Drawing on early sexological texts, Afro-modernist literature, slave narratives, journalism and film to argue how slavery and racialized gender provided a foundation for mutable gender, C. Riley Snorton — associate professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University — presented a lecture on his new book “Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity” Monday afternoon at the University of Michigan’s Lane Hall.
Snorton’s first book, “Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low,” explored the emergence of the practice of Black men having sex with Black men and women, yet not identifying as gay, queer or transgender, and general effects on Black sexuality. “Black on Both Sides” is Snorton’s second book, and was discussed at length at the event organized by the University’s Department of English and supported by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender as well as the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies.
Rackham student LaVelle Ridley introduced Snorton to 35 attendees, citing his past accomplishments and publications.
In an interview, Ridley explained how she believes that conversations regarding trans identity should not happen without incorporating race.
“We can’t have discussions of transness or discussions of any form of gender, gender formation, gender studies, gender theory at all without taking into account race, specifically racialization, Blackness, anti-Black violence, histories of slavery and the theft of indigenous land; all of that is inhibited in those conversations,” Ridley said.
Snorton began by explaining his research interests and how these can address greater arguments among racial and gender relations.
“My research explores relations between and among the (signs) Black, queer and trans historically and contemporarily … To address how race, sex and gender underneath and articulate ways of being and knowing,” Snorton said.
Snorton then went on to outline the content in his book.
Snorton specifically noted the prevalence of vesicovaginal fistulas and its relation to race in the mid-19th century. VVF is an abnormal tract between the bladder and vagina allowing for continuous involuntary discharge of urine. According to Snorton’s work, VVF during this time could have been linked to poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care and births at a young age. Snorton wanted to emphasize how this early gynecological work also helped to racialize gender and indicate Black inferiority.
“The pelvis was also a critical site for producing racial hierarchies among 19th-century anatomists and sexologists intent on finding bodily proof of Black inferiority,” Snorton said.
During a question and answer segment, Snorton responded to a question regarding archival practices in the subject area.
“What if we substituted methods with ethics and then thought about writing something that’s about human justice rather than having a specific impulse?” Snorton said.
Beth Currans, a women’s and gender studies associate professor at Eastern Michigan University, appreciated the way Snorton presented his work, especially the way he linked the different ideas he presented into one.
“I like the way he thinks through ideas and images … Thinking about the way ideas about agriculture and ideas about bodies and ideas about land are so interwoven in taking the time to think through them,” Currans said.