For Those Seeking or in Flight
Black Trans*feminist Nihilism
“We are left, yet again, to place our hope in a future politics that avoids history, historicity, and the immediacy of black suffering. For this reason, the black nihilist rejects the emancipatory impulse within certain aspects of Black critical discourse and cultural/critical theory. In this sense, the modifier “black” in the term “black nihilism” indicates much more than an “identity”; a blackened nihilism pushes hermeneutic nihilism beyond the limits of its metaphysical thinking by foregrounding the function of anti-blackness in structuring thought.” — Calvin Warren, Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope
The summer 2020 slave uprising brought with it a rupture in the very epistemic foundations of liberal democracy itself. Specifically, the assumption that America has sufficiently “resolved” the so-called Negro Question was stripped bare and revealed for the farce that it is. Some, who were either on the precipice of understanding or already tapped into this reality, turned to Afro-pessimism as a guide for understanding not only why this question has failed to be resolved, but will always elude resolution within the context of the American nation. At the same time, there have been rumblings of criticism from those at the margins that Afro-pessimism not only fails to sufficiently consider their particular experiences, but has an explicitly parasitic relationship to them. Here I hope to clarify the necessity of an alternative to Afro-pessimism that is firmly grounded in deep theoretical study and developing roots-grasping science that properly addresses the weaknesses within Black feminism and Black queer theory that Afro-pessimism ostensibly rectifies as well as demonstrate what such an alternative might look like in the form of what I refer to as Black Transfeminist Nihilism.
Frank Wilderson identifies the following texts as foundational to Afro-pessimism: Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America by Saidiya Hartman, his own Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms, Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism by Jared Sexton, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Anti-Black World by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, and On Black Men by David Marriott. This list is interesting for two reasons. The first is that absent from this list is Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, something that stands in contradiction to the reduction of Afro-pessimism to the concept of anti-Blackness qua social death. The second is the absence of prominent Black feminist works or critical engagements with Black feminism that Wilderson has stated previously that Afro-pessimism uses as theoretical foundation. Let’s unpack these two further.
Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death is very influential within Afro-pessimism. However, you wouldn’t really know it unless you cared to find interest in studying the origins of the term social death. The reason for this, I would argue, stems from the fact that social death is itself a distilled culmination of the broader attempt by Patterson to conduct a transhistorical survey of slavery throughout society and in various countries/nations to come to an understanding of the essence of slavery. In this way, Patterson is not necessarily attempting to define what makes the slave a slave but rather clarify the various interplay of the dynamics between institutions that produce slaves. I find it necessary to make this point because from this perspective, the inclusion of social death ends up being sort of one of convenience, as Slavery and Social Death was published around a time where slavery, as expressed/produced in antebellum US by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, was being placed under the microscope for closer analysis as a result of the upheavals spawned by Black revolt, uprisings, and revolutionary movements during the 20th century. Patterson’s endeavor is much more ambitious in scope than it initially appears, as US antebellum slavery is placed within a broader context of slavery as an institution. Because this required an analysis that was transhistorical by nature, the fact that Afro-pessimism posits Black enslavement as something that defies spatio-temporality is, it would seem, misread as a direct product of and misappropriation of Patterson’s general thesis.
Indeed, Patterson himself disavows this application of social death to Black people post-emancipation and states his reasons for doing so, collectively referencing the various ways in which Black people have ostensibly been folded into civil society. But this itself invokes a conflation between the distilled social death and an analysis of slavery’s transformation throughout time, an analysis which is not the central goal of Patterson’s work. In other words, while Patterson’s work is primarily an analysis of structural institutions and their production of slavery, Afro-pessimism takes this up and utilizes it as a framework to analyze the slave—specifically the Black slave—as occupying a specific structural positionality that, while defying spacio-temporality, can be expressed in various ways to accommodate the transformation of slavery through various institutional reforms. Therefore Afro-pessimists seeks to explain why the instance of Black enslavement developed in its particular form and why it appears to be the case that slavery has continued to haunt and inform not only the US, but the world itself.
This leads into the notable absence of certain prominent Black feminist works that Afro-pessimism is ostensibly constructed upon and owes so much to, according to not only Wilderson but other Afro-pessimists as well. To be clear, there are Afro-pessimists who engage thoroughly with Black feminists, both contemporary and not, and while I generally agree that one shouldn’t reduce Afro-pessimism to Wilderson, it is egregious that Wilderson neglects to properly situate this debt that he claims Afro-pessimism owes Black feminism. The closest the list gets to this are Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection and Jackson’s Becoming Human (later on I’ll go into more depth on the latter), which both present frameworks that have not been sufficiently synthesized to advance Afro-pessimism in the direction that it should be going.
You might notice however, the work that is most explicitly about Blackness and gender is Marriott’s On Black Men which, in an effort to examine the role that the Black “male” body plays in sustaining the “psychic life of culture”, in truth neglects an entire section of Black people who are assigned “male” at birth, but who transgress by instead naming their womanhood (Marriott, vii). One might ask, then, what is the utility of arguing that through being reduced to fungible flesh, Black people experience ungendering that paves over gender distinction, and then writing about the distinct experiences of those designated “male”, and consciously hand-waving those designated “male” but who transgress gender norms out of existence? Or perhaps I’m mistaken and this is actually an unconscious decision? What would it imply for there to be a group to fail to register within the consciousness of the Unthought?
I’ve initially agreed to read Afro-pessimism as an attempt to continue the interjection of Black feminism in pointing out the limitations of preceding feminism in its foundation, laid on the presumption that there is a universal “womanhood” that by necessity must be white, in order for such universality to maintain any sort of coherence. What is interesting is that Sylvia Wynter’s place within this legacy is somewhat delegated to more of a footnote than anything. But paradoxically it is true that her interjection is part of the bedrock of Afro-pessimism to the extent that there is an agreement with specific conclusions Wynter makes, but how she reaches these conclusions is fairly obscured to the point where her relation to Afro-pessimism is in a similar vein to that of Patterson. That is to say, Afro-pessimism isn’t necessarily a continuation of Wynter’s developments so much as her contributions are convenient to and find themselves within a meta-critique that is broad enough to house them.
Importantly, I think that Afro-pessimism aims in the correct general direction that I believe is necessary to understand anti-Blackness, and thus finds itself running more or less parallel to Wynter’s intervention in Black feminism in the form of further construction of Fanon’s sociogenic principle. What ends up being the case, however, is that they operate along distinct paths that at some point necessarily diverge, and this divergence stems from a refusal to question the foundational presumption of Black feminism: that cissexism is merely an unfortunate side-effect of colonialism that is of little consequence to gratuitous violence against “the Black”. Afro-pessimism as a meta-critique, generally speaking, is indeed indebted to Black feminism, in the sense that it finds agreement that the hold that cissexism has on Black feminism is considered sacred ground that cannot be defiled by meta-critique.
Patrice D Douglass’ At the Intersections of Assemblages: Fanon, Capécia, and the Unmaking of the Genre Subject demonstrates this bio-centric hold fairly explicitly. In a move that is unsurprising to me at this point, she prefaces this text with the statement that “violence, as a paradigm not solely conducive to a singular act, enraptures blackness prior to and in excess of subject categorization” followed by “this statement is not illusive or hypothetical in its orientation, nor does it dismiss the specificities of black life” (Douglass 103). The mediation of this dialectic embodies the attempt of Afro-pessimism to theorize the twin sides of anti-Blackness: form and formlessness. Black gender itself becomes the medium through which these contradictions are attempted to be resolved, and this is embodied within a specific form: the Black female body.
In some ways, this text can be read as a defense of the cissexist presumptions of Black feminism, something ever-so-subtly glossed over when she places the text Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times by Jasbir K. Puar within a broader context of anti-Black dismissal of “any such attempts to theorize violence using black bodies, and particularly black women as the location to think modes of violence, [...] is marked as antiquated and counterintuitive to the subject’s theoretical progression towards liberation” (Douglass 104). We further find this in her following analysis of the critique of Fanon’s supposed misogyny against Mayotte Capécia in the second chapter of Black Skin, White Masks, “The Women of Color and the White Man,” where she states “Taking sexism as the center of black female oppression reduces and lessens the purview of blackness-qua-violence with respect to gender. It displaces black violence with a conception of human violence that situates all women in a human community sublated by their assumed equal potential for gendered harm” (Douglass 107).
