planet could destroy us before we succeed in destroying the planet. But she doesn’t frame our home as an enemy, just that we need to think about our relationship with the only place we can call home. She wonders “what would it take to tune in with our environment enough to be in flow with the Earth, instead of struggle against it.”

“Undrowned– Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals” is part of an Emergent Strategy series published by AK Press. As a self-proclaimed scholar of emergent strategy, it is evident to me how this book aligns with the guiding principles of the concept coined by adrienne maree brown. Specifically the notion that “small is all, the large is a reflection of the small.” Gumbs lays out a set of readings that attest to the significance of embedding these lessons into our daily lives based on the evidence of what has transpired throughout the planet’s history and on it’s warming surface. 

She guides readers through nineteen meditations for rerouting the trajectory of our planet, our species, the pace of our daily lives and uplifts marine mammals as a reflection of how to extract more lessons along the way. Listen. Breathe. Remember. Practice. Collaborate.  Be Vulnerable. Be Present. Be Fierce. Learn from Conflict. Honor Your Boundaries. Respect Your Hair. End Capitalism. Refuse. Surrender. Go Deep. Stay Black. Slow Down. Rest. Take Care of Your Blessings.

If any of these lesson headers entice you. If you’ve ever been awestruck by dolphins, whales, and walruses. If you don’t think the human species lies at the top of an ecological hierarchy. This book is one you’ll want to read, revisit, and rejoice in. 

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Purchase your copy of Undrowned from AK Press.

Find AK Press on Instagram and Twitter at @AKPressDistro or online at akpress.org 
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is on Instagram and Twitter at @alexispauline

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