A Survival Guide for Humans Learned From Marine Mammals

A Survival Guide for Humans Learned From Marine Mammals

A Survival Guide for Humans Learned From Marine Mammals

Alexis Pauline Gumbs tells Laura Flanders why she looks to the ocean world for lessons on how to thrive.


Drowning” is a word we hear a lot these days. At the root are concerns that go to the heart of who we are and how we live. How do we take a breath? Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals draws on the practices of marine mammals—they are the experts, after all, in not drowning. (The harbor seal can slow its breath to about four beats per minute.) The book is part of adrienne maree brown’s “Emergent Strategy Series” at AK Press and landed Gumbs the 2022 Whiting Prize for nonfiction.

—Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders: Many of us are feeling that huge waves are coming at us from all directions, many of which seem scary and overwhelming. How are you riding these waves right now?

Alexis Pauline Gumbs: This actually takes me to the dolphins and porpoises and some of the whales that have dorsal fins. I think about the idea of a dorsal fin as this physical technology that evolved over millions of years, and its basic function is to allow someone to have enough stability in a constantly moving ocean or river to be able to decide, to be able to have intentionality about movement. The pressure of the water, the movement, is something that no individual animal can ever control, and yet this idea of a dorsal fin is like, “What does it mean to be where I am and decide am I going to move this way? In Undrowned, I write that we don’t have dorsal fins physically, but what are our dorsal practices? What are the practices that keep us present to a moment where it’s like one thing after another is rushing in, and it’s all very destabilizing, triggering, and can be re-traumatizing. What are the practices that allow us to be able to say, “OK, but I still decide how I make this moment.” Absolutely I wish I had an actual dorsal fin, but until then it comes from the grounding practices. It comes from meditation. It comes from staying connected to people who share the values and have the political bravery that enlivens me. It’s intentional.

LF: One of the things I appreciate is there are a lot of animals that go down and then come back, disappear and reemerge. People think they’re lost, but they’re not really lost. Where are we?

APG: We’re in this place where it has become impossible to ignore the urgency of our values. It’s an exciting place to be, because the actions we take, the ways we collaborate, the inventiveness that comes out of those forms of clarity—even the going in and coming back out because of quarantine—makes many things possible. Our denial is not tenable. I’ve been surprised by people’s willingness to hold onto the forms of denial when it takes so much to deny any of this right now. I can’t be like, “Oh, yeah. People will get it. People will come around.” I have to be very clear about how I live these values. How do I collaborate in a way that is life-giving when we have a major sacrifice, for example, of disabled people happening because of disregard around Covid-19? How do we hold each other, find each other, love each other, protect each other? And the thing about marine mammals is that that’s all they do.

LF: In the course of your research, you discovered that a lot of the attitudes of racism came out in the language that was used in these scientific guidebooks. You talk a little bit about both those parallels and some of the social justice movement responses that are inspired for you by what you’ve learned.

APG: I know that there’s racist science. I knew that there were all the things with the anthropologists trying to prove that race was a species difference and to use it to justify slavery. But I didn’t necessarily think that when I did this simple task of opening a guidebook about marine mammals, to try to see what seal this is, that I would find it there. In some of the exact same language. The hooded seal.

LF: Predator.

APG: Yeah. Vagrant juveniles. I’m like, “A vagrant juvenile?” A light bulb went off when I saw that the same terminology that’s used to criminalize the communities that I’m part of and that I love is being used to classify and explain the behavior of marine mammals. But of course it would be. They’re not separate. The same colonizing logics I face in my life are absolutely at play, and I’m not saying scientists are more oppressive than other people. I’m saying that they are created in the same society that I’m created in, and that’s the containing lens. But it also means that we have more in common with marine mammals than just the fact that we are hurt by the same things that hurt them.

LF: How do you deal with grief in this context?

APG: Grief is what had me turn to marine mammals to begin with. My father passed away, and I felt like I was in this ocean of grief. I felt like I was going to drown in my own tears. It felt that hyperbolic and big. I had never made any space to learn from a feeling so big for me, unpredictable, consuming. It felt like navigating an ocean, and I was like, “Well, who navigates the ocean? Marine mammals do, and how do they do that?” It was that grief that brought me to learn more about marine mammals. Through my grief, I’m actually connected, for example, to my father who’s passed away. The existence of that grief is the evidence that love and that stream of love is not stopped, even by death. It’s also the case that my grief around the heating of the ocean, the pollution, all of what is happening on this planet, and how it impacts marine mammals is also a depth of connection. It’s not the way to escape the grief, but it’s the way to generate another way of relating. It is a deep and sustainable and ongoing and expansive source for the type of imagining, the type of openness, the type of vulnerability and attentiveness that it requires for us to grieve what has been lost and stay committed to creating what is required in the face of that.

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