What undergirds Douglass’ analysis, therefore, is a tacit recognition of the way that sexism as a concept has been designed from the ground up to mirror racism — i.e. obfuscation through a universalism which inherently centers white womanhood in the case of the former and nonblackness in the case of the latter, which therefore culminates in obscuring the particular precarity of Black women. That recognizing the fact of Blackness problematizing categorization/differentiation/classification leads to realization of the shaky foundations of the framework of sexism is a testament to its utility; however, again, this is in reality an extremely roundabout way of reaching this conclusion, and one that is implicitly justified through a sleight-of-hand whereby Black woman and Black “female” become interchangeable.
Put another way, in order to identify the direct pathway to reaching this conclusion, I ask the question that if sexism is inherently embedded with a universalized presumption of shared gender experience, why would it not be the case that the experience of Black gender that is Black womanhood being consolidated within the form of a particular sex, i.e. the Black female, is a universalized presumption of shared Black gender experience? Further, if it is true that universalized gender experience inherently obscures anti-Blackness, would it not be the case that an attempt to create a universalized Black gender experience obscures anti-Blackness?
In other words, when Douglass states that “engagement with black gender as the ultimate other is often elided or misrecognized in critiques of gender that do not aptly assess black gender as a formation all its own,” one has to question the utility of implicitly collapsing the experience of cis Black gender with that of trans Black gender (Douglass 109). Further, when she states that “universalism of gendered violence as a theoretical model to apprehend the truth of suffering for black women will always fall short of accounting for just how black womanhood disfigures understandings of the role gender and sexual violence play in the configuration of blackness” it begs the question of whether this “truth of suffering” is fundamentally an extension of the suffering of those cisgender and if so, does this not indicate an obscuring of “the role gender and sexual violence play in the configuration of blackness” (Douglass 109)?
I therefore find that this analysis functionally reproduces the very mistake that Wynter critiques in On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory. Douglass makes a crucial defense of intersectionality, but one which is situated upon a gender fungibility in which certain gender performances, relations, and inhabitations are carved open and excised in order to be enjoyed by others. Referencing Cathy Cohen’s “Punk, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” she makes the familiar argument that through “black kinship structures under slavery [...] blackness is rendered the quintessential being of sexual deviance enacted through a pathologizing of slave gender performances as inherently non-normative and thus subject to gratuitous violence” (Douglass 112-113). This carries with it an intriguing flattening of Black gender performance that itself derives from the flattening effects of slavery, something Douglass later notes: “What is granted precedent over variation amongst slaves is the paradigm of submission of all slaves to the will of the master” (Douglass 118).
The very notion of Black gender performance is itself only legible through the ontological relationship to (non)Being that Black people embody and is therefore a script, an interpretation, translated according to the language of Western episteme. From this episteme, Black, or more properly, Black African gender relation is not something borne from particular ecological inhabitations and social and labor relations that accompany them, but are mere signifiers for Black pathology. What has happened however is a misreading of the fact that—and here I will focus on Black women specifically—the gender experiences of those who are Black and trans encompasses a wide variety, but is consolidated under trans to stand in firm contradistinction to cis, which is a crucial undergird of white womanhood. I agree with Douglass that “rather than approaching blackness as a racial category, it instead should be approached as a paradigm predicated on dissociation”. However, what remains unspoken—and yet still read quite plainly by those of us affected by this—is the dissociation of Black trans women from the gender performance of womanhood (Douglass 118). What permits this is a willful neglect of the violence of cissexism which is constituted of an ordering of racialized sexing engendered qua anti-Blackness. This is why I characterize transmisogynoir as abjection from dissociation itself.
Returning to Wynter, I recognize this trajectory through her understanding of the “reterritorialization” of Black Studies more broadly, “whose goal was to reincorporate these movements, sanitized of their original heretical dynamic, into the Liberal-universalist mainstream” (Wynter 112). It is certainly true that Afro-pessimism takes up her point that “Marxism as a universalism [...] based on the primacy of the issues confronting the Western working classes postulated as the globally generic working class, this in the same way as their issue, postulated as that of the struggle of labor against capital, had also logically come to be postulated as the generic human issue” (Wynter 112). Afro-pessimism therefore as a meta-critique takes close interest in the ways in which particular forms of struggle become overdetermined and become representative of and equivalent to human struggle itself while Black people are displaced from said struggle.
Where this begins to break down is at the point of Black gender and the application of this analysis to the Black Woman. If feminism embodies an attempt to present a generic womanhood embodied in cis white women and Black feminism attempts to present a generic Black womanhood embodied in the “Black female body”, what has occurred is not a deconstruction of Western ontology or metaphysics, but merely an attempt to make them Black through the Western epistemology of sex. No amount of attempt at “meta-critique” can result in an escape from this ordering—because sex and sexual dimorphism were formulated as racialized by necessity per certain material interests to consolidate labor and social relations to serve Man—as long as such a paltry dedication to mere “deconstruction” is insisted upon.
What I am therefore interested in is clarifying that which has amounted to a hermeneutic shift whereby the collapsing of the “real fantasy” of Black gender and the metalanguage of Black suffering is obscured and that this shift has become the most common ground upon which Black feminism and Black queer theory have settled. Put another way, the structural relations of slavery and anti-Black cisheteropatriarchy that produce the particularity of Black gender, or the “real”, are conflated with the language with which we study the “language” that sutures and makes legible biocentric codes, modes of humanness, genres, etc. This metalanguage is what Frank Wilderson refers to as a “grammar of suffering”—taking the invisible, underlying norms, schemas, scripts which, while unspoken, nonetheless form the structure of hierarchy and oppression, and making them visible and no longer unspoken.
Within Black feminism, if there is anything that could be considered the magnum opus in terms of the attempt to formulate a “grammar of suffering” with regards to Black gender, it would most likely be Hortense Spillers’ own Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book, aptly named because it is very much so a Grammar Book for the structure that is slavery in the United States and the manner in which it produces Black gender. The work employs what could easily be mistaken for doublespeak—were there any intent to deceive—that is instead more of a doublewriting whereby Spillers is engaging in mythmaking through an almost ever-shifting perspective. She not only writes about the “event of slavery” that distorted reality in its worldmaking as it historically existed in the “real”, but also writes about the distortion of that “real” and through this, she crafts a new reality entirely. This is why the prose of the text is so notoriously difficult to parse—she is engaging in this writing not as an academic text but more of a song, in a similar way that Wynter described her own thinking as something that “never came linearly. It tends to come the way a flower blooms” (Thomas).
Spillers is working through a language that is interminably bound with Western onto-epistemology in order to attempt to obliterate that very language with her own. It is from this understanding that I read Spillers’ engagement with the “Black female body” as an attempt to obliterate that very (pre)-figuration. Spillers herself appears to hint at this, where she describes a ”porosity of motives whose direction and outcome could be reversed, in fact, demolished”:
“By isolating a subject of gender here, we were interested in process and the laws by which it operated that ascribed to subjects on this stage of history their particular role and act. This ‘grammar of motives,’ the subject of my long-term project in connection with this essay, commences an investigation of gender-making in British colonial North America. It was rather clear to me from the start that ‘gender,’ like ‘race,’ is not given, although it would appear to be counterintuitive to make such a claim: after all, the ‘facts’ of human reproductive biology cannot be contravened. But the powerful additions of culture render such facts not simply descriptive, or differential, but, as we know, evaluative and inherent” (Black, White, and in Color 22)
The question becomes, if the goal is to “reverse” the direction of this “gender-making” to the point of obliteration, what is it that lies beyond this obliteration? Spillers’ audience is that of cis Black women and men and this is reaffirmed when she speaks of the capacity of diasporic African cis men to understand something “about the female that no other community had the opportunity to understand, and also vice versa” (“Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe 304). That this equation does not include Black trans people is indicative of slavery as a singularity. However, whereas Christina Sharpe utilizes the slavery-as-singularity in her terms of anti-Blackness as total climate within weather, I use it here in its general conception within physics—as representing the point at which our theories of physics breaks down and we require something new as an explanatory tool (Sharpe 105).
