Book Report VIII: Undrowned

Book Report VIII: Undrowned

Our eighth Book Report is on Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Recommended by our friend Care - thank you!

“What if the water remembers us better than the news forgets?”

We were taught in school - or at least I was - that anthropomorphising is fun and cute, but not a scientific practice. Projecting emotions onto animals was something too soft for empiricism, too nebulous to be data. Gumbs flips this idea over to ask the question - are you really understanding a living being if you don’t meet it at its level? And who created this science that denies empathy to all non-humans? This same canon has also denied empathy to so many other bodies it deems less than human through history: the non-white, disabled, intersex, queer.

Gumbs, a self-described “marine mammal apprentice”, proposes a biology that’s at eye-level with the life she seeks to understand. Wanting to know more about the marine life she saw around her by reading scientific literature, she was “confronted with the colonial, racist, sexist, heteropatriachalizing capitalist constructs that are trying to kill me - the net I am already caught in, so to speak. So how can I tell you who and what I saw?” She sees a lineage between Black and marine life that began with the middle passage over the Atlantic. With this lens, she swims us through 19 “core Black feminist practices like breathing, remembering, collaborating, etc., as they can be informed and transformed by learning from marine mammals (and a couple of sharks).” 

Science is written by the winners, too.

We’re used to interrogating the perspectives of the authors of history, so why don’t we apply that same rigour to our science textbooks too? It’s important context if most of our literature on any subject is written by a class of powerful, privileged people. Science in particular is used as a common justification for all kinds of systems, so it’s important that Gumbs calls out that “the same language that fuels racism, gendered binaries, and other forms of oppression shows up in "scientific” descriptions of marine mammals.” We do still live in a world in which institutions like the Smithsonian still use dichotomies like “old world” and “new world.” New since when? What truths would we come to see about ourselves if we could be free of that dichotomy?

For Gumbs, understanding marine life cannot be separated from understanding Black feminist practices of resistance, self-protection, care, and community-building. Acknowledging the systems of nurturance that Black feminist communities build shapes how she interprets marine mammal behavior in ways that the writers of science historically have not. She calls out the authors of one study she read, who wondered why a dolphin would lactate to feed a calf whose birth mother had died. The authors acknowledged that this kind of “allomaternal behavior” can be observed among all mammals but wondered by they would do it, if “the behavior is so costly” and they are not genetically related. Gumbs asks: “does it seem unclear to you?”

Time is dorsal practices

The book contains several exercises to do alone, or in pods. My favourite is a breathing exercise from the perspective of a sperm whale - it’s beautiful. Gumbs also offers one on the goal to “end capitalism: Choose a word that is in this text to say instead of "money" for a week.” What an interesting exercise to interrogate the value we give to money rather than the things that are truly worth building our lives around: health, well-being, community, learning, giving. We’ll do our best and put our dorsal practices where our mouths are.

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