Blackness, Gender, and the Non-normative

*A version of this essay originally appeared on Public Seminar, as part of its Race/isms Book Forum on The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea by Christopher Lebron.

Black Trans Lives Matter (Photo: Alec Perkins, Flickr).

I have long believed axiomatic that all social movements, all material revolutionary sentiments, begin as ideas. This belief was affirmed once again in my reading of Christopher Lebron’s The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea. The text, and the movement it details, is in many ways an intellectual history—or more specifically, a politicized socio-intellectual history of the Black radical tradition. Lebron deftly consolidates some of the most potent moments in the history of Black freedom struggle, a task attempted by many but accomplished by few.

Most notable is Lebron’s clean and grabbing prose, prose that even one unfamiliar with Black Lives Matter (BLM) or Black history would be able to enter into and leave with a pristine sense of their richness. Such clarity makes his survey of nearly two centuries of Black struggle exceedingly readable. In short, Lebron approaches this brief history of BLM with an eye for precision, breadth, ethics, and, most importantly, the mattering of Black life. The following critical response, then, I want to make explicit, is one motivated by the very task to which Lebron commits himself with overwhelming success: the flourishing and mattering of “All [Black] lives…indeed” (95).

Amid Lebron’s erudition and careful historicization of the longue durée of the Black radical tradition there is a striking commitment, troubling even, to retaining the human. That is, Lebron often explicitly and implicitly cradles a notion of being and becoming (fully) human as the ultimate aim of Black freedom struggle. While to his credit he attempts to reclaim the human for Black subjectivity—a distinction I want to make between reclaiming the human for Blackness, on which I will expand momentarily — there is a way to read the Black radical tradition as one that in fact fractures and abolishes the notion of the human. That is, Blackness, the linchpin upon which BLM hinges, is antithetical to the hegemonic notion of humanness, making consolidation of the two an impossibility. Time and again in the paginated erudition of the text Lebron yearns for the human: “She [Audre Lorde] refused being denied the breadth and range of humanity that was her birthright as a member not of the black but of the human race” (90); “I am constructing a different space…where I might stand as a human being…” (163); and “We are all of us human” (161). In these moments, and others, Lebron articulates a particular desirous relationship for a humanness that leaves the category of “the Human” uncritiqued. The Human is not a neutral category to which we all belong but is rather what Sylvia Wynter calls “overrepresented ‘Man,’” the pervasive equation of white, bourgeois, heterosexual masculinity with the human as such. In other words, the Human is in fact a violent descriptor inherent to which is the erasure and expulsion of the very people whom Lebron says seek to adhere to it. The presumption that entering into this class would propel Black bodies into a realm of safety should strike one as troubling.

My intent is not to castigate Lebron for wanting to enter into a category that presents the possibility of living without the persistent specter of death. Surely, to be deemed “human” is indeed a notable means of securing life, of “say[ing] Yes to life” as James Baldwin, who’s quote from Giovanni’s Room serves as the book’s epigraph, notes. My contention is one that seeks to interrogate the violence embedded in the notion of “human” itself as it names a specific “ethnoclass” predicated on the literal and symbolic extermination of Black, non-masculinely-gendered bodies.

Additionally, as a scholar whose primary fields of engagement are Black feminism and transgender studies, I was taken by Lebron’s buttressing of the gender binary and arguably muted conveyance of Black gender critiques. BLM is fundamentally, on my reading, abolitionist—inclusive of gender abolition and the “ungendering” queerness and gender nonconformance Blackness harbors—yet Lebron’s language slips into a gender binary on multiple occasions. There is an admirable moment, though merely one sentence, in which Lebron notes the media silence regarding the over a dozen Black trans people killed in 2015 (94–5). But for a book 165 pages (sans endnotes) to have no other mentions of Black trans murders—to say nothing of Black trans life—is lamentable given Alicia Garza’s clear foregrounding of Black (gender) queer and trans experiences (“Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks…all…along the gender spectrum,” Garza writes in her “Herstory”); given the queer identities of two-thirds of the co-founders; given janaya khan’s (co-founder of BLM Canada, and Patrisse Cullor’s partner) insistence on “Black trans women to the front” of the movement.

Before I am misunderstood, this is less a “Shame on you, Christopher” that mentions, briefly, omissions of the ever-more-marginalized, which too often masquerades as substantive, novel critique, and more a fundamental insistence on the necessarily gender nonconformity of Blackness. There is a hazardous slippage in statements like “black Americans of both genders” (xxi; emphasis added) or “#blacklivesmatter must encompass black lives on both sides of the gender divide” (83; emphasis added) that risks obfuscating not only trans and gender nonconforming Black folks but also how the history of Blackness has never manifested in ways that comfortably hold a “both” of any nature, gendered or not. As Che Gossett has incisively noted, “Blackness render[s] us too cute for binaries”—the fundamental “trans inscrutability,” pace Gossett, of Blackness itself. This is to say, if Blackness troubles gender, and if there is a stentorian silence regarding Black folks of trans experience, then it seems imperative that the specificities of gender—or, in other words, a Black feminist analytic — must always bear very explicitly on any history, however “brief,” of BLM.

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Marquis Bey

Marquis Bey is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English at Northwestern University. Marquis is the author of Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism (2019) and Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism​ (2020). Currently Marquis is working on an academic monograph on Black trans feminism. Find Marquis on Twitter at @marquisdbey.