Transgendering Labor: Black Mothers and Black Men

*This post is part of our online roundtable on C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. The author discusses the third chapter: ‘Reading the Trans- in Transatlantic Literature: On the “Female” Within the Three Negro Classics.’

“Over the Shoulder” (Photo: Alex Proimos, Flickr).

The film Baby Boy (2001) opens with Jody, a grown Black man curled in fetal position inside of a womb. The camera pans from Jody’s face to his whole body, connected to the womb vis-à-vis an umbilical cord. Jody—who is both off-screen, and in the womb—reads the words of the late psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing. “Because of the system of racism in this country,” she states, “the Black man is meant to think of himself as a baby. A not yet fully formed being, who has not yet realized his full potential.” Jody continues, “To support her claim, she offers the following: First off, what does a Black man call his woman? Mama. Secondly, what does a Black man call his closest acquaintances? His boys. And finally, what does a Black man call his place of residence? The crib.” The imagery of a grown Black man inside of a Black woman’s womb is striking. As Jody finishes reading Welsing’s words, his mother yells, “I don’t want to lose my baby.”

The film explores the racialized and gendered trope of the “Mama’s Boy” by depicting the life of an unemployed young Black man who lives with his mother, and has romantic relations with two women—one being the mother of his son who he struggles to financially support and the other, a woman with a child who Jody rarely engages on the screen. Yet, it is apparent that Jody’s mama, Juanita, is afraid of losing Jody. She often harkens back to the pain she felt and feels after having lost her eldest son to gun violence. Like many Black mothers in America, the fear of loss and the threat of violence consume her, and she babies Jody back into a metaphorical womb space, cradling and watching over him at every waking moment. Throughout the film it becomes clearer that Jody does not want to leave his mother’s womb, represented by his reticence to leave his mother’s house. When Juanita partners a formerly incarcerated man, Mel, Jody becomes jealous and ultimately sees his mother surrogating another woman’s child. Mel is no different from Jody. Both are dependent on Juanita for milk, blood, energy, sustenance, life, time, mothering, and protection. When Mel and Jody fight over Juanita’s metaphorical womb space, she is forced to ask one Black male baby—Jody—to leave.

As I read C. Riley Snorton’s third chapter, “Reading the Trans- in Transatlantic Literature: On the ‘Female’ Within the Three Negro Classics,” I was reminded of the aforementioned film. In many ways, Snorton inverts the relationality between Black mothers and Black men. Black women’s wombs are a part of this story given the legacy of enslavement and sexual terrorism in the Americas, but what is further elucidated are the ways the plantocracy and white supremacy more generally “ungendered” the enslaved, thus causing a “[mitigation] of gender differentiation” (119). Indeed, Snorton invites readers to re-consider Hortense Spillers’ words in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”:

The black American male embodies the only American community of males handed the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself, the infant child who bears life against the could-be fateful gamble, against the odds of pulverization and murder, including her own. It is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood—the power of ‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within.”

Snorton is not interested in recapitulating the racialized, gendered, and sexualized trope of “the Mama’s boy.” Rather, Snorton contemplates if the Three Negro Classics—Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901), W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)could have even implicitly thought of the trans/gender implications of their writings on race, Black manhood, and the problems of “the Negro” during the twentieth century.

Snorton joins scholars such as Joy James who have written about “Captive Maternals [or] biological females or those feminized into caretaking and consumption,” in order to theorize and historicize the ways Black manhood rights have been devoid of the politics of care, and by extension, bereft of holistic considerations of the totalizing effects of slavery’s afterlives across genders.

While Snorton does ponder questions of absence, erasure, and invisibility, he is more captivated by the paradoxes of gender, Black manhood rights, and the masculinization of “Negro” as a racialized and gendered category in the tripartite curating of Washington, Du Bois, and Johnson. Snorton contends, “the black mother’s gender is vestibular, a translocation marked by a capacity to reproduce beings and objects,” and continues in a later section, “Given that the color line was produced and policed by black women’s reproductive capacity, the project of defining black manhood within a modernist idiom would necessitate an encounter with the figure of the black maternal as a character and as the ground of nonbeing that engenders black manhood” (107-108). This chapter incites rumination on the nuances of Black men’s self-fashioning in light of slavery’s afterlives, and also necessarily, in light of the biopolitics of Black subjectivity vis-à-vis the Black mother’s interiority.

Yet, even as Washington, Du Bois, and Johnson self-fashioned themselves as race representatives, or as “emblems of the masses,” Snorton maintains that “the black mother is a metonym for black sociality, an emblem of race as a problem and product of the social that bears upon a project of self-narration in Afromodernist literature” (107). Snorton efficaciously charts the ways Black women, especially Black mothers, have historically borne the burden of Black sociality and Black progress long before Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed it in The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (or the Moynihan Report, 1965). Snorton also invites readers to critically assess the resonances of Black patriarchal modernist discourse during the era of Reconstruction, and then again, through The Negro Classics, which first appeared together in one compilation the same year Moynihan released his report. Thus, Snorton engages a century’s worth of Afromodernist discourse, which demonizes Black women, specifically the Black maternal figure, in a larger effort to build up the race, even as “the race” or Black racialized subjectivity, emerges from Black women’s bodies.

In the latter portions of the chapter, Snorton cites Du Bois’s use of family metaphors to characterize Reconstruction’s failures in Souls: “one, a gray-haired gentleman . . . and the other, a form hovering dark and mother like.” With regard to the “mother like” form, Du Bois writes, “her awful face black with the mists of centuries, had aforetime quailed at that white master’s command, had bent in love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, and closed in death the sunken eyes of his wife,—aye, too, at his behest had laid herself low to his lust, and borne a tawny man-child to the world, only to see her dark boy’s limbs scattered to the winds by midnight marauders riding after ‘cursed Niggers’” (cited in Snorton, 126). Snorton then uses Du Bois’s words to think queerly about “trans/gendering labor occasioned by a violent proximity to whiteness.”

Here, I would like to think with and against Snorton’s focus on Black women’s reproductive capacity, in order to consider trans/gendering labor that does not solely involve biopolitics of reproduction. Indeed, how does trans/gendering as a plantocratic process also necessitate sexual violation that does not produce enslaved Black children? What of the rape of enslaved men and boys on the plantation, or other forms of gendered and sexualized violation in the realm of planter class homoerotics (thinking of Vincent Woodard’s The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism Within US Slave Culture) and also, white women’s rapacious lust for the Black phallus and white women’s often sexualized violence against Black women?1.

As any rich body of work does, I am left with deep insight and more questions for further provocation. Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity is a beautifully written, meticulously researched, generative text that probes further engagement into the interstices of race, gender, and sexuality studies. Returning back to where I began in this review with Baby Boy, Snorton’s text unravels a host of cultural pathologies about Black gendered sociality that elicits a rigorous reckoning—not with the problems of “the Black family” or of Black women—but with the fallacies of Black male patriarchal supremacy and Black manhood rights, in light of slavery’s ever-present, continuous ungendering effects. “Trans/gendering labor” and “transversality” are theories of history for Black Studies that engender substantive and freeing constructs for dismantling Black patriarchs as emblematic of “progress.”

  1. See Thavolyia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household as well as Harriet Jacobs encounter with her jealous mistress.
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Ahmad Greene-Hayes

Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. His research interests include 19th and 20th-century Africana and African American religious histories, Black South Studies, and Black Queer Studies. His dissertation is a religious history of Black transnationalism, African American religions, and migrations between the Circum-Caribbean and New Orleans from 1915-1954. Follow him on Twitter @_BrothaG.