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A Lexicon of Black and Trans Life (and Death).

What other worlds exist alongside the narrative of counted and recounted "truths" of identity positions? In Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, C. Riley Snorton begins to outline the possibilities inherent, over time, within the lapses, edges, and intimations of a history that has utilized eugenicist logics, substantiation of humanity into flesh, and whiteness as a lauded category. Black on Both Sides is Snorton's "attempt to find a vocabulary for [B]lack and trans life" (p. xiv) that is not linear but is concerned with the depths and surges of power, of narration, and of the possibility to name that occur in and are subverted by the profusion and iterations of the power to classify embodiment and ways of life in a specific moment of time.

Snorton draws on "both sides" for this project--simultaneously naming and placing the implications of research and theory in Black and in trans studies as well as the lived realities, documented or otherwise declared, of Black and trans people. The work is situated in writings by Black feminists of the flesh and the human--Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter--which sit alongside theoretical and lived understandings of grief, death, life, survivor's guilt, and identification with the dead. Snorton rides the lines between claims to the value of life and future (biopolitical) and claims to the value of death and loss (necropolitical) until they blur, an action of scholarship that serves, in its wake, to highlight the being of Black and trans in the current moment. Rather than an act of straightforward and traditionally legible scholarship, Snorton prizes illegibility for its potentials and recognizes it as an omission, created by power, that must be read in absence. This reading, inexact but no less rigorous or intellectually demanding for its process, takes form in "political propositions, theories of history, and writerly experiments" (p. 6), honing in on various moments in the available history of Black and trans being.

For Snorton, this begins with a recognition that identity-based definitions of Black and trans carry the weight of historical forces to name, to permeate, and to position as separate the two categories of belonging. In the book, Black and trans both and simultaneously "exist prior to their articulations" but are, in different moments, written into one another through violations and creations of the flesh or diverged from one another in narratives of coming to belong to categories of power. This review will touch on each of these topics, which are separated carefully in Snorton's structuring of the book, in a moment. First though, it is important to note that what Snorton has done in Black on Both Sides is offer a way of thinking through Black and trans that holds to its own broad utilization of transness. In allowing for the various permutations of transness, Snorton addresses the colonial and colonizing power to inscribe or withhold mainstream gendered belonging while also carefully maintaining the possibility of transness as a varied and variant way of being or continuously becoming. Trans is not just a category of gender, but one of movement, forced or chosen, of transitory placement, of ongoing shift. It is in the meshing and suturing of these broad understandings of transness (a possible act of resistance to the identity-based political stances that Snorton notes so often fall into collusion with the regulatory nature of the state) that Snorton's methodology for coming to address Black and trans develops "insights that surpass an additive logic" (p. 7). This is not a work of surfacing or certainty, and in that it finds a kind of freedom, allowing the individuals discussed or the images of them that feature within the texts the possibility to "exceed capture" (p. 11), even as they are revealed.

Snorton's methodology does not detract from the book as a rigorous intellectual endeavor. There is a "both sides" that recurs in the book's sections that will be particularly appealing to instructors of gender and women's studies courses who are hoping their students might begin thinking around and through the effects of power. This is a multiplicity that refuses duality between Black and trans in its frank discussions of violation and of claim-making. Snorton's refusal to center whiteness and white assumption is one of the book's many virtues--it offers a counter to the narrative of trans belonging as white while also showing that whiteness, through acts of violation, has forced the transitive nature of Black flesh. For instance, the first section of the book, "Blacken," occurs in two parts. The first is a review and exploration of the cruel gynecological experiments conducted by J. Marion Sims on women who had been held in slavery and suffered from vesicovaginal fistula, most likely as a result of the sexual violence of slavery and the forced reproduction women faced as slaves. The accompanying chapter in this section attends to how gender was reworked in the narrative of escape, including examples of gendered performance as material aspects of maneuvering outside of the extensive grips of systems created to maintain captivity through the capture and return of slaves, and the imaginary that whiteness utilized, during this period, to maintain power through "designations between human and person, black and white, and sex and gender," distinctions that, as Snorton leads the reader to understand, are "not easily mappable as distinctly biological or social terrains" (p. 97).

This example offers only a taste of the intricate weaving of Black and trans described in Black on Both Sides, moving from the functions of law and science during chattel slavery, and resistance to the ways these forces inscribed possibility and embodiment, through a meditation on how Spillers's insights on gender hold through the accounts of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson, and into a more modern moment in which Black and trans are bisected through narratives that prioritize whiteness as a category of human belonging and allow the social and actual deaths of Black and trans or Black or trans people. Here, Snorton returns to the opening discussion of how an imperative call by La Verne Cox to make trans lives matter holds within it calls to the viability of Black life.

While Snorton is careful to include background information on most of the theoretical materials utilized throughout the book, the last section, "Blackout," may be especially accessible to people new to Black and/or trans studies. The first chapter in this section focuses on how the social acceptability of Christine Jorgenson's transition was facilitated through her ability to perform a (hetero) normative white womanhood, which worked against the opportunities available to Black trans women. Snorton uncovers Jorgenson's position as "a peculiar emblem of national freedom, not beloved but somehow incorporate" (p. 142), a position that we might find mirrored in the more current and virulent media attention that was afforded to Caitlyn Jenner on the consequences her position in the American imaginary has for Black trans women through its erasure of systemic violence and claim to citizenship. The book closes with a nuanced discussion of how accounts of the murder of Brandon Teena (as in numerous books and the film Boys Don't Cry) distance or completely remove Phillip DeVine, one of the few Black men in town, an amputee, and also a victim of the killing spree that led to Brandon Teena's death. Snorton, through imagination and theory, offers Phillip a telling of a life, one of the many that may have been his, given that now he is primarily made available for conjecture through his absence.

Black on Both Sides holds a needed critique of the real, lived dangers of liberal inclusion and an identity politics that stubbornly refuses to address ongoing systemic forces that feed into dangerous and deadly circumstances for Black and trans people, including interpersonal violence as well as systemic forces of policing and incarceration, job discrimination, and social isolation. Beyond this, it otters and prioritizes the beauty of those lives that move through the interstices and oversights of categorization, holding a resonant claim to life and meaning.

If you're looking for similar trans-centric critiques of identity politics, the regulation of identity, and resistance to codification, read this alongside Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (also reviewed in this issue), which collects a number of short essays, conversations, interviews, and reflections on trans possibility, including several pieces on Black trans embodiment.


C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 256 pp. notes, index, pap., $24.95, ISBN 978-1517901738.

[Dr. Jeanie Austin is a librarian with San Francisco Public Library's jail and reentry services program. Their interests include the provision of library services to people held in state custody and the gendered, racialized, and ability-centric political and social systems that surround this work.]
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:Austin, Jeanie
Publication:Resources for Gender and Women's Studies: A Feminist Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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