What is important is to keep in mind that some singularities are resolvable. Theoretical explanatory tools such as the “Black female body” that have a certain utility and function begin to break down at the singularity of slavery; however they become resolvable through discarding an attempt to Blacken sexism and instead analyze cissexism and intersexism and their intersection with anti-Blackness as materially grounded in the genocidal attempt to obliterate indigenous African (non)relations to gender. Spillers points us in this direction when she identifies one of the key interjections made by Black feminism which, through making note that
“the African female in both indigenous African cultures and in what becomes her ‘home,’ performed tasks of hard physical labor — so much so that the quintessential ‘slave’ is not a male, but a female — we wonder at the seeming docility of the subject, granting her a ‘feminization’ that enslavement kept at bay. Indeed, across the spate of discourse that I examined for this writing, the acts of enslavement and responses to it comprise a more or less agonistic engagement of confrontational hostilities among males” (“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” 72-73).
In other words, Spillers highlights the ungendering of Black slaves such that “African females” were subjected to the same harsh labor as those “male” and asking the question of why we do not find within the historical record/archives the same presence of the former as the latter in terms of resistance and rebellion. She then states that the common explanation given is that said “females” undergo “feminization”, however this introduces a contradiction whereby they are both “masculinized” and “feminized” simultaneously. This absurdity is a result of the singularity and she points to this directly via her succinct statement that “in the historic outline of dominance, the respective subject-positions of ‘female’ and ‘male’ adhere to no symbolic integrity” (Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe 66).
To make my own interjection however, where Black feminism stumbles is a failure to recognize the noted absence within the historical record/archives of resistance and rebellion from Black trans people, specifically Black trans women/transfems. Therefore, the positionality at play here is not merely one of sexism, but it is specifically one of cissexism and intersexism. Black trans women/transfems are not represented through the domination of “Black males” within the archives and records, we are instead categorically erased, and rather than desiring the upending of this, Black feminism and queer theory have engaged in a reterritorialization whereby our erasure has been reconfigured as overrepresentation—or as it is framed so often within queer spaces writ large, “taking up space”. Afro-pessimism, whether intentionally or unconsciously, has furthered the insistence of taking the “Black female body” as a literal, physical site that acts as the nexus for engendering the particularity of Black gender, regardless of the fact of Black trans women/transfems being delegated to the realm of the Unthought to be excavated in order to make Black gender and Black Womanhood itself legible. This is facilitated in no small part through a particular interpretation of ungendering that does not properly locate Black transgressive womanhood.
Ungendering was initiated in the “Middle Passage'' within the hold of the slave ship. Within the hold, slaves became an undifferentiated mass and were robbed of what made their various cultures distinct, i.e. they were “culturally ‘unmade’”, and their particular social and economic relations were ripped to shreds. “Under these conditions,” Spillers states, “one is neither female, nor male, as both subjects are taken into ‘account’ as quantities” (“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” 72). In other words, slaves became fungible, mere numbers on a ledger. Or, as Zakkiyah Iman Jackson describes, “Slavery’s archival footprint is a ledger system that placed black humans, horses, cattle, and household items all on the same bill of purchase” (Jackson 45). Those captured Africans had existing modes of living and Being that resided outside of the confines of what would become the onto-epistemic canon of Euromodernity. To once again echo Jackson, slavery “catalyzed the conscription of black people into hegemonically imperialist and racialized conceptions of ‘modernity’ and ‘universal humanity’” (45).
Ungendering is, therefore, not an ontological embodiment that Black people have always occupied—rather, it is something that is imposed on us to capture us within anti-Black and colonial frameworks. Ungendering is an exogenous process and this is why it was co-developed with another exogenous process, racialization. However at the same time, gender is an endogenous production and therefore there is a delineation to be made between said endogenous form of gender and what ultimately culminated in the flattening category “Black Woman”. Put together, this particular (i.e. colonial and bourgeois) expression of gender and therefore race are both, as Sylvia Wynter states, a function of genre, specifically that of Man.
This recognition that race is a function of genre is a crucial one, as there seems to have been a misappropriation of this conceptualization. What was initially a materialist framework for understanding the historical development of distinction/categorization/classification centered around the Human has become an insistence that a particular distinction/categorization/classification supersedes and subsumes all others. Specifically, it would appear that Wynter’s interjection into feminist theory has been read as an argument that Blackness disrupts gender to the point that it renders it illegible—in other words, the racialization of Blackness has produced/stemmed from an epistemic shift in which race (i.e. Black) has replaced gender and therefore feminist struggle merely represents one of many struggles within the house of the Human. There is some truth to this; however, where the misreading comes in is the claim that race (i.e. Black) has replaced gender. Historical epistemic shifts do not occur through substitution, but rather transformations, or perhaps more accurately, transmogrification. This is how, for example, we find that the epistemic shift during the period of the formation of European humanism through the Enlightenment that took the Christian and made it into Man (or the Human) did not occur through substitution. Indeed, the Christian as the signifier representing One who was unbefitting of enslavement and one who was deserving of Freedom was transmogrified into Man, and therefore stood in contradistinction to the Black African who lacked a soul and therefore could not be Saved and was unbefitting of self-determination.
This is why Wynter emphasizes that “I am trying to insist that ‘race’ is really a code-word for ‘genre.’ Our issue is not the issue of ‘race.’ Our issue is the issue of the genre of ‘Man’” (Thomas). This is the facet of Wynter’s theorization that is typically dropped by those who present it as a mere replacement of gender for race. Instead, it is a project to expand a critique of humanism beyond a restrictive scope of gender and study genre more broadly. Reading this development, one can detect a noticeable frustration within Wynter’s writings and interviews that I find common ground with. For example, Wynter continues, “Now when I speak at a feminist gathering and I come up with ‘genre’ and say ‘gender’ is a function of ‘genre,’ they don’t want to hear that” (Thomas). Currently, I feel like Wynter at these feminist gatherings when they weren't trying to hear that “gender” was a function of “genre”, but instead it's whenever I'm talking to those who insist they are seeking the end of anti-Blackness and they're not trying to hear that “race” is also a function of “genre”. And the reason for this is fairly simple: it is because they do not want to recognize that, as Nsambu Za Suekama states, the “‘color line’ is threaded at the nexus of gendered labor divisions/institutions/contradictions,” or, to slightly amend another observation by her, the color line is painted with a gendered brush.
Therefore, I find it necessary to present an alternative framework that takes seriously the violence of racialized sexing, properly contextualizes it with ungendering, and adequately situates its role in constructing and reifying anti-Blackness. What would this alternative framework look like? From here on, I will attempt to map out a skeleton of this alternative through Joy James’ Captive Maternal in concert with Zakkiyah Iman Jackson’s ontological plasticity and Calvin Warren’s onticide. I will then employ this framework to demonstrate the ways in which what are functionally—for lack of a better term—diet-TERF concepts, assumptions, and approaches are embedded within Black feminisim and queer theory through identifying points of intersection with neofascist ideology with a Black face via a comparison of the transmisogynoir of Dave Chappelle and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and concluding with circling back around to uncovering the ways in which normative assumptions and paradigms employed within Black feminism and queer theory that reify transmisogynoir can be chipped away.
Joy James defines Captive Maternals as “self-identified female, male, trans or ungendered persons feminized and socialized into caretaking within the legacy of racism and US democracy” who “are designated for consumption in the tradition of chattel slavery; they stabilize with their labor the very social and state structures which prey upon them.” In short, Captive Maternals are those captured whose labor is exploited in service of sustaining and stabilizing structures that perpetuate their captivity. The two notable aspects of this definition are that 1) Captive Maternals do not exist necessarily as a function strictly of their gender and 2) this is facilitated through the interplay between US democracy, racism (anti-Blackness), and chattel slavery. That the Captive Maternal is not a descriptor of an identity tied to a specific gender is something James has been careful to note numerous times. For example, a year earlier she described that “the whole concept of the captive maternal came about from watching people, predominantly women, but it’s not just women. I call it an ungendered function, right? It’s not an identity, so it’s not a biological mother per-se, but it’s a function of care taking and nurturing of reconstituting or stabilizing your community.” What I would like to question however is the way that in relation to the Black Matrix, what is both spoken and unspoken prioritizes some above others such that the attempt to present a structural positionality can in turn express itself as an identity.
