Black Trans Feminism: Marquis Bey interviewed by Guy Emerson Mount

Marsha P. Johnson mural by JamJamArt, Arleta, Oregon (Flickr)

In this interview I speak with Marquis Bey about their new book Black Trans Feminism which takes a broadly abolitionist approach to political theory, literary analysis, and gender studies—questioning some of the most fundamental assumptions of these academic disciplines.  As a work of meta-theory, it represents a bold call to Black Studies in a moment of increasing hostility and demands a re-doubling of Black radical approaches that refuse to cower in the face of normalizing impositions. Professor Bey is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University and their other books include Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism (2019), Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism (2020), and The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Gender (2020).

Guy Emerson Mount: You write in the book that “feminism marks here the vitiation of imposed racial and gender ontologies that then demands an abolitionist modality of encountering the racialized gendered world.”  Given the current ontological wars between Afropessimists and Black-optimists, I’m curious to know how your rendering of gender abolitionism (or what some have called gender anarchy) interacts conceptually with the destroying of the world of antiblackness (or perhaps Blackness itself)?  In other words, does Blackness (at least in its oppositional Black trans feminist iteration) contain certain preservable logics, aesthetics, and life-affirming properties or does it, like gender, require a “make total destroy” approach.

Marquis Bey: Ah, yes, I think I see precisely where this question is coming from. And it’s a really important question, one calling me to task on nuancing my distinctions. So I think how I’d tackle this is by way of clarification. First, you are quite right that I am entering into, both out of choice and not out of choice, the “ontological wars.” Questions of ontology are all over Black Studies, and I, too, am subject to those questions, and find them interesting and pressing (though, to be sure, I am a thinker first and foremost of paraontology and find exuberantly liberatory and radical such a sidestep). But I have to say that I am understanding the operative analogy here to be, on the one hand, race and gender, and on the other hand, Blackness/transness/Black feminism. I am a thoroughgoing abolitionist of the former in service of the latter. Blackness as racialized identity and transgender or woman as a gendered identity are also, for me, subject to abolition. 

GEM: Ha!  Now you’re nuancing my distinctions!

MB: Right!? Let me put it differently: when thinking about the category of gender (man, woman, even transgender or genderqueer) or the category of race (white, Black, etc.), I am understanding these things as inventions of modernity that have at their base and origin the impulse of coloniality. Inasmuch as coloniality is, among other things, an attempt to reduce and know, to circumscribe, to stake claims, to violently extricate things outside of it from the province of validity, the instantiation of binaries, of boundaries and borders, then included in this is what we call race and what we call gender. I am uninterested in these things coming with us when we move toward the radical liberatory future we desire.  

GEM: Hence, as you say in the book, Blackness has a “mutinous relation to imposed ontology” and transness “unfixes gender from essentialist moorings” and is an “unfixation.”

MB: Exactly!  

GEM: Perhaps as a follow up, how do we prevent a misreading/diffusing of this kind of radical Black trans feminist abolitionist approach by liberal, post-racial, all-bodies-matter folks who are at once attached to hierarchical identities and at the same time trying to ‘get over it’ by ignoring the structures of domination that make those identities operable?

MB: This question is hard, because I genuinely fear that some (neo)liberal person might come along and say something like, “Oh, this is post-racialism and post-genderism and we just need to be color-‘blind’, and what do you know, that makes me a radical!” And I’m like, No, not at all. I would actually assert that those making that claim are deeply, vociferously entrenched in their whiteness and cisnormativity. The position that one’s proximity to radicality is predicated on their “not seeing” race or gender is a position of solipsism, which I think about through the organizing structures of whiteness and cisnormativity. It presumes, as Ralph Ellison’s protagonist says in that monumental tome of a novel, that the ills that ravage our world are remedied simply by addressing that “peculiar disposition of the eyes.” The refrain is well-known: this presumption that it’s just about individual people seeing and thinking bad things, so if we don’t see, we’re all good. But we know very well that it is so, so much more than that. 

GEM: For sure.

MB: So for me, it is a difference in fundament. What I am asking is what Hortense Spillers might refer to as a first question, those questions that ask something of the foundations, the bedrock assumptions and base, rather than second- or third-order questions that leave certain things intact and unexamined, obscuring those foundations. Those who promote a “getting over it all” kind of mentality seem to be thinking in second- and third-order ways (or, in all honesty, more like tenth-order). They want to not talk about race, as if that is the origin of problems and issues, leaving all the other things—white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism—unaddressed, presumed wholly outside of relevant conversation and unworthy of also interrogating. They want to not talk about white people and Black people, for instance, while deeply clutching whiteness. They want to assume that race is just this unhappy accident rather than that which has been yielded by racism and colonization. (And while I’m no fan-person of him, I do find myself returning to the refrain in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in which he, very succinctly, writes, “But race is the child of racism, not the father.”) 

GEM: Yeah I use that quote all the time as well and would contend that he gets non/misread a lot when, in fact, he stands there with Walter Rodney and the Black Radical Tradition more broadly.  But that’s another story.  What do you mean by abolition?

MB: Yes, exactly, I completely agree with that. But, abolition. When I talk about abolition, I am talking about a thoroughgoing, wholesale abolition. It will, sure, look like the abolition of “race” and “gender.” Yes, and I stand firm in that. But that is not the sole aim, nor the primary aim. The abolition of race and gender are the result of abolition being aimed, more fundamentally, at the abolition of the very grammars of the modern world; it is an abolition of coloniality, of whiteness and white supremacy, of cis- and heteronormativity, and what follows from this is then the abolition of race and gender. They are, if you will, casualties of a more first-order abolitionist project. And if your abolition is not on that, is only on the racialized identities that prove sticky little impediments to your political lethargy and disingenuousness, then your abolition is in fact not abolitionist.  

GEM: So here I absolutely love your reading of Saidiya Hartman where you say that Black trans feminism “’makes everyone freer than they actually want to be.’”  Can you flesh that out for us?  

MB: When I hear that, in Hartman’s context, Black liberation, or in my context Black trans feminism, makes everyone freer than they actually want to be, I think about the kinds of claims folks in my political orbit are making, claims that deeply depart from the very grammar of our lives. Imagining and insisting on a world without prisons and carcerality, without gender and identity and other colonial impositions, without even the “human” or “law” or, hell, “the world,” why wouldn’t people bristle? They have, we have, formed our very understanding of life on many of these things, and to have someone come along and take that feels like an affront. It feels in many ways like a death. But what I try to keep in my sights is that all these things are hubristic: they have made it seem like what they offer, what has been imposed, is all there is, ever was, and ever will be. That we are nothing without them. But to me, this is a ruse. This is not all there is or can be, and I think we owe it to ourselves to examine, enact, and imagine what coloniality, white supremacy, cisnormativity, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism did not want us to know or be or feel. It reminds me of this one encounter I had, which I’ve been returning to over and over. I had someone ask me, after I expressed earlier drafts of the thoughts in Black Trans Feminism, “Okay, so what even is there if we get rid of all this? In the context of all the things Black people have lost and have had stolen, what do we have if we get rid of all this?” And I responded very simply but very steadfastly, and as humble as possible: “We have everything else.”


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Guy Emerson Mount

Guy Emerson Mount is an assistant professor of African American history focusing on the intersection of Black transnationalism, Western modernity, and global empires. His book manuscript, "The Last Reconstruction: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Black Pacific," analyses the end of American slavery in conjunction with the birth of American overseas empire. Follow him on Twitter @GuyEmersonMount.