In Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, C. Riley Snorton works to trouble the typical historical narrative surrounding trans identity. In popular American discourse, trans people didn’t exist before Christine Jorgensson got gender affirmation surgery in the 1940s. But Snorton proposes we look at the history of trans identity as directly tied to an account of racial identity. By tracing the development of racial identity to the transatlantic slave trade, he argues that blackness and transness have always had a relationship that is both transitive and transversal — to talk about blackness, he says, is to speak about transness, and vice versa.
My first read of Black on Both Sides made me almost angry; I understood what Snorton was arguing, and I agreed, but the content of the book is dense and difficult to get through at times. Black on Both Sides is not a book you can get through in one sitting and grasp wholly. After a second read, I realized it’s so dense because it disrupts a dense historical narrative that feels at this point almost like fact. To show that the pathologized, or medical, history of trans identity in America is fabricated requires pulling apart the archive and exploring in depth how archives replicate systems of power. With this project, Snorton works against centuries of information that have tried to make gender and race seem like fixed, biological concepts instead of discourses that have been formulated over time to maintain a specific hegemonic system of power.
“To show that the pathologized, or medical, history of trans identity in America is fabricated requires pulling apart the archive and exploring in depth how archives replicate systems of power.”
Black on Both Sides is also tricky because Snorton maintains an ethical obligation to opacity. When writing about trans people, or any minorities, academics and journalists often feel they have to uncover everything about their subjects, including their subjects’ dead names or sex/gender assigned at birth, to prove scholarly rigor or tell a “true” story. Snorton wholly resists this though, and so sometimes, necessarily, this is an incomplete history. We’ve been trained to think of history as all the facts of the past, but Snorton reminds us that history is created and written from a specific perspective, which has historically mirrored the standpoint of those in power. This methodology of opacity means that we have to be okay not knowing everything. It means that the book becomes much less a history of trans people and black people, but instead a history of systems that have formed our beliefs about trans and black people.
Please don’t let the difficulty of the book dissuade you from reading it, though! It’s essential, and it’s interesting. My favorite chapter is chapter 5: “DeVine’s Cut: Public Memory and the Politics of Martyrdom,” where Snorton brings Philip DeVine back into the conversation around the death of Brandon Teena. Snorton video-chatted with my class and mentioned that he wrote the chapter in part because he kept hearing queer and trans theorists talk about how someone should discuss DeVine more in what’s known as the “Brandon archives,” but that no one ever did. So much of queer theory is about imaginary futures and possibilities, but that doesn’t often translate into action. This chapter puts that talk into action. So often, he writes, we whitewash queer and trans narratives to make them seem queerer, which only furthers the disconnect between race and gender. By putting a disabled black man in the center of a conversation around the death of a trans person, he connects the ways their identities made both of them targets. This discussion doesn’t diminish Brandon Teena’s story but enhances the conversation and shifts our understanding about the ways black and trans life and death are always interconnected.
“We’ve been trained to think of history as all the facts of the past, but Snorton reminds us that history is created and written from a specific perspective, which has historically mirrored the standpoint of those in power.”
Is this book for everyone? No. I would be remiss to recommend this book to someone who doesn’t already have some sort of background in gender or sexuality studies. Snorton employs a rich bibliography of other scholars who are also exploring the ways that gender and sexuality inform race like Christina Sharpe, Hortense Spillers, Sadiya Hartman and Tavia Nyong’o. He also pulls from the traditional canon of queer studies scholars like Butler, Foucault and Halberstam. But if you have the background, read this book. If nothing else, it’s a book about the connections between blackness and transness by a black trans man; this is the first time we get this perspective in the literature. It’s a book that, in writing a new history also imagines a future — the end of the world as we know it — where black trans lives will have mattered to everyone. It’s uncomfortable at times because it reminds us of the ways we are implicit in systems of oppression. Even I felt called out during the conversation about opacity, but I will forever be grateful for his reminder of that ethical imperative, or what Sadiya Hartman refers to as “narrative restraint.” Black on Both Sides reminds us that when we are careful about how we tell stories, we get new, nuanced stories that expose systems for what they are and that honor historically ignored populations.
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