According to James, the Black Matrix is spawned from Womb Theory. Womb Theory is not directly defined by James, however in short it is a descriptor for the nexus of Western theory that spawns the systems of democracy and slavery which also encompass it and therefore culminates in “the historical context that married democracy with slavery” (“Womb” 255-256). Because the preeminent subjects of Womb Theory are democracy and slavery, it (unintentionally) engenders the Black Matrix. Again, the Black Matrix is not strictly defined; however from the definition of the word “matrix” as per Merriam-Webster as “something (such as a situation or a set of conditions) in which something else develops or forms”, putting this together with the concept of the “womb”, we might envision the Black Matrix as describing the particular environment within which (anti)Blackness, as mediated by the theoretical collapsing of democracy and slavery, develops and is nurtured. This appears to reaffirm slavery as world-founding and offers a potential explanation as to what distinguishes (but not divorces) contemporary anti-Blackness from the anti-Blackness of antiquity via Western democracy.
While I use “Western democracy” here, James presents democracy itself as the problem, with its Western variant merely exposing democracy itself as “a boundary defining freedom through captivity” (“Afrarealism” 124). It is in this way that Womb Theory creates that which carries the potential to destroy it, embodied in the Black Matrix. James identifies Black feminism as an expression of this Black Matrix and thus those who theorize within it as Captive Maternals. Womb Theory is at constant war with these Captive Maternals, as they regularly expose the “borders of democracy” which challenges the very core concepts of democracy. However because Womb Theory emerges from the presumption that “free (white) males of property were presumed to inherit a unique capacity for contemplating the universal, the timeless, and the sublime”, Black feminism is read as being fundamentally incapable of conceiving of the whole, i.e., a liberatory framework for the betterment of all (“Political Trauma” 347).
Consequently, these Captive Maternals must make endless concessions and orient their theoretical labor around the interests of Man, which are supposedly universal, all-encompassing, and represent the generic interests of the human. Black feminism thus undergoes reterritorialization and juggles “theorizing for liberation” and “theorizing for domination”—an endless feedback loop “that builds social platforms also enables production and performance” (“Political Trauma” 346-347). It is from this premise that Joy James conceives of the Black Matrix as “a fulcrum to leverage power against predatory democracies” and that “atop that fulcrum sits a spectrum whose bandwidth reflects diverse political ideologies” (347). James asks that we imagine this spectrum as a plank atop the fulcrum (like a see-saw, for example), and upon that plank lies the political actors, who, using their “weight”, determine “who is elevated to the highest position and who scrunches their knees up with their bottom on the ground” (“Womb” 257). Therefore this acts in a similar fashion to a physical lever system, whereby the amount of force required to move an object is altered through its relation to the fulcrum. In other words, the Black Matrix as fulcrum can be utilized to leverage, and Captive Maternals through their relation to the Black Matrix occupy a unique position with the capability to employ this to the greatest degree.
If the Black Matrix acts as fulcrum that can be leveraged by the Captive Maternal to dismantle power structures, it follows then that should there be an overdetermined subject that is said to embody this positioning, there would be ramifications for the framework’s application because of the broader trend of reterritorialization and the function of the Captive Maternal itself. Recall the earlier point that Black feminism per Western episteme is incapable of generating broadly applicable frameworks at a fundamental level. This sentiment that Black feminism is incapable of serving the interests of “all” in reality is an expression of Black feminism’s challenge to the foundations of Man’s religion/science/onto-epistemology, which are all presumed to be neutral, objective, and universal. As a result, this sentiment is also intimately bound with Black people being positioned as the “problem child” within a multiracial coalition. Or, as Jared Sexton put it in Amalgamation Schemes: “Blacks are thus depicted in the multiracial imagination as a conglomerate anachronism, perpetuating disreputable traits of antebellum slave society and presenting a foremost obstacle to the progress of liberal society today” (Sexton 36). This “liberal progress”, is sustained utilizing Black suffering as its lifeblood. The narrative, mythos, call it whatever you like, of American Progress utilizes slavery as its measuring stick—no matter how much Black (non)being might be in crisis, no matter how many Black people are murdered, mutilated, imprisoned, etc., at least we aren’t slaves anymore, so the story goes.
What has become clear to me however is that Black feminism has its own narrative of Progress as well. Its divergence from (white) feminism being grounded in questioning the latter’s utility with regards to Black gender carries with it the presumption that the Black trans* gender question is resolved. This theoretical void that was not recognized as such was attempted to be filled by Queer Theory, which has now been met with Black Queer Theory. At every stage, the unspoken “development” occurs through a critique of various extensions and additives of “all the women are white, all the Blacks are men”. Black feminism and Black queer theory have employed intersectionality to show that it’s not enough to critique that maxim through pointing to Black Women, but one must also point to Black Women who are poor, not straight, fat, etc. However Black feminism operates upon the collapsing of the overrepresentation of “Black males” and the overrepresentation of cis Black men. Therefore, if Black feminism emerges from a critique of the maxim “all the women are white, all the Blacks are men,” then Black trans*feminism emerges from a critique of the maxim “all the women are white, all the Blacks are men, all the Black Women are cis.”
James herself makes an important insight when referencing Aristotle’s responsibility in providing much of the grounding that would nurture the creation of Western Womb Theory that is useful to trace my argument:
“Aristotle’s three-part construct is as follows: theorist is free male-as-human; non-theorist is slave-as-antihuman; and defective-theorist is nonslave female-as-semi-human. The ‘natural order’ ignores that (1) action is part of theorizing—the ‘slave’ is created by an act of enslaving (not by biology or ontology); (2) ungendering the slave veils power differentials among the enslaved. “Black” often means ‘black males’; ‘black females’ often refers to cisgendered females; violence disproportionately targets black transgendered women and girls” (“Political Trauma” 350).
This is a succinct description of the presumptions that culminate into the Western episteme that is Womb Theory. It also summarizes my above line of thinking, whereby “Black” becomes “Black male” and “Black [woman] female” becomes “Black cis [woman] female”. From this, we can glean that Black trans women/transfems are made into Captive Maternals and occluded as such, all the while facing disproportionate amounts of violence specifically as Captive Maternals who are transmisogynoir-affected (TMA). Most crucially however is that James implicitly ties this structural abjection to Womb Theory. In other words, we can transpose it upon Wynter’s conception of the reterritorialization of (Black) feminism, where the latter denotes the process whereby potentially radical Black feminisms are integrated into Womb Theory utilizing the captive bodies, flesh, and labor of Black trans women/transfems. Further, we can extend from this identifying the positionality of Black trans women/transfems with respect to predatory theorization:
“The theft of time, the trauma of rape and enslavement, the resulting incapacitations of body and mind, the debilitation of spirit—all are appended to predatory theory’s hierarchies and contested by liberatory theory’s battle to call forth theory that does not reduce the experiences of captive maternals to raw resources mined for capital, or narratives that become theory only after they are translated into Western abstract logic. Assertions that captive maternals are incapable of producing theory about reality that their labor cocreated solidify the dominant role of the captor as structure, boss, interpreter, and warden. Captors in their own race for dominance reengineer theorizing to mask the traumas of captive maternals, and the theft of their time and labor. Predatory ‘theorizing’ renders the captive an ‘edible,’ a ‘delectable negro[/negress]’ that black queer theorist Vincent Woodard describes as cannibalized by the benevolent/malevolent master/mistress” (“Political Trauma” 347).
Again, Captive Maternals are exploited in ways that maintain the stability of the structures, institutions, and systems that exploit them. Thus I ask, within the realm of the academy, the purported center of theoretical production, are those who are theorizing about the positionality of Black trans women/transfems predominantly Black trans women/transfems? We are not. Is it the case that the overwhelmingly cis Black feminists theorizing about our trauma, our deaths, our sexual violation, and the policing of our bodies go beyond us being excavated and cannibalized and reduce violence against us? Contrary to the amount of times “center Black trans women” may escape from their mouths and evident by only ever-increasing violence against us interpersonally and via the State and the Law, it is not. Do these theoretical productions from cis Black feminists exceedingly rely upon the translation of our structural positioning into the logic of Western abstraction? Given that the highest degree of “representation” we receive is explicitly under the grouping of “Black males” and having our womanhood occluded because it serves as a fundamental transgression to Womb Theory, I would rather confidently say that they do.
