Response to Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons From Marine Mammals

Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ fascination with marine life started no different than anyone else’s. She visited an aquarium and bought the standard guidebooks—Audubon and Smithsonian—with the intention to learn more about water-bound animals categorized in the same scientific class as humans. The guidebooks, however, were wrought with all-too-familiar colonizing constructs of language, gender, ideology, and assumed patriarchy. Marine mammals had been misappropriated, misnamed, misunderstood, mistreated, and subjected to the capitalistic grab of white supremacy culture. Gumbs meditated on the unexpected affinity, then chose to look around and through the noxious murk of white power and ignorance. Then, using a scaffolding of self-compassion and care, she found an unexpected touchstone within the veneer—love. Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons From Marine Mammals, is Gumbs’ resulting quest for collective agency. Though the title may seem like a stretch (when before has Black feminism been aligned with marine life?) it quickly makes perfect sense. Undrowned’s wisdom transcends species. 

My task here, as a marine mammal apprentice, opening myself to guidance from these advanced marine mammals is to identify with. To see what happens when I rethink and refill my own relations, possibilities, and practices inspired by the relations, possibilities, and practices of advanced marine mammal life.

Undrowned is poetic and enchanting. Its lines are melodious and elegiac. It is a masterpiece of metaphorical artistry and a survey of emergent strategies. Undrowned is a handbook of many things including the wonder of marine mammals, self-love, and nineteen meditations organized around Black feminist practices. Gumbs deftly employs details of the natural world to lean into areas of social justice. Her encouraged vision and honest scrutiny resembles that of a zealous conservationist as she marries together aquatic and terrestrial legacies. Gumbs starts the work with an attention to the breath.  

Breathing in unbreathable circumstances is what we do every day in the chokehold of racial gendered ableist capitalism. We are still undrowning. And by we, I don’t only mean people like myself whose ancestors specifically survived the middle passage, because the scale of our breathing is planetary, at the very least. 

This scale is collective—all are impacted by an effort to breathe. From a Covid patient on a ventilator to marine life suffering from global pollution and climate change. There should be no price for inhaling and exhaling. Gumbs’ tone is mournful and celebratory. A coming up for air. 

There is a 1974 article in the Journal of Mammalogy about [a] captive dolphin and her tragic story. Her mother was born in the open ocean and captured in 1969, while pregnant. Shortly after arriving at Sea Life, newly captive she had a miscarriage. What did they name her? Malakani, the eye of heaven, God is watching. At the time she became pregnant again, she was captive in a tank with two bottlenose dolphins. The article does not characterize this as a breeding scheme, more like an aquatic housing crisis, but who knows...The scientists looked on and referred to the newborn based on her talent for following her mother. They called her a “precocious youngster.”

Language matters. Gestures matter. The small things matter. There’s a lot to be learned by looking closer. Things deemed otherwise disconnected become illuminated relative to the attention paid to them. The plight of a beluga whale and sea lion inform modern social crises. Understanding depends on a willingness to see. To hear. To open. This life is not about any one of us, and yet is also is.

I believe in the possibility of dorsal, or stabilizing practices in our own lives...What are the intergenerational and evolutionary ways that we become what we practice? How can we navigate oppressive environments with core practices that build community, resistance, and more loving ways go living?

The book’s foreword is penned by adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategies. In brown’s own book she writes, “When I fear the universe, I fear myself. When I love and am in awe of the universe, I love and am in awe of myself. Imagine then, the power when I align with the universe.” 

One of the major things I found when I studied guidebooks about marine mammals was that much of the same language that fuels racism, gendered binaries, and other forms of oppression shows up in “scientific” descriptions of marine mammals. Most of these descriptions are also written by white western men...What does it mean to say that a whale is “shy?” Giant beaked whales (of which there may be three different species) are a major whale mystery. The conservation status is “data deficient.” Seems like for scientists, there is knowing and then there is knowing. 

Consider this. Knowing and knowing

In Undrowned, Gumbs aligns a legacy of human abuse with various stories of marine mammals, repeatedly calling upon love (while also insisting science begin more readily incorporating this term). Then she makes this idea of all-encompassing love the resilient thread coursing between resonant pasts and presents of disparate beings. She writes, “It is dangerous to be discovered”—a reference to the (now-extinct) Hydrodamalis gigas, a giant manatee whose species was decimated by 18th century sea hunters seeking profits from fur and skin. And what of its river-bound cousin, also sacrificed for commerce and human gain?

Reports say even though the Amazonian manatee is “protected” in her entire range, she is still hunted to provide meat for the military. That same military that will not protect the Amazonian lungs of the earth. The same military that at best stands by amidst assassinations of the activists, especially Black and Indigenous, activists and visionaries who oppose the corporate harmon local environment and the exploitation of their people...Not a safe place to try and be at home.

Can existence be lost in a blink? It can. But it need not be. 

Gumbs’ book reminds of the dangers we wield. She also efforts to honor what’s been lost at our hands while also offering hope—a radical love—for all that may ensure the continuation of the planet’s collective breathing. Gumbs’ final two chapters present activities to keep practitioners accountable for their own intentional and mindful breath. Notice as the air moves above and beneath. Notice its natural ebb and flow.  

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons From Marine Mammals is a nourishing study in awareness. It offers healthy ways to notice, change, and adapt. It’s meant not only for the people mentioned in the title, nor merely for folks interested in furthering justice. Undrowned asks all of us—submerged in water or coursing through open air—to purposely breathe deeply together as we slow down and seek ways to love more fully. And relentlessly. Together breathing in a life of resistance and resilience.   

Tom Griffen is a writer and artist currently living in Spokane, WA. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has appeared in PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner and others. In 2018 Tom walked across the United States. A book about his journey is forthcoming. Follow him on Instagram at @tomgriffen. More at