Story by Kyesha Jennings
When Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a self-identified “Queer Black Troublemaker. . . and an aspirational cousin to all sentient beings” received word by phone that she would receive a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she froze. In today’s world of technology and instant communication across a wide range of platforms, receiving a call from an unrecognized number with news as momentous as that can be strange. “I probably sounded a little bit like a robot because I was like, ‘Oh. Okay. Thank you.’ It was a very deadpan response. But it was because I was experiencing shock,” Alexis said.
In 2020, Gumbs was awarded a fellowship from the National Humanities Center to support her work on a book: The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde: A Cosmic Biography. She’s in the final stages of Lorde’s biography now and the NEA’s creative writing fellowship will allow her to complete the book and keep writing. For Alexis, receiving the NEA’s recognition and financial support gives her the space to dream—to be imaginative and creative. “There’s so many things,” Alexis says, referring to what could come after the biography. “There's astronomy-based poems that I've been writing. There's an ancestral one-act: kind of like a play; kind of like a poem. There's maps that I want to make. I've really been interested in indigenous constellations and stories about the stars. I would say that's one of the centers of my research right now—astronomy, but indigenous relationships to sky.”
More important, as an independent artist Alexis can focus solely on her work without the distractions of landing paid gigs or seeking other revenue streams. “It just gives a little breathing room. And I think that's the intention of most fellowships for artists—to give the breathing room that’s necessary,” Alexis said.
Once the shock settled and Alexis recognized the magnitude of her recent achievement, she took to Twitter to celebrate the news. “I know that when your work transforms form you can’t expect recognition. My work as a writer so far has been instead to remind my communities how familiar they are with the unrecognizable. I’m disloyal to form.” When asked what it means to be disloyal to form, Alexis replied that what she writes reveals its own form—a writing gem that she learned from one of her teachers, Zelda Lockhart, another award-winning writer based in North Carolina. “She says, don't put constraints on your writing. As it comes through, it will tell you what it is,” Alexis said. “I don't sit down and say, ‘Well, this is going to be a novel.’ That's not what my creative practice looks like.”
A graduate of Duke University, Alexis’s free-spirited literary style has led her to write four critically acclaimed texts: Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals; Dub: Finding Ceremony; M Archive: After the End of the World; and Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. She is the co-editor of the anthology Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Frontlines. Her writing merges poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and activism while honoring the traditions and principles of Black feminist thought.
Many Black women literary figures—Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker are notable examples—have been recipients of the NEA’s creative writing fellowships. Alexis describes following in their footsteps—even in specific, institutional ways like this fellowship—as a “feeling of intimacy. A closeness there. A feeling of being put in [the same] room with them. I feel a lot of gratitude for the bravery of Audre Lorde and so many other people who came before me.”
As Alexis reflected on what other aspirations, tangible or spiritual, she wished to fulfill as a writer, she thought about the teachings of her late father. A motivational coach, he encouraged her to identify indicators by which she could measure her success. Alexis said that success, for her, is quite simple: “The way that the work of Audre Lorde, for example, and Zora Neale Hurston, and so many writers—the way that their work has impacted me is so profound that, even though I'm a writer, I'll never be able to put it into words. And if I could have that impact—if there could be people who felt that they'd gotten that ‘thing’ that I've received from these earlier writers—I'm good.”
North Carolina Arts Council
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced its first round of recommended awards for the coming fiscal year, totaling nearly $33.2 million, on Jan. 11. Of that amount, $540,000 was awarded to 28 North Carolina grant recipients from arts organizations, universities, theater companies, discipline-specific festivals, and museums.
“These National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants underscore the resilience of our nation’s artists and arts organizations, will support efforts to provide access to the arts, and rebuild the creative economy,” said NEA Acting Chair Ann Eilers in a press release. “The supported projects demonstrate how the arts are a source of strength and well-being for communities and individuals and can open doors to conversations that address complex issues of our time.” Organizations in every state in the nation, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, will receive federal funding for arts projects in this round of fiscal-year 2022 funding.
Among North Carolina grantees, Bennett College, a private historically Black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, will receive a $20,000 Theater Grants for Arts Projects to support the Black Lives Matter Theater Festival. This is Bennett College’s first grant award from the NEA. This project will establish a collaborative theater festival in Greater Greensboro, centered on Black lives and experiences in America. According to the NEA’s website, "outreach to HBCUs is a direct priority of the National Endowment for the Arts".
Learn more about what Bennett College will do with their grant money, as well as the full list of North Carolina grantees in the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources' press release.
North Carolina Arts Council
The National Endowment for the Arts recently announced $57,750,000 in grant funding from the American Rescue Plan to arts organizations to help the arts and cultural sector recover from the pandemic. We are pleased to share that arts organizations in North Carolina, including The Mint Museum, Elsewhere Museum, NC Folk Festival 2020, and Saint Augustine's University were selected to receive grants. They will use this funding to save jobs and to fund operations and facilities, health and safety supplies, and marketing and promotional efforts to encourage attendance and participation. Read more about this announcement and the complete list of recommended organizations [link to NEA press release].
See a complete list of North Carolina arts organizations awarded ARP funds below:
Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center
Alliance for American Quilts Inc,
Goodyear Arts, Inc.
Mint Museum of Art, Inc. (aka Mint Museums)
North Carolina Folk & Heritage Festivals
Saint Augustine's University
Culture Mill, Inc (aka Culture Mill)
Cape Fear Community College (aka Board of Trustees of Cape Fear Community College)
About the National Endowment for the Arts
Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the Arts Endowment supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. To learn more, visit arts.gov.