I therefore turn to Calvin Warren’s Black Nihilism in part because Joy James’ reorientation of democracy as an instrument of preserving slavery through becoming interminably bound with it is complementary with Warren’s own notation that “the American dream, then, is realized through black suffering. It is the humiliated, incarcerated, mutilated, and terrorized black body that serves as the vestibule for the Democracy that is to come. In fact, it almost becomes impossible to think the Political without black suffering” (“Black Nihilism” 217). But also, Warren and James find common ground in a “politics of refusal” that in fact serves as a non-politic as anti-politic—or as Warren puts it, a “political apostasy”.
Further, Warren identifies the focus of the Black Nihilist as “the relationship between the spiritual concept of hope and its use as a political instrument” (218). This is because “the critical questioning of the spiritual is that it often appropriates spiritual concepts and then, insidiously, translates them into the ‘scientific’ or the knowable, as a way to both capitalize on the mystic power of the spiritual and to preserve the spiritual under the guise of ‘enlightened understanding” (218). Thus, for Warren and therefore the Black Nihilist, the danger of spiritual hope is not "hope" as such, but that it is violently appropriated by and utilized to sustain the Political. It is forcibly seized and transmogrified into Political Hope. However hope need not be understood in such strict terms, for we find this process of the translation of the spiritual into the “scientific” and “objective” and carried along with it is a hope in certain institutions, structures, onto-epistemology, etc. that is embodied in a racialized sexual dimorphism which culminates in transmisogynoir.
Zakiyyah Iman Jackson describes this in Becoming Human:
“[S]cience and philosophy share many characteristics with literature and visual art despite the espoused objectivity and procedural integrity of scientific and philosophical discourses. In debates concerning the specificity of human identity with respect to ‘the animal,’ science and philosophy both possess foundational and recursive investments in figurative, and arguably literary, narratives that conceptualize blackness as trope, metaphor, symbol, and a kind of fiction. Instead of thinking of philosophy and science as separate and unrelated sites of knowledge production, my study reveals their historical entanglement and shared assumptive logic with regard to blackness” (Jackson 2-3).
Further, in relation to gender particularly:
“Gendered and sexual discourses on ‘the African’ are inextricable from those pertaining to reason, historicity, and civilization, as purported observations of gender and sexuality were frequently used to provide ‘evidence’ of the inherent abject quality of black people’s human animality from the earliest days of the invention of ‘the human.’ Christian Europe had already privileged gender and sexuality as indicators of ‘civilization,’ and visual observation, namely culturally situated perspective, had not emerged as an epistemological problem for thought” (5).
Jackson’s interjection is a much welcome one, and I read it as one that runs not along the same path as Afro-pessimism, but in parallel to it. Specifically, what she does is note the weakness of Black feminism and queer theory in properly analyzing and situating the violent act of racialized sexing upon African bodies and therefore she makes careful note to emphasize the particularities of a Black gendered experience from this. Thus, she attempts to avoid reproducing the flattening of Black gendered experience and calls for resolving the issues of limited scope within Black feminism and queer theory and presents the framework of ontological plasticity to do so. Plasticity for Jackson is defined as “a mode of transmogrification whereby the fleshy being of blackness is experimented with as if it were infinitely malleable lexical and biological matter” (3). Jackson contrasts this with attempts from Western philosophy to self-critique through characterizing the source of anti-Blackness as merely a strict “dehumanization”. For Jackson, the violence of anti-Blackness is not merely found in being denied humanity, but being subjected to ontological malleability that renders Black flesh and (non)being as a plaything that can produce Blackness as “sub/super/human at once, a form where form shall not hold: potentially ‘everything and nothing’ at the register of ontology” (3).
Jackson does not, in my mind, successfully escape the trap of Black feminism and queer theory which have been self-imposed thus far. She reaffirms the “Black female body” as being the nexus of racialized sexualization, specifically deeming it “paradigmatically the human’s limit case” (4). In other words, the “Black female body” represents the boundary of the human. The problem with this is that this also serves as the limit of theoretical intrigue. Jackson observes as I have elsewhere that the hierarchical racialization of sexual distinction/differiation functionally renders Black women as both an otherized gender and sex and yet, in her venture to argue that integration within liberal/Western humanistic conceptions of being, the focus is not on that which lies beyond the limit/boundary that she identifies as the “Black female body”. What lies beyond the determined limit of the human—that which is refused a name both in the Western epistemological order and that which seeks to critique it—are those Black and trans*.
I therefore supplement Jackson’s ontological plasticity with Warren’s onticide. Warren conceives of onticide as being an act of ontological murder, whereby the Black is subjected to a state of nonbeing which permits or allows for the engendering of Being for the human. However just as physical death/murder implies a preceding physical life, ontological death/murder implies an ontological “life”. Where Warren diverges from previous attempts to conceptualize anti-Blackness and therefore provides the most potential for those Black and trans* is that he identifies onticide as something that is done to those who are not merely Black. Specifically, the site of onticide is “the distinction between African existence and black [non]being” (Ontological Terror 40). Thus, onticide is the point at which Western metaphysics and ontology murders African existence at the level of being such that African modes of living through relations of selves, labor, and environmental inhabitation are obliterated. This murder is then accompanied by a zombification whereby, per Spillers, we become “living laboratories” and sites of experimentation via ontological plasticity.
This synthesis permits us to no longer take for granted the established boundary of the human as formulated per the whims of Man’s religion, Man’s science, and Man’s mode of being. The Afro-pessimists who have insisted that the analytical tools employed to combat anti-Blackness are infused with anti-Blackness themselves certainly have a strong case. However the implications from certain theorists that this will always remain the case are spurious. These implications are sustained by a set of specific interests aligned with cisheteropatriarchy. This is not to repeat the tired characterization of Afro-pessimism as consisting of merely cishet men; rather, this is to point out that the discursive spaces within which these discussions and theorizations often occur are structured in such a way where imagination outside of Western abstraction of gender is rendered nigh-impossible, and that not only is there no incentive for those who are not Black trans women/transfems (i.e. those transmisogynoir-exempt) to escape this, but that there is also an active disincentive against this.
Currently, there are theorizations of transmisogynoir as being a particular positionality through which class, race, and gender is lived. This is not done in the academy, which self-justifies displacing Black trans women/transfems to the realm of the Unthought. We are overwhelmingly lumpenized and the relationship we have to the academy is one which is demystified by the Captive Maternal. In “Airbrushing Revolution for the Sake of Abolition,” Joy James described Angela Davis’ relationship with George Jackson and how with the latter’s assassination, Davis repurposed her 1971 article “The Role of the Black Woman in a Community of Slaves” from “an analysis of how Black women fought alongside Black men in family/community for freedom” to “a Black feminist manifesto, castigating the Moynihan report on ‘black matriarchy’ and highlighting the centrality and indispensability of Black feminist leadership.” Jackson’s labor, both as a grassroots intellectual and militant, instigated both his death and the possibility for Davis’ notoriety within the academy and allowed the latter’s full integration such that “Jackson maintained from the site of prison that the US was proto-fascist; from the site of the university, Davis asserted it was not.” James all but states that George Jackson was not only a Captive Maternal, but was specifically Davis’ Captive Maternal. From this, I state firmly that Black trans women/transfems are not only Captive Maternals, but are the Captive Maternals of Black feminism and queer theory. Further, Black feminism and queer theory are sustained through the airbrushing of transmisogynoir for the sake of academia.
To demonstrate the interlocking presumptions that undergird Black feminism and queer theory and their ramifications upon those Black and TMA, we can take the case of Dave Chappelle’s transphobic (in particular, transmisogynistic) Netflix special, The Closer and compare it to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s initial comments about trans women during an interview in 2017 and subsequent followup shortly after. First, let’s address Chappelle.
Dave Chappelle is certainly no anomaly in his transmisogyny, and I feel it necessary to state this plainly because underlying all of the harmful rhetoric he insists on perpetuating is a gender anxiety that provides relative stability to anti-Blackness that is leveraged in particular by transmisogynoir. This gender anxiety is grounded in a shared narrative of dispossession that ultimately aspires proximity to Man through internalization of Man’s science and Man’s religion—Man’s (bio)mythology. Furthermore, there is a shared insistence on the paving over of the violence endemic to sexing. This is because sexing is crucial to the self-justification of genital fixation—or perhaps it would be apt to follow in the path of Christina Sharpe’s employment of the term genital fantasies.
