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

34850447Review by Laura Koch

From the origins of American gynecology to the nineteenth-century narratives of former slaves to current political movements like Black Lives Matter, the intersections of gender and blackness have always influenced cultural understandings of femininity, masculinity, and the spaces in between. C. Riley Snorton’s book Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity  (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) weaves together histories of race, gender, and sexuality in the United States to examine the origins of modern black transgender identities. Black on Both Sides is the second book from Snorton, an  associate professor of Africana studies and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies at Cornell University. He earned a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, and his work has appeared in a variety of cultural studies journals, including Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society and the International Journal of Communication. Snorton’s previous book,  Nobody is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), examined the concealment and visibility of black queerness through the lens of cultural theory, drawing on racial and sexual narratives in popular films, music, and television shows, as well as the work of feminist scholars and queer theorists. Black on Both Sides is, in some ways, a continuation of Snorton’s previous work, offering a more historical perspective on the familiar themes of blackness, queerness, and bodily and cultural visibility.  

Despite its title, Snorton is careful to note that Black on Both Sides is “not a history per se so much as it is a set of political propositions, theories of history, and writerly experiments” (6). Indeed, Snorton’s monograph reads like a collection of related essays, each seeking to examine different cultural sources and processes through the lens of race and gender. Drawing from medical texts, journalistic narratives, and Afromodernist literature, as well as the theories of scholars like Hortense Spillers, Judith Butler, and Frantz Fanon, Snorton “focus[es] on the transitive connections between blackness and transness that emerge in moments of transition” (9). Throughout the book, Snorton deliberately separates the term “trans” from the concept of gender, employing it just as often in the broader contexts of “transitivity” and “transversality” in order to highlight his rejection of binary limitations (5). Snorton’s arguments are many and varied, ranging from explorations of historical blackness as a form of “social death” to a critique of historical conceptions of time as too closely tied to narratives of progress (107).

The book’s strongest and most compelling argument centers around a theory of “fungibility,” or interchangeability. Snorton asserts that when the notion of “‘trans’ is…about a movement with no clear origin and no point of arrival” rather than limited by binary thinking, the intersections of race and gender have the potential to become spaces of mutability, freedom, and possibility (2). In his analysis of fugitive slave narratives, for instance, Snorton applies this theory to the story of Ellen Craft, a mixed-race slave who passed as a white male planter to escape to freedom, arguing that cultural productions of slaves as replaceable commodities allowed Craft to cross social boundaries and inhabit ostensibly unattainable categories of identification. Craft’s slave status already served to exclude her from the cultural category of (white) femininity, because, as Snorton argues, “the ontology of gender required freedom as its prerequisite” (90). For a subject who was already unable to claim membership in the constructed category of white womanhood, a transition into another identity category (in Craft’s case, white masculinity) was not a movement between two opposing identities, but rather a movement within an already-inhabited space of exclusion. Just as Craft’s enslaved body was culturally produced as interchangeable or “fungible,” so too could her performance of one racial, gender, or sexual identity easily replace another.          

Snorton’s efforts to trace common themes across topics as seemingly unrelated as early gynecological advancements, gender “passing” as a means of escape from slavery, and fictionalized representations of hate crimes are certainly ambitious. At times, the book’s broad scope distracts from its project of reinterpreting racialized gender as a space of fungibility and freedom. In many places, Snorton takes on too many topics and arguments, attempting to make each of his sources act as evidence for every strand of his argument and often sacrificing clarity in the process. This tendency towards illegibility is most clearly evident in the book’s first chapter, which examines the gynecological work of physician J. Marion Sims, focusing on the experiments he performed on enslaved women in the mid-nineteenth century. Snorton concludes that Sims chose enslaved women as the subjects of his experiments because the fungibility of racialized gender allowed “captive flesh [to express] an ungendered position” by producing slaves as commodities rather than human subjects (33). This characterization of enslaved women as genderless seems to disprove itself, however, as Snorton goes on to discuss the ways in which early gynecology produced anatomical criteria for womanhood; the gender of Sims’s racialized subjects, far from being so obscured by captivity as to be insignificant, was, in fact, a contributing factor in Sims’s decision to experiment on them without their consent.

Snorton’s theory of fungibility therefore appears to be of little relevance in his first chapter, just as evidence elsewhere in the book does not always fit together logically in support of the arguments and connections Snorton attempts to make. His discussion of the 1993 Brandon Teena murder case and the subsequent erasure of black victim Phillip DeVine from the cultural narrative of the crime, for instance, presents DeVine’s blackness as a source of cultural prejudice rather than freedom. In contrast to the historical and medical discourses that provide the backdrop for Snorton’s analysis of the J. Marion Sims experiments, the book’s final chapter considers the life of Phillip DeVine as an ahistorical “biomythography…an invention of [his] life” (183). Snorton argues that DeVine, a cisgender black man who was murdered alongside Brandon Teena, a white transgender man, has been largely forgotten as a result of his erasure from popular representations of the Teena hate crime, most notably the critically acclaimed film Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Snorton’s effort to reconstruct the story of DeVine’s life by piecing together primary sources and filling in the gaps with speculation serves to reinstate DeVine as a part of the narrative– the very same narrative that Snorton criticizes for “linking blackness and death” (182). His discussion of the violent cultural intersections of blackness, transness, and death leaves readers with the sense that DeVine’s blackness, far from offering him the freedom of fungibility that facilitated Ellen Craft’s escape from slavery, posed a threat to his freedom by marking his death as less important than that of the white Brandon Teena. Like the enslaved subjects of Sims’s experiments, Phillip DeVine fails to exemplify Snorton’s theory of race, gender, and queerness as spaces of fungibility, highlighting both the complexities of Snorton’s themes and his book’s often unsuccessful struggle to draw connections between sources, narratives, and disciplines.

Black on Both Sides will likely appeal primarily to scholars, as Snorton’s work assumes a familiarity with a variety of historians, theorists, and bodies of sources. The language is decidedly academic, making the book largely inaccessible to readers without a background in reading academic texts. For those studying the intersections of race and gender in the United States, Black on Both Sides will surely be an instructive read insofar as it represents a valuable interdisciplinary effort to bring together a rich variety of sources. Still, Snorton’s book would function better as a collection of separate but related essays than as a narrative made up of numerous tenuously connected strands.

Laura Koch is a graduate student at Simmons College, where she studies History and Archives Management. Her research interests focus around gender, sexuality, and feminism in history and literature. She recently completed an undergraduate thesis about journalistic and fictional portrayals of “passing women” in the nineteenth-century United States.

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