C. Riley Snorton. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 256 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5179-0173-8.
Reviewed by David Rothmund (University of Illinois at Chicago)
Published on H-Socialisms (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Race and Transgender
In Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, interdisciplinary scholar C. Riley Snorton provides context on the connections between “Blackness and Transness as distinct categories of social valuation” (p. 7). Snorton aims to explain how blackness and transness intersect in American history and argues that it is both more common and systemically important to understanding black and trans movements today. Furthermore, Black on Both Sides asks “what it means to have a body that has been made into a grammar for whole worlds of meaning” both through race and sexual orientation (p. 11). While not a traditional historical monograph, Black on Both Sides challenges the understanding of the discipline of sexuality, power, and personal bodily sovereignty by depicting the construction of “transgender” through a racial lens.
Before one can discuss Snorton’s work, it is imperative to understand the history and complexity of the term “transgender.” Much like any term that defines a group of people, it is crucial to discuss when it is appropriate to use the term, who fits within this classification, and how to situate the term through a historical analytical lens. One of the struggles of understanding the terminology remains in its modernity. In Transgender History in the United States (2014), Genny Beemyn encourages readers to consider how historians should interact with terms that define historical actors in ways they may not have identified themselves. With this comes one of the significant conflicts of transgender history.
Additionally, it is essential to understand that the term carries westernized medical connotations with which people within the community may fundamentally disagree. Understanding how important terminology perpetuates an oppressive system of power that disproportionately targets minorities is imperative to understanding Snorton’s reason for writing the monograph. Lastly, the term at its core is broad and thus raises the question as to who transgender history is about and who it is for. For historians concerned with transgender history, modernity and definitions muddle the methodological approach to writing about complex themes and arguments.
Snorton divides his monograph into three distinct sections: “Blacken,” “Transit,” and “Blackout.” The first section primarily focuses on black bodies; the ways these bodies are used; and the role of black bodies as social, cultural, and medical forces within nineteenth-century America. The first chapter, “Anatomically Speaking,” places three female African slaves (Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy) as essential actors in the founding of gynecology and the cure for vesicovaginal fistula, or VVF. Snorton explains how James Marion Sims, the father of gynecology, adopted, intruded, and experimented on black bodies to advance the medical profession. Snorton focuses on the medical profession’s use of black bodies in this section to establish a foundational understanding of race, gender, and sexuality. This framework provides Snorton a base in which he can situate his examination of black and trans identity over time.
The second chapter, “Trans Capable,” explores the lineage of cross-dressing and cross-gender identity as tools of escape and forms of resistance. Snorton brilliantly examines slave narratives, specifically Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), and explains how black fugitivity intersects with gender fungibility. Snorton notes how cross-dressing and changing situational gender identity served as an intricate and useful tool for escaped slaves. One of the most well-known stories the author cites is the life of Ellen and William Craft: to combat both racial and gendered norms of nineteenth-century Macon, Georgia, Ellen disguised herself as a male slave owner due to her light complexion and escorted her husband, William, to freedom. The story of Ellen and William Craft displays how fugitive slaves bent both the race and gender norms of the era to resist captivity. Understanding how race and gender exist as flexible social identifications is one of the most critical aspects of the chapter.
From here, Snorton brilliantly shifts the narrative transitively both within the text and through the “temporalities, genders, and geopolitics of racial blackness” within the second section (p. 12). The author argues that slavery created a system of power in which children born into slavery from a black mother and father found themselves “orphaned” and “saved” by a white patriarchal master. Snorton continues to prove how gender plays an intricate role in this process and explains how the mother’s race defines the child’s place within a free or slave society. Snorton’s explanation of race and gender as created constructions of freedom and place shines in this section. While the monograph can feel turgid at times, Snorton depicts how race and gender are used to reinforce a social system of power through biological characteristics rather than social, political, or economically created discourses.
The third and final section examines the “negation of blackness” (p. 13). In this section, Snorton’s argument is both most convincing and easiest to identify. While the previous sections work to establish a framework, chapter 4 finally posits transgender actives within the narrative. The chapter begins with a description of Christine Jorgensen, an ex-GI male-to-female transgender person who fascinated and captivated society in 1952. Jorgensen’s transition made the front page of the New York Daily News and continued to stand as one of the most discussed historiographical accounts of a trans person participating in mainstream society. Snorton rejects this historiographical understanding of trans identity and positions Lucy Hicks Anderson, Georgia Black, Carlett Brown, James McHarris/Annie Lee Grant, and Ava Betty Brown as important figures within the trans movement as well as black gender identity. Snorton asserts that these people are overlooked by transgender history due to their race and argues that notions of blackness, gender, and sexuality within the black press create evolving notions of human valuation.
Snorton’s monograph is at its best when it explores the transformative evolution of black bodies through American history and calls for increased social, political, and legal attention. Black on Both Sides situates “transness” within the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Snorton examines previously analyzed historical subjects through a modern gendered lens and asserts that race, gender, and sexuality interconnect through power dynamics. However, it is crucial to note that there is no way to understand the complexities of a transgender identity simply, nor is it possible to wholly understand the symbiotic relationship between transness and blackness within a society built atop an oppressive power system.
While a significant and exciting contribution to the scholarship on transgender and black identity, the book will leave readers confused at times. In the second chapter, “Trans Capable,” Snorton identifies Clarissa Davis, Maria Ann Weems, Ellen Craft, and Harriet Tubman as women who participated in cross-dressing to escape and combat enslavement. These stories are captivating stories, but cross-dressing as a tool of resistance is much different than identifying as transgender in society. The term “transgender” defines those whose gender identity and expression does not conform to traditional behaviors associated with the sex assigned at birth. It is important to note that while cross-dressing is often a form of expression within the community, those who participate in cross-dressing are not necessarily identifying as transgender. Thus, a distinction must be made between such terms as “transgender,” “transsexual,” “transvestite,” and “cross-dresser.” Snorton is aware of these distinctions; however, the definition of essential terminology is relatively absent within the work and muddles the argument. Lastly, Black on Both Sides may lose readers due to its rigorous complex arguments and academic language. Snorton is maneuvering through many multifaceted concepts, and the monograph can feel confusing at times.
To understand the complexities within Black on Both Sides, the monograph should be read in two parts. The first half of the book examines the complex relationship between black bodies, gender, sexuality, and society. This section does not explicitly address trans life or history; however, it does provide context for the second half of the monograph. It is easy to get lost in the theory of Black on Both Sides and ignore the research and methodology. Snorton’s attention to a wide range of interdisciplinary sources is thorough and helpful to readers.
Overall, Snorton’s monograph is both important and timely. In an era where transgender acceptance and violence are both at an all-time high, the book reiterates the need for a historical analysis of all disenfranchised and overlooked people. The analysis of race as a crucial influence on transgender history is both refreshing and insightful. By examining the complex relationship between race and gender, Snorton offers a unique perspective into the burgeoning field of transgender history. Although overly academic at times, Black on Both Sides provides a theoretical framework to consider “blackness” and “transness” in American society.
. Genny Beemyn, Transgender History in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1.
. “Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression,” American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx (accessed January 11, 2019).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-socialisms.
David Rothmund. Review of Snorton, C. Riley, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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