Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton

The first thing I learned reading this was that I’m very out of practice when it comes to reading academic theory. The second was that I need to broaden the academic theory I read. Thankfully, “Black on Both Sides” has a deliciously robust bibliography which I have marked up for future reading. 

Now I will say, this may be a somewhat challenging read for those who don’t have a background in academic theory, but I think it’s doable if you’re willing to stop and google things, which I still had to do myself despite my academic background. Regardless, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in gender studies, even if you haven’t delved into much theory yet. C. Riley Snorton has done an incredible job of pulling together a wide range of theories to curate his discussion of race and gender, and moreover, he explains those theories well.

Quotation:  Heeding her call, my analysis here is particularly attentive to the possibilities of valorizing--without necessarily redeeming--different ways of knowing and being, as it is also invested in reviving and inventing strategies for inhabiting unlivable worlds. It is an attempt to think more precisely about the connections within blackness and transness in the midst of ongoing black and trans death and against the backdrop  of the rapid institutionalization of trans studies.

Snapchat caption: Nothing grabs my attention faster than reference to "different ways of knowing."

As you may have already guessed, “Black on Both Sides” is not your run of the mill history book. It is a history, certainly, but one that goes one step deeper than just telling history. It asks questions about and provides an analysis of the history of Black gendered experience and how that has developed from slavery through to today. 

The first chapter begins with a discussion of the Black female body as an object in the historical context of the origins of the medical field of gynecology. Major warning in this chapter for discussions of unethical experimentation and medical abuse. 

"Relaying another variation of the experimental trials, Sims tells his readers that he 'was fortunate in having three young healthy colored girls given to me by their owners,' while also noting that he performed 'no operation without the full consent of the patients."

Snapchat caption: Spot the contradiction.

The second chapter follows this, with a discussion of how “ungendering blackness” provided ways for fugitive slaves to use crossing gender boundaries in their movement toward freedom. This chapter uses two early slave narratives as examples of this and continues with a discussion of literature into chapter three, where Snorton moves on to discuss the female presence in post Reconstruction narratives of Black individuals.

Chapter four delves into the lives of several Black trans individuals and how the media portrayed their gender and transitions in the years surrounding Christine Jorgensen’s rise to fame. Snorton hits, quite early on, one of the major problems I have with the Jorgensen narrative, namely that it plays heavily into the tropes of the “good trans” who upholds white heterosexuality. 

Lastly, chapter five discusses the the Humboldt killings and the Brenden Teena archive, the tragedy behind the documentary “The Brenden Teena Story” and the feature film “Boys Don’t Cry.” 

I was particularly excited for these final two chapters, 1) because they brushed up with things that I’ve studied more in depth, and 2) because they offered different perspectives to the dominant narratives surrounding both Christine Jorgensen and the Brandon Teena archive. For the latter in particular I have gotten rather sick of cis feminists touting “Boys Don’t Cry” as The Best Trans Expression In Film as if it isn’t about the rape and murder of a trans man. Snorton’s look into the Humboldt killings prioritizes Philip DeVine, the Black disabled man who was murdered alongside Teena and Lisa Lambert, and who notably was removed wholesale from the narrative of “Boys Don’t Cry.”

I could go on and on about everything I loved about this book. It’s a very careful and detailed breakdown of queer theory as it pertains to Black and trans history. But as I do have to end this review, I will direct you to where you can get this book so you can experience it for yourselves.

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2 thoughts on “Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton”

  1. Great review! This has been on my radar for a while but I wasn’t sure how accessible a read it would be. Your post has given me some reassurance there and I think I’ll put this definitively on my TBR list 🙂

    Like

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