Book Review: Black on Both Sides by C. Riley Snorton

Riley Snorton’s new cultural history Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity is an ambitious, complicated examination of a still understudied subject. Drawing on a rich and varied archive of cultural objects ranging from fugitive slave narratives to contemporary Hollywood films, Snorton traces the intertwined histories of Blackness and transness. His inquiry stretches from the mid-nineteenth century to the post World War II era to today.  Snorton argues that slavery produced racialized genders that provided the means to understand gender as mutable.

Snorton utilizes a Black feminist and Afropessimist framework, drawing on Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, and Fred Moton.  However, his also engages and reworking these theories by applying to transgender studies.  Snorton describes his methods as a “transversal approach to history.”  Drawing on the work of Edouard Glissant, Snorton argues that Blackness and transness require a that “both author and reader suspend a demand of transparency” and “forgo a methodological operation that seeks to bring the submerged to the surface” (10).  Instead, transversality allows Snorton to “perceive how difference can take transitive form, expressed in shifting modality of time and meaning from within the abyss.” This approach allows Snorton to engage in a close reading of a wide selection of historical materials, drawing attention to “submerged thought” while also honoring the opacity of the Black lives he describes.  Snorton is invested in avoiding normative truth claims.  Faced with the same limitations of the archive, many transgender studies scholars have focused on the genealogy of transgender as a category.  In such analysis, the lives of individual trans people are often lost.  Snorton, however, draws on Audre Lordes’ concept of biomythography and makes space for imagination as historical method.  As a result, Snorton’s book is about imagining livable Black lives, trans lives, and Black trans lives.

The first three chapters of Snorton’s book may surprise some readers, but each is crucial to his argument.  He begins by drawing on Spillers to contextualize the development of gynecology and the sexing of the body.  He describes how J. Marion Sims, the so-called father of American gynecology, developed a cure for vesicovaginal fistula through the medicalized torture of enslaved Black women.  Through this history, Snorton describes the connection between the construction of “sex” and what Spillers calls ungendered flesh.  Next, Snorton examines examples of Black people escaping from slavery, noting how “cross dressing” tied to racial “passing” provided space for personal sovereignty among Black people living in the antebellum North.  Snorton next examines 3 Negro Classics to show how Black male authors engaged with Spillers’ notion of the “female within.”  In these chapters, Snorton describes “collateral genealogies of blackness and transness in which captive and divided flesh functions as malleable matter for mediating and remaking sex and gender as matters of human categorization and personal definition” (20). The early chapters of Black on Both Sides provide a framework to understand Blackness, gender, and sexuality that finally allows Snorton to discuss Black transgender lives in a way that attends to both Blackness and trans identity.

In chapter four, Snorton continues his project by reckoning with the legacy of Christine Jorgensen, a white transsexual woman who became one of the most widely recognized transgender people in US history.  Jorgensen’s description of her transsexual experience helped to create the tropes of transgender identity against which transgender people are forced to narrate themselves.  Against the example of Jorgensen, Snorton presents accounts of Black trans people who have been largely overlooked historically, including Lucy Hicks Anderson and Ava Betty Brown.  Snorton builds on scholars who have elucidated how Jorgensen’s narration of her transsexual identity depended on her whiteness.  However, Snorton fills a gap in transgender studies and transgender history scholarship by theorizing transgender embodiment “in relation to the kinds of violence that inflect black and trans life, only one of which is the violence of erasure, and for which that erasure is about not an absence but a persistent and animating presence” (144).  Snorton demonstrates how Blackness held against whiteness helped to define value and humanness, allowing gender to become a more flexible place for living.

Building on the theme of absence/presence, Snorton concludes with a biomythograpy of Phillip DeVine, a Black man who was murdered alongside Brandon Tenna in 1993.  DeVine was omitted from the film Boys Don’t Cry and much of the scholarly work on Teena.  Snorton attends to the life of DeVine not to add another martyr to the catalog of Black death.  Instead, Snorton argues that DeVine’s murder disrupts the “juridical grammar” calling for trans inclusion in the legal system.  Snorton calls readers to the future orientation of the demand “Black Trans Lives Matter,” arguing that such a demand may require “the end of the world” (198).

The last two chapters of this book will likely prove to be the most widely read of this work because they deal most directly with the lives of Black transgender people.  However, the entire book is crucial to Snorton’s argument. The labor that Snorton undertakes to contextualize these lives inside a larger history of intersections between Blackness, gender, and sexuality speaks to the state of transgender studies.  While some transgender studies scholars have endeavored to understand how white liberalism has shaped transnormativity, Black on Both Sides is the first major historical work to focus to Black trans lives.  Further, it is a part of a growing body of work, both scholarly and artistic, from Black trans people engaging and reworking Afro-pessimism. Black on Both Sides constitutes a theoretical and empirical intervention in a range of disciplines: Afro-pessimism, Black feminism, transgender studies, queer studies, and historical methodologies.  This work will almost certainly be marked as influential to all of these fields.

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