These genital fantasies emerge from the very process that shapes the concept of biological sex and therefore sexual differentiation: semiotic transposition. This term appears unwieldy and complex, but the actual concept itself is straightforward. Defined by Bernice L. Hausman in Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender (which, by the way, I do not recommend in any way, shape or form), semiotic transposition is when “a sign becomes a signifier for something else.” For example, we name certain hormones as “male” and “female” despite the fact that it makes no sense to assign sex to anything other than the whole of an organism. Because the whole organism being sexed is taken as a given, this assignment is transposed onto the various individual aspects (e.g. hormones, chromosomes, etc.), which then is used to signify that the sex actually exists. Therefore, the sign (individual aspects) becomes the signifier (the sexed organism).
If that sounds fundamentally circular, it’s because it is. However this circular logic is a significant reason for why “biological sex” has sustained itself despite being in perpetual crisis (such as it being demonstrated unequivocally that “male” hormones and “female” hormones are found in “females” and “males” respectively). Even as early as 1939, for example, scientist Frank Lillie felt it necessary to state that “there is no such biological entity as sex. What exists in nature is a dimorphism within species into male and female individuals [...] Sex is not a force that produces these contrasts; it is merely a name for our total impression of the differences” (Lillie 3). There are two things most notable about this. First, it communicates the fact that because of the circular nature of the logic of this form of semiotic transposition, sex itself cannot possibly be a causal force for what are deemed differences in sex-based outcomes. Second, there is a tacit attempt to circumvent this very circular nature which extends from taking for granted the concept of sexual dimorphism.
Sexual dimorphism, even more so than the sex binary, carries with it a strong veneer of “scientific neutrality” despite coming nowhere close to having earned such a badge of honor. Indeed, from the very initial stages of significant consideration and study in the time of Darwin, sexual dimorphism was inherently racialised. Darwin himself even noted the writings of a contemporary, Carl Vogt, who argued that sexual dimorphism was hierarchical according to race, with it “increas[ing] with the development of the race”. Further, in 1866, Richard von Krafft-Ebing stated in Psychopathia Sexualis, one of the most influential texts in psychiatry and psychopathology, "The secondary sexual characteristics differentiate the two sexes; they present the specific male and female types. The higher the anthropological development of the race, the stronger these contrasts between man and woman." Despite the concept of race largely falling out of favor with anthropologists, sexual dimorphism even to this day has also been used to preserve the concept within forensic anthropology through comparing the dimorphism of skulls of the remains of white versus Black people (https://www.mdpi.com/2079-7737/10/7/602)
This continuation of the mutually constitutive nature of sex/sexual dimorphism and race is, to say the least, an inconvenience to the sex-as-class framework that has thus far fueled what we now typically refer to as white feminism. Indeed, if sexual dimorphism and sex/gender differentiation is itself racialized, and if we do not live in a “post-racial society”—but rather, we live in a society in which liberalism insists upon rendering racism invisible which therefore provides cover for and facilitates the growth of fascism—then it stands to reason that the argument that we live in a “post-transmisogynist” society, in which trans women wield a disproportionate amount of power, is an articulation of and forms a feedback loop with the insistence on the existence of a “post-racial society”. However this also means that race and cissexism are mutually sustaining of one another systematically, institutionally, and interpersonally, and that therefore they can mask various methods of preserving and perfecting slavery, with transmisogynoir as the fulcrum.
Thus, when Dave Chappelle states that transmisogyny is of no concern to Black people, nestled under the surface is the idea that therefore transmisogynoir is of no concern to Black people. When he declares, in an attempt to justify his attacks upon trans people, that his problem isn’t with trans people but instead it’s with white people, he is conflating trans with white. The violence of Dave Chappelle's special isn't merely found in that it perpetuates violent and harmful rhetoric about trans women (and trans people broadly), but that he is successfully (i.e. profiting off of and generating profits for others, including Netflix) parroting sentiments that already govern the world itself, while perpetuating the idea that the converse is true, and that it is actually trans women who have disproportionate power in this world. This is where the convergence with fascism is established most clearly and concretely.
Indeed, Chappelle’s proclamation that he is “team TERF” in defense of J.K. Rowling quite explicitly betrays his true intentions in allying himself with neo-fascism. The only way for the idea that Rowling—a cishet white woman who has more wealth than most people can dream of—is a “victim” to even approach coherence is to presume that poor, Black TMA people somehow wield power within society. Chappelle summarizes his allyship with neo-fascism and Rowling with the simple statement: “gender is a fact”. He then follows up by “clarifying” that “I am not saying that to say trans women aren’t women, I am just saying that those pussies that they got… you know what I mean? I’m not saying it’s not pussy, but it’s Beyond Pussy or Impossible Pussy. It tastes like pussy, but that’s not quite what it is, is it? That’s not blood, that’s beet juice.”
This convoluted mess of mental gymnastics is quite familiar to trans women. We are met with “trans women are women”, followed by the implicit “but” that then leads into bio-essentialism which reduces us to how “real” our pussies are. It does not actually matter whether we have undergone surgery or not, this is besides the point. Genitalia is merely the sign that is being utilized as signifier. Vagina becomes synonymous with “woman” while at the same time “Woman” itself is essentialized to such a degree that trans women are divorced from it on a whim. This interplay between semiotic transposition and genital fantasy mediates the general sentiment from TME people that trans women are merely attempting to “don” womanhood. This therefore leads to the questionable, to say the least, claim that being a trans woman is equivalent to Blackface. Black TME people therefore navigate interactions with Black TMA people with this framework lodged in their unconscious. After all, Blackface is an act of deception. It is a mockery. Therefore, if being a trans woman is equivalent to Blackface, Black trans women become the embodiment of the “trickster”. This brings us to Adichie.
In March 2017, Adichie was asked whether she believed that a trans woman is any less of a woman than cis women and in response, she stated "When people talk about, ‘are trans women women’ my feeling is that trans women are trans women.” Notably, the question she was asked was a leading one, as the interviewer asked this question about “a trans women who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man,” and a generous interpretation of this statement could possibly indicate the interviewer is speaking of a very specific hypothetical, rather than an actually-existing descriptor that is applied generally. However, even granting this, Adichie of her own volition accepts the latter and continues, “If you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
The interviewer ties identification as a man to “enjoying the privileges of being a man”, when in reality these two are not necessarily indicative of one another. Adichie thus takes up this presumption and runs with it, summing the two up as “liv[ing] in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men”. For those acquainted with gender discourse outside of the Ivory Tower, both online and offline (but particularly online), this is easily recognizable as an articulation of the concept known as “male socialization” or “socialized as male”. As the name implies, the concept claims that those “assigned male at birth” (AMAB) are socialized in a particular way that distinguishes them as a class from those “assigned female at birth” (AFAB). For Adichie, trans women are made women through the act of switching gender which is forced to work backwards, and therefore must mean that we lived in and experienced the world as men prior to this switch.
Chappelle and Adichie share a substantial amount of common ground, the foundation of which are two expressions of the idea that trans women are not “real” women. Chappelle claims, through indirectly, that he recognizes trans women as women, but then negates this through equating womanhood with the vagina, of which there are two “kinds”, with one of them being “real” and that belongs to cis women. Adichie on the other hand, avoids this roundabout path and opts for a more direct one of merely denying that trans women are women through the refusal to even entertain the idea and through stating that she rejects the idea of “talk[ing] about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women.” While not explicitly stated, the clear implication here is that “women’s issues” refers specifically to cis women’s issues, especially as there is no bloc of individuals arguing that the issues of trans women encompass the totality of the experience of women’s issues generally. Regardless, Adichie rather blatantly betrays her insistence on merely trying to be mindful of differences and be “inclusive” through the simple act of rendering “cis woman” and “woman” as interchangeable. Trans women are not merely “differentiated”, we are abjected.
Adichie completes her thought by stating “What I’m saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.” While I would like to dismiss this statement as merely being the baffling non-sequitur that it is, this is actually an obfuscatory method easily recognizable to many trans women. The framework of gender being a matter of sociology and not biology when utilized in this manner permits for a certain amount of wiggle-room to be able to deflect against accusations of bioessentialism, however “male socialization” can only ever be bioessentialist. bell hooks reminds us that we must be mindful of “interlocking systems of domination that define our reality”, which she summarizes as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” but must be amended to white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy. We are all “socialized” under this domain which cannot actually be disentangled to the point of atomization into individual structures/systems/institutions that act independently.
What serves as the foundation for this supposed male socialization is the social attribution of “male privilege” which is acted upon and repeated for “males”. But talk to enough trans women and a pattern begins to emerge—one of a consistent experience of violence, trauma, etc. stemming from a failure for this “male socialization” to actually take place. Regardless of our identification as “men”, we are endlessly punished for not being men. Supposing that we were to accept the idea that patriarchy is simply about a hierarchy of men over women, where women are punished on the basis of not being men, the experience of trans women prior to our self-recognition as such of being punished for not being men is entirely compatible with an experience of womanhood. The justification for not considering this to be so is then shifted to certain characteristics attributed to manhood such as predatory, violent, aggressive, etc. behavior. This of course begs the question of if it is the case that a trans woman engages in one or more of these behaviors prior to realization of being such: why would they make it such that it would not still be consistent to consider their socialization as one of womanhood? The answer is, of course, the belief that it is inherently justified that these behaviors are attributed to the very nature of trans women by way of being “male”.
I felt it necessary to first offer up a critique based on specifically the initial comments that sparked the justifiably angry responses to them, as it seems clear to me that one can reasonably obtain the reading I came away with from the various implications found within said comments. However these comments do not represent the whole story, and in fact Adichie’s responses to the criticism levied at her confirm that which was originally more implicit—rendering them much more explicit.
For example, Adichie’s immediate response in the form of a Facebook post titled Clarifying contains an attempt at clarification through describing trans women as “people who, having been born male, benefited from the privileges that the world affords men” and argues “that we should not say that the experience of women born female is the same as the experience of trans women.” This does “clarify” two things in particular that were not quite explicitly stated in the initial comments. First, Adichie is naming being “born male” as the specific source of privilege that is afforded to men, bridging the two. Second, Adichie adheres to a (not unpopular) framework which argues that womanhood stems from oppression and that oppression is embodied in being biologically female and thus is engendered by hatred of females as a class. This makes sense, as in the initial interview, Adichie claims that the experience of womanhood is “not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It’s about the way the world treats us.”
Adichie dances around the fact that “female anatomy” and thus being biologically female is central to her conception of womanhood. This is why she is incredibly vague about these ways in which the world treats women, i.e. the forms of oppression that are constitutive of womanhood. When she does attempt to offer even the slightest hint of clarification, it becomes very clear that she adheres to the “male socialization” concept which does not actually conform with actually existing experiences. For example, after insisting that she does not hold the experiences of trans women to be lesser than those of cis women, she claims that cis girls are “socialized in ways that are harmful to their sense of self – to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame.” She then contrasts this with the experience of trans women who, “before transitioning [...] experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own.” Adichie appears to be operating under the assumption that the reader will not identify the false equivalence present here. Specifically, she is comparing the experiences of trans women with cis women on the basis of privilege for the former and oppression for the latter, despite the fact that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive nor fundamentally contradictory. If it is the case that what encapsulates a cis girl’s experience of womanhood is the self-harming socialization named above, in order to investigate whether trans women share this experience of womanhood, it is not necessary to wonder whether trans women enjoy certain privileges as youth—it is only necessary to merely ask whether trans women experience the self-harming socialization in question. The answer to this question is, simply, yes. Trans women, prior to transitioning, are socialized to reduce themselves. We are socialized to cater to the egos of men. We are socialized to view our bodies as repositories of shame. The question after this therefore becomes, has Adichie ever actually spoken to a trans woman before, and if so why has she never stopped to consider inquiring about this very question before presenting herself as an authority on the experiences of trans women?
A far less charitable reading of this presents the possibility that Adichie is actually aware of the fact that the socialization she attributes exclusively to cis girls is also applicable to trans women prior to transitioning and therefore she abstains from asking whether this is the case publicly with the intent to avoid answering in the affirmative. What is of greater concern is that in truth, she not only can afford to not ask the question, but she also cannot afford to ask it. Adichie’s feminism is sustained through cissexism which enables her and other cis women/TME people to merely imagine the experiences of trans women and make sweeping conclusions about gender from that basis. It does not matter that our experiences say otherwise, nor does it matter that research affirms that we undergo gender socialization according to our identified gender. What is required for such feminism is the belief that trans women are raised to have a particular gender experience that is mapped onto their biological sex, and that “becoming a woman” is about transitioning and unlearning assumptions, ideas, etc. that extend from their “maleness”. This feminism is constructed through rendering the suffering and trauma of trans women/transfems, particularly those Black, as fundamentally unrecognizable.
Adichie and other cis/TME feminists may very well admit that the trauma exists, such as when she makes declarative statements about “gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own” as well as “undergo[ing] difficulties as boys”. These statements offer some clarity in terms of confirming the bioessentialist nature of Adichie’s feminism from a misrecognition of how being trans even functions. Adichie is invoking the “Wrong Body” model of transgender identity. Generally this model is expressed in two forms that are related but distinct. The first is that trans people are afflicted with a mental condition—transgenderism or transsexualism—that is then rectified through medically transitioning in which they become a “real” man or woman. The second model is that there is an innate gender identity that not only corresponds to but actually determines one’s “real” sex and thus medically transitioning is not necessarily making one a man or woman, but serves to reaffirm it. Adichie clearly subscribes to the first expression of the model, evident by her claim that trans women become women only after transitioning and prior to this live as boys undergoing “gender confusion”; at no point is there a consideration for an alternative where trans women are simply people or girls who are actually misgendered as boys and there are attempts to raise them as such. I would say that this is more immediately recognizable as bioessentialist and deriving from cissexism, as according to it, the experience of womanhood is engendered from the female body, which is why transitioning is required to bring trans women into the category. In other words, cis women are the normative gatekeepers of being a woman. The second expression of the “Wrong Body” model appears to resolve this at first glance through positing an inherent gender identity which seems to avoid bioessentialism, until one recalls that it still requires a medical/surgical “correction” that is based on bringing one to the “right” sex. To properly elucidate how it is the case that gender identity could possibly serve the function of reifying bioessentialism will require a brief overview of its relation to intersexism.
Intersexism, in short, refers to the various systems and the beliefs and assumptions that form and are informed by them which sustain the ideology of a strict sex binary and results in discrimination against intersex people. While these beliefs and assumptions very much intersect with and are interrelated with cissexism, it is necessary to distinguish between the two, because the epistemic crisis that intersex people present for the concept of a biological sex binary is of a particular nature as well as history. Intersex people have been recognized for functionally all of “recorded history” and have been treated in varying ways throughout history in various cultures around the world. What is most relevant however is the way in which modern surgical practices enabled widespread “corrective” surgeries upon intersex people, which became significantly more standardized in the 1960s and 1970s, based on the work of a psychologist named John Money.
I describe John Money as a psychologist. But it is more accurate to refer to him as a psychosexologist, although he did engage in practices housed within sexology more generally. In any case, despite the fact that John Money is not a popularly known figure outside of the academy, he is responsible for the coinage of various popular terms including gender identity, gender role, and sexual orientation. While it is tempting to explain away his popular obscurity as indicating that the terms are utilized colloquially in a way that moves beyond his own usage, this is not necessarily the case. See, Money was interested in intersex people, arguing that intersex and hermaphroditism were equivalent. At the core of Money’s analyses was the idea of psychosexual orientation that was closely linked to Freud’s concept of psychosexual development and which he defined in his PhD dissertation as “libidinal inclination, sexual outlook, and sexual behavior”. From this and his study of intersex people, he arrived at the conclusion that sex was not merely a matter of biology exclusively, and was composed of 6 elements; explaining in Lexical History and Constructionist Ideology of Gender the process of coming to this conclusion:
“the first step was to abandon the unitary definition of sex as male or female, and to formulate a list of five prenatally determined variables of sex that hermaphroditic data had shown could be independent of one another, namely, chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, internal and external morphologic sex, and hormonal sex (prenatal and pubertal), to which was added a sixth postnatal determinant, the sex of assignment and rearing [...] The seventh place at the end of this list was an unnamed blank that craved a name. After several burnings of the midnight oil I arrived at the term, gender role, conceptualized jointly as private in imagery and ideation, and public in manifestation and expression.”
In other words, for Money, not only could these variables of sex act independently of each other, but further, there were not only prenatal determinants of sex but also postnatal ones as well. Because of this, Money was forced to recognize that sex was “radically unstable, composed of heterogeneous elements that do not add up to a unitary conceptual entity” and “dismantled the unitary conception of sex and, in so doing, produced an ‘unnamed blank’ at the site of the body” which “threatened the very semblance of sex” (Rubin, 895). Therefore, this “unnamed blank” which embodied a theoretical void was substituted and filled in with gender role for the purpose of returning stability to the concept of sex, which as described earlier, had been thrown into crisis numerous times prior to Money’s research. The distinction Money makes between the private versus the public, “imagery and ideation” versus “manifestation and expression” respectively, points to his belief that it is possible for there to be a disconnect between one’s internal self-conception of sex and one’s external expression of sex. Gender role was thus presented as a tool/conception to resolve this contradiction.
Because Money argued both that gender was simultaneously a variable of sex and “disaggregated” from it as well as that gender role signified “‘masculine or feminine inclination, outlook, and behavior’ but also the prospective sex [...] is supposed to coincide with a particular gender role.” From this, Money is able to argue that gender role has the capacity to indicate one’s “real” sex. While initially seeming to be a radical break with bioessentialism, remember that Money is proposing this framework for the express purpose of “explaining” intersex from a perspective that not only equates it to “hermaphroditism” but fundamentally pathologizes it, both implicitly and explicitly, as for example in 1995 with describing it as a “genital birth defect,” and in 1972 defining it to mean “that a baby is born with the sexual anatomy improperly differentiated. The baby is, in other words, sexually unfinished”. Further, Money definitively restricts these gender roles to embodying “masculinity” and “femininity” utilized as signifiers for “man” and “woman”, concluding that an intersex person’s gender is “his or her outlook, demeanor, and orientation” and that “a person’s gender role as boy or girl, man or woman, is built up cumulatively through the life experiences he encounters and through the life experiences he transacts” (Money 1955, p. 258). Therefore for Money, intersex is something that must be corrected as genitalia have not “fully developed”; gender roles serve as a diagnostic tool to determine an infant’s psychosexual orientation which is restricted to a dimorphic and binary “masculine or feminine”, “man or woman”, “male or female”; and thus the surgical correction to “complete” the development of the genitalia is according to their “real” sex.
All of this is not to say that the concept of gender not only preceding but ultimately being the very thing that makes sex legible must necessarily lead to such bioessentialist dead-ends that reverses any epistemic attempt to resolve the crisis of sex. Rather, the point is to demonstrate that attempts to elucidate gender specifically as a relation of power and its usage as a genre of Man is impeded through the reliance upon sex as normative descriptors of hierarchically ordered categories with particular metaphysical properties. In other words, where Chappelle, Adichie, and Money converge in their conception of gender is that they agree with the naturalization of sex and view deviations from the norm, from trans and gender variant people to intersex people, as complications that need to be “fixed” specifically through attempts to bring them closer to a gender inhabitation that is embodied within a particular cisheterosexist man/woman binary paradigm. This is why they identify the surgical transition itself as marking the point at which someone born “male” becomes folded into womanhood.
This does nothing however to rectify the underlying implication that trans women exist at the furthest boundary of womanhood and can be displaced from it altogether at the drop of a hat. This is because it begins from the proposition that those born “female” and “properly developed” are already fully “realized” women. Some obfuscation may occur where they deny a bioreductionist perspective through claiming that cis women also become women, but a contradiction immediately forms upon a failure to recognize trans women’s experiences, before recognizing themselves as women, as an experience of misgendered women and this becomes possible through the wiggle room provided by compartmentalizing sex into numerous variables, some of which trans women will not achieve through medical transition. Black feminism and queer theory are thus stabilized by transmisognyoir precisely because racialized cissexism and intersexism must be rearticulated as a “loss” that is both embodied principally within and affecting first and foremost the “Black female body”. This only obtains any sort of coherence through an analysis which argues that those European travelers and anthropologists who arrived in Africa merely “observed” the “fact” of sexual dimorphism and consequentially ascribed a lower form of “female” onto Blackened bodies. What is absent from this narrative, or at the very least glossed over, are the preexisting gender (non)formations and (non)relations that existed within Africa that were decimated and then violently folded into Western episteme. In other words, those embodying a womanhood unrecognizable and incoherent to Western ontology and metaphysics being subject to onticide as a result are not only not recognized as its victims prior to cisgender Black women, they are not recognized as victims at all.
Further, the assumption that the source of the violence faced by those Black and “assigned female at birth” is due to the denial of the innocence, care, etc. that cis white womanhood is afforded reaches a stress point when Black TMA people interject to point out that we are also not afforded this presumption, and this is read as an encroachment — i.e. that we are attempting to claim something that is not “rightfully” ours. The implicit justification for this lies within the very genital fantasy that animates Chappelle’s declaration that while trans women can have vaginas, they aren’t “real” vaginas, and in Adichie’s invocation of “male socialization”. Therefore, Black TMA people are positioned as having the very characteristics associated with the imago of Black men, i.e. “males”, but heightened to an even greater degree. In other words, if “Black males”, as the bio-mythology is to be believed, have intrinsic sexual rapacity and are predatory in nature, then Black TMA people would not only be folded into this, but we would represent a particularly pernicious expression of these facets, as we are, according to the story internalized by Black TME people, willingly attempting to gain proximity to and occupy a space that is “reserved” by a sex-as-class that we ostensibly oppress.
It should therefore come as no surprise that anti-trans activism at the structural, systemic, and institutional levels is spear-headed by concerns such as trans women in sports, trans women in bathrooms, trans women in feminist spaces, trans women in domestic violence shelters, etc. These are all avenues that can be easily translated into concerns of the “safety” of “real women”. Consequently, this “safety” is by necessity always under threat and therefore translates to trans women, particularly Black trans women/transfems as always being threatening. We are therefore always positioned as aggressors. We are therefore never deserving of the presumption of innocence. We are therefore divorced from the “right” to claim “sanity” while simultaneously occupying the position of “manipulator” at any and all times. We therefore are, so it goes, only and merely deserving of violent transgressions upon our mind, body, and soul.
Black feminism and Black queer theory have thus far tried, and failed, to avoid employing these scripts through crude integrationism. Violence upon Black flesh has been read through the violation of specifically “female” flesh. Some Black AFAB people who are themselves trans have pointed to academia being predominantly cis, which therefore justifies opposing theory itself, but they largely fail to stop themselves from incorporating the resulting transmisogynoir that it brings. This is because, through semiotic transposition and genital fantasies, the hypervisibility of Black “males” within Black academia that has been stated by Black feminists to be responsible for the resulting invisibility of Black “females” is translated onto Black trans women, usually implicitly. This is why we are delegated to the periphery. We are spoken about and around while our actual experience is largely relegated to the realm of the Unthought. There is no reason, so the story goes, to speak of sexual violation of Black TMA people in any significant depth because to do so would only reify the centering of the sexual violation of Black “males”. This results in a cruel irony, where the Black feminist critique that Black cis women’s bodies are both hypervisible and invisible reproduces itself within Black TMA people.
Indeed, the Denial of Femininity proposition then places masculinity in a precarious position that also has implications for those “assigned female at birth” but are trans men/transmasculine. Discussions stemming from “self-ownership” including bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, etc. fail to be extended to transmasculine people, because these are perceived as “women’s issues”. Access to adequate medical care is hindered because they have particular needs that are qualitatively distinct from cis women, both in terms of needing specialized care but also in terms of being more vulnerable to medical conditions such as ovarian cancer, and yet struggling to receive it. Sexual abuse, a mainstay of claims by many feminists as being a defining feature of womanhood, also takes a particular expression in trans men/transmasculine people who not only face significantly higher rates of it than cis women, but face particular discrimination in response to it in ways including, but not limited to, being denied access to crisis centers who do not accept men as well as not only increased scrutiny from law enforcement but also further abuse from them. The ways in which trans men/transmasculine people break down the Denial of Femininity narrative is a significant reason why there has been incentive to formulate “trans-inclusive” conceptions of radical feminism and feminisms which accept its foundational epistemic premises but who claