Black On Both Sides:
A Racial History of Trans Identity
by C. Riley Snorton, PhD (he/him)
The story of Christine Jorgensen, America’s first prominent transsexual, famously narrated trans embodiment in the postwar era. Her celebrity, however, has obscured other mid-century trans narratives—ones lived by African Americans such as Lucy Hicks Anderson and James McHarris. Their erasure from trans history masks the profound ways race has figured prominently in the construction and representation of transgender subjects. In Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton identifies multiple intersections between blackness and transness from the mid-nineteenth century to present-day anti-black and anti-trans legislation and violence.
Drawing on a deep and varied archive of materials—early sexological texts, fugitive slave narratives, Afro-modernist literature, sensationalist journalism, Hollywood films—Snorton attends to how slavery and the production of racialized gender provided the foundations for an understanding of gender as mutable. In tracing the twinned genealogies of blackness and transness, Snorton follows multiple trajectories, from the medical experiments conducted on enslaved black women by J. Marion Sims, the “father of American gynecology,” to the negation of blackness that makes transnormativity possible.
Revealing instances of personal sovereignty among black people living in the antebellum North that were mapped in terms of “cross dressing” and canonical black literary works that express black men’s access to the “female within,” Black on Both Sides concludes with a reading of the fate of Phillip DeVine, who was murdered alongside Brandon Teena in 1993, a fact omitted from the film Boys Don’t Cry out of narrative convenience. Reconstructing these theoretical and historical trajectories furthers our imaginative capacities to conceive more livable black and trans worlds.
About the authro; C. Riley Snorton, Professor of English Language and Literature, is jointly appointed in the department and the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies. Snorton is a cultural theorist who focuses on racial, sexual and transgender histories and cultural productions. He is the author of Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) and Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), winner of the John Boswell Prize from the American Historical Association, the William Sanders Scarborough Prize from the Modern Language Association, the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Nonfiction, the Sylvia Rivera Award in Transgender Studies from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, and an honorable mention from the American Library Association Stonewall Book Award Committee. Snorton is also the co-editor of Saturation: Race, Art and the Circulation of Value (MIT Press/New Museum, 2020).