Black Feminism: The Beginning and End of a World

*This post is part of our online roundtable on C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides.

(Image courtesy of University of Minnesota Press).

For this roundtable, I have been asked to provide a broad overview of C. Riley Snorton’s field-shifting work Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, and its key interventions in the fields of Black Studies and Queer Studies. Snorton’s brilliant book has made it impossible to deny the existence of Black transgender subjects in slavery and freedom. Certainly, this is important for surviving ideals of Afrocentricity in Black Studies and deracinated theories of transgender subjects in early Queer and Trans Studies. Yet, Snorton’s most spectacular contribution is to a field that many label as an area, as opposed to a field—Black Feminist Studies. Snorton’s extraordinary book and its remarkable insights are made possible by Black feminism. Given recent controversies or misunderstandings around gender and race involving bell hooks, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Brittney Cooper, Janet Mock, and Janelle Monáe, the possible fracturing of Black feminism’s history of radical inclusivity into segregated camps of cisgender and transgender requires a work that can “eschew binaristic logic that might reify a distinction between transgender and cisgender…in an effort to think expansively about how blackness and black studies, and transness and trans studies, yield insights that surpass an additive logic” (7). While Snorton’s work certainly makes key interventions into the fields of Black Studies and Queer Studies, he is only able to do so as a result of a clear commitment to showcasing the importance of Black Feminist Studies to Black Studies, Queer Studies, and Trans Studies. In doing so, he establishes multiple and varied trajectories for Black transfeminism that will ensure the evolution of Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, and Trans Studies for academic audiences and general readers.

In Spring 2018, I taught a genealogies course centered on the significance of Black feminist theory to queer theory. Snorton’s book was one of the more contemporary texts I used, specifically because it exemplified new and innovative scholarship whose intellectual genealogy can be traced to Black Feminism and Black Women’s Studies. The subtitle could have easily been “A Black Feminist History/Futurology of Trans Identity.” For in order to provide a “racial history” of trans identity, Snorton must locate a genealogy that will differ from white trans studies pivotal figures of Christina Jorgensen, Sandy Stone, and Susan Stryker, and movements such as the Compton Cafeteria riots or LGBTQ’s deracinated histories of the Stonewall riots.

Based on the title alone, there is no doubt that Black on Both Sides is a Black-ass Black Studies text; one immersed in Black transfeminism. The preface puts Laverne Cox and Janet Mock in conversation with Sylvia Wynter, Katherine McKittrick, Hortense Spillers, Kara Keeling, Cathy Cohen, Kimberly Brown, Kai Green and Treva Ellison. It addresses the life and death of Tamara Dominguez and Blake Brockington via those critics as well as the powerful ideas espoused by hip-hop’s Yasiin Bey. Bey, aka Mos Def, released his solo debut album, Black on Both Sides (1999) which contained seventeen Blackity-Black tracks, most Blackedly “Ms. Fat Booty” whose sonic genealogy can be traced to Aretha Franklin’s unheralded and ironic love song “One Step Ahead.” Black Feminism stays one step ahead in love, theory, and politics. Snorton’s book title, and all of the chapters, pursue deliberate meditation on his early iteration of “collateral genealogies,” which owes much to Saidiyah Hartman’s methodology (“a ‘combination of foraging and disfiguration’…with attentiveness to the ‘interstitial spaces’ in the archives”). Again, this is the past and future labor of Black feminism’s radical inclusivity and its potential to produce Black transfeminism through multiple and distinct voices.

As much as the configuration of diverse intellectual voices, methodologies, and approaches make Black on Both Sides a Black-ass book, Snorton’s project is also very queer theory-oriented. It is shaped by Audre Lorde, Darieck Scott, Rinaldo Walcott, Marlon Ross, Jennifer Devere Brody, and Sharon Holland, and in conversation with Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, Stryker, Felix Guattari, Siobhan Sommerville, Elizabeth Freeman, and Jay Prosser. With his ability to read across multiple disciplines in each chapter, Snorton also demonstrates why interdisciplinarity remains a key component of both fields.

Early in the text, beginning with the preface, Snorton begins his discussion with an epigraph from Franz Fanon, a scholar that Black feminists have embraced and critiqued for his engagement of race and lack of engagement with gender. Typically, a Fanon reference would situate one squarely in the realm of Black Studies, but by the end of the preface Snorton has taken a queer approach to Fanon, utilizing him to set up a subtle but significant issue throughout the book—temporality. By beginning with Fanon’s words, “The problem considered here is one of time,” Snorton calls attention to history’s dependence on linearity, as well as the ways such linearity can impact perspective. Black feminists’ unacknowledged virtuoso approaches to spatialization and temporality become the way that Snorton can teach readers how to see “beyond the instrumental materiality of black and trans life…to find a vocabulary for black and trans life” (xiv). As the introduction showcases, Snorton does not shy away from theories from multiple disciplines. Claire Colebrook’s transitivity becomes a jumping off point for Snorton to map out the circulation of Black and trans in the U.S. This intervention is also what leads to the distinct archival materials from which Snorton can theorize and make claims. Most of these archives would be avoided by Black studies scholarship vested in respectable and normative representations of Black lives. Snorton moves effortlessly between slave narratives, (graphic) medical illustrations, canonical African American novels, poetry, newspaper and magazine stories, true-crime books, and documentary films from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. The primary materials under consideration are another reason the book was such a useful text for my genealogy class. Here, students learned the ways in which archives, educational institutions, and genealogies are linked, and how the production of new knowledge hinges on imagining genealogies unencumbered by history’s linearity, national geographies, or respectability politics.

Snorton organizes the overall structure into three thematic parts: Blacken, Transit, and Blackout. This structure provides a succinct engagement with the three fields under consideration in my review. For example, Part I contains two chapters shaped by the formidable theories of Hortense Spillers and their significance to research and scholarship on race and gender in both Black Studies and Queer Studies. In chapters one and two, Snorton explores the ways in which the metalanguage of race configures sex and gender with a smart assessment of how the institution of slavery and histories of Black bodies within it matter to what is now the legal and medical foundations of transgender studies. The turn to the rise of American gynecology, J. Marion Simms, and experiments done on three enslaved women alongside APA medical illustrations in chapter one distinguishes Snorton’s work from stalwarts such as Sander Gilman’s Difference and Pathology (1985) and Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line (2000).  Snorton’s attention to plantation medicine’s sexual economies demonstrates how the cure for vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) serves as a precursor to the science of sex and the medicalization of transgender identity through genital reconstruction surgeries. Snorton provides a much-needed alternative genealogy that directs readers to fully comprehend the issues of power, white supremacy, and patriarchy operating in medical and legal fields still to this day.

After showcasing how Black female flesh ungendered contributes to cisgender and transgender women’s medicine, Snorton writes chapter two as a testament to the ways in which enslaved Black people refused the physical conditions and grammatical makings of their captivity. Focusing on fugitive narratives, Snorton examines cross-dressing in traditional slave narratives such as that of Harriet Jacobs and Ellen Craft, but that is only after an atypical exploration of newspaper accounts, legal pick-up notices, and lithographic images of two cross-dressing ‘criminals’ from the 1800s—Mary Jones and Mary Ann Waters. Such juxtaposition allows Snorton to avoid the pitfalls of trans-respectability. Jones was a thief and domestic laborer in a brothel, and her cross-dressing and passing was class-based. The second figure, Mary Ann Waters, as Snorton learns from the legal document (pick-up notice), was misgendered by the courts as a runaway Negro man and a sex worker who cross-dressed. Snorton dazzlingly demonstrates the ways in which Black people have been refusing the medical and legal definitions of gender with their imagination and ingenuity, long before sex-reassignment surgery was a viability. Such arguments insist that there are multiple ways to be transgender in ways that contemporary identity and cultural politics fail to comprehend or translate.

If Part I is a focus on Black captivity and the making of modern women’s medicine and modern gender outlaws, Part II might be classified as centered on Black freedom, Jim Crowism, and the significance of writing narratives to counter the conditions of fugitivity and tentative, conditional citizenship. More specifically, using literacy, writing, and imagination to write one’s self outside the biologics of race and gender and onto accepting the female within for Black male liberation. Utilizing the theories of Fanon, Kristeva, Wynters, and Marriott, Snorton performs sharp close readings of how race man politics hides gender fungibility in canonical literature by Black male writers: Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901), W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). Snorton discusses how these authors relied upon the Black maternal figure as the expression of Black interiority and Black sociality that could save and give birth to modern Black masculinity. The rearrangement of female flesh ungendered, then, in returning to Snorton’s emphasis on the problem of time, provides a means for Black bodies to exist outside of Western medicine and law’s reliance on linear temporality.

Finally, Part III, aptly titled “Blackout,” Blackens modern transgender history centered on Christina Jorgensen and the pursuit of transnormativity. Snorton’s examination of figures such as Lucy Hicks Anderson, Georgia Black, Carlett Brown, James McHarris/Annie Lee Grant, and Ava Betty Brown introduces an opposition to the masculine grasping at citizenship and normality in canonical African American literature from the previous chapter. Instead, chapter four sees Black women and men risking citizenship and normality for their own definitions of freedom. Snorton emphasizes the importance of Black newspapers and magazines during the Cold War period to recording alternative transhistories (“shadow history”), even if the coverage might be sensationalist and transphobic. Hicks worked in illicit economies most of her life, and Blake was a mother, domestic worker, church leader, and widow. Black and the Browns were entertainers who became victims of the Copenhagen medical community’s anti-Blackness and U.S. police harassment, subsequently convicted of female impersonation. McHarris/Grant’s traffic violation resulted in charges of male impersonation. From silence on and refusal of assigned gender to visual “about to die imagery” to renouncing of citizenship and gendered economies of passing and restive performances, coverage of these individuals’ lives reveal culturally relevant narratives of trans embodiment and what it means to be human. They reveal fugitive futures of Black individuals and communities beyond medicalized transsexuality: “decolonial temporality of transsexuality” (Snorton 166).

The concluding chapter allows Snorton to return to the issue of trans activism, life, and living alluded to in the preface. As he did in the previous chapter, Snorton turns to a significant white figure in modern transgender history, Brandon Teena, whose killing was cinematically narrated in the film Boys Don’t Cry and several documentaries. Reminding readers of Lorde’s concept of biomythography, The Humboldt Killings in 1993 involving Teena, Lisa Lambert, and Phillip DeVine, however, are now read through the perspective of the disabled, African American Phillip DeVine. DeVine has been excised from most of the well-known archives of Brandon Teena, and briefly discussed as an individual in the wrong place at the wrong time. Time, once again, is the problem. Snorton’s strategy compels us to imagine DeVine’s life, as opposed to his death and the erasure of it via hegemonic whiteness in transgender studies. From his birth in Pasadena and moves to Maryland and Iowa, how DeVine makes a life and finds love, despite state failures of regulating synthetic estrogen, surgeries during infancy, several chronic illnesses related to heart and lungs, learning disabilities, and poverty, encompasses years: more time than the weeks he spent in Nebraska leading up to his death. Snorton’s decision to link DeVine’s life with Cece McDonald’s life critiques the emphasis on death in state sanctioned narratives of Black and trans life, and it solidifies what Snorton has been insisting all along: that we consistently, collectively, and consciously ask, “under what conditions—and particularly in which temporalities, do black lives matter” (197)?  History provides a partial answer, Black feminism’s radical inclusivity and solutions to the problem of time provide the only full and useful answer because it makes possible new worlds for Black life forms.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

L.H. Stallings

L.H. Stallings is Professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of 'Mutha’ is Half a Word!: Intersections of Folklore, Vernacular, Myth, and Queerness in Black Female Culture' (Ohio State Univ. Press, 2007); Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2015); and co-editor of 'Word Hustle: Critical Essays and Reflections on the Works of Donald Goines (2011).

Comments on “Black Feminism: The Beginning and End of a World

  • Thank you for this beautiful, illuminating commentary. It helped me see this work, anew, and with more nuance and connection than even before. I appreciate your framing of Snorton’s radical, rigorous interdisciplinarity–indeed, a great teaching and gift of the work. This quality in his work makes me want to study, to rethink, sit still a bit, then go at it again. And this: “Snorton moves effortlessly between slave narratives, (graphic) medical illustrations, canonical African American novels, poetry, newspaper and magazine stories, true-crime books, and documentary films from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century.” Thank you, also, for helping me (us!) think of how to better teach with this book in class next term. I appreciate your reflections and posting so very much. Thank you!

  • Thank you for such a detailed and insightful review!

  • Thanks for this contextualization of Snorton’s book. I will echo what Rachel Zellars said about teaching this in an undergraduate class.

    One of the things that I want to draw out from your essay is your emphasis on Black feminism. I have never quite been able to articulate the relationship between time and Black feminism as you have here. Moreover, the way you weave together non-linearity, radical inclusivity, and other possible worlds helpfully creates a kind of “trinity” within Snorton that I think it really helpful for thinking through. This, at least for me, has been really illuminating as I approach on comprehensive exams. Specifically, I think your attention to the non-linearity of time as advanced by Black feminists is a helpful for understanding some of the Afrofuturist tendencies that I picked up in Snorton’s text. This is not a “naïve” futurism (a kind of ahistorical, “progress over time narrative”) but a “futurity-in-spite-of,” I think. That is, Snorton (among others) is able to account for the violence enacted against Black people but does not stop there.

    One of the things I have struggled with is how to put this kind of theorization in conversation with my more pessimistic tendencies. While I don’t think they are exclusive, I struggle to see their complementarity and I think Snorton helps to point out some of the possibilities of moving beyond pessimism to a Black feminist perspective.

    Thank you for your Black-ass essay.

    (p.s. I still have to get to “Funk the Erotic”! It will happen this Winter break, though. So thank you for that, too.)

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