Black on Both Sides: A New Book on the Racial History of Trans Identity

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity was published by the University of Minnesota Press.


The author of Black on Both Sides is C. Riley Snorton, an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. He earned his Ph.D. in Communication and Culture, with graduate certificates in Africana Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. He is a recipient of a predoctoral fellowship at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University (2009), a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at Pomona College (2010) and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (2015). Snorton’s research and teaching expertise include cultural theory, queer and transgender theory and history, Africana studies, performance studies, and popular culture. He has published articles in the Black Scholar, the International Journal of Communication, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, and Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. His first book, Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), traces the emergence and circulation of the down low in news and popular culture. His second book, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, was released by the University of Minnesota Press in 2017. He has also been listed as one of “Ten Transgender People You Should Know” by BET. Follow him on Twitter @CRileySnorton.

The story of Christine Jorgensen, America’s first prominent transsexual, famously narrated trans embodiment in the postwar era. Her celebrity, however, has obscured other mid-century trans narratives—ones lived by African Americans such as Lucy Hicks Anderson and James McHarris. Their erasure from trans history masks the profound ways race has figured prominently in the construction and representation of transgender subjects. In Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton identifies multiple intersections between blackness and transness from the mid-nineteenth century to present-day anti-black and anti-trans legislation and violence.

Drawing on a deep and varied archive of materials—early sexological texts, fugitive slave narratives, Afro-modernist literature, sensationalist journalism, Hollywood films—Snorton attends to how slavery and the production of racialized gender provided the foundations for an understanding of gender as mutable. In tracing the twinned genealogies of blackness and transness, Snorton follows multiple trajectories, from the medical experiments conducted on enslaved black women by J. Marion Sims, the “father of American gynecology,” to the negation of blackness that makes transnormativity possible.

Revealing instances of personal sovereignty among blacks living in the antebellum North that were mapped in terms of “cross dressing” and canonical black literary works that express black men’s access to the “female within,” Black on Both Sides concludes with a reading of the fate of Phillip DeVine, who was murdered alongside Brandon Teena in 1993, a fact omitted from the film Boys Don’t Cry out of narrative convenience. Reconstructing these theoretical and historical trajectories furthers our imaginative capacities to conceive more livable black and trans worlds.

In a beautifully written and brilliant intervention and extension—the first full length book to examine the historical and contemporary importance of race to the constitution of ‘trans gender’—C. Riley Snorton identifies and performs a black trans reading practice, from Anarcha to Transgender Days of Remembrance.—Christina Sharpe, author of In the Wake: On Blackness and Being

Dan Berger: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?

C. Riley Snorton: Black on Both Sides is an attempt to think about black trans life in the midst of ongoing, spectacularized black and trans death. As such, it begins and ends by thinking about the conditions of possibility for more livable black and trans lives. The book is also invested in tracing an alternative genealogy of “trans”—one that includes the founding of American gynecology, which situates the “gender clinic” in relation to plantation medicine or examines the frequency with which fugitives crossed genders to escape the conditions of their enslavement. In many accounts, trans, as an inhabitable gender, comes into being alongside its medicalization in the mid-twentieth century. Black on Both Sides explores the racial and class implications of this view. For instance, Christine Jorgensen’s spectacular somatic transformation in the early 1950s, had a profound impact on poor and working class black trans contemporaries. This book highlights how black study and black feminisms, in particular, bear upon questions of trans identification and historiography.

Black on Both Sides is a meditation on an eclectic collection of materials, including mid-nineteenth-and twentieth-century medical illustrations, pickup notices, fugitive-slave narratives, Afromodernist literature, twentieth-century journalistic accounts of black people “exposed” as living in/as different genders, true-crime books, documentary film, and poetry. Black on Both Sides approaches noted works in African diasporic literary traditions with a trans analytic, as it also thinks about how blackness animates trans ideation and embodiment. As I state in the introduction: “Throughout the book, I eschew binaristic logic that might reify a distinction between transgender and cisgender, black and white, disabled and abled, and so on, in an effort to think expansively about how blackness and black studies, and transness and trans studies, yield insights that surpass an additive logic” (p. 7) My hope is that the book will be engaged on these terms—in and across the fields that give rise to the modes of thinking have inspired and shaped me as a scholar of race/gender/sexuality, and which also includes visual studies, trans of color critique, and disability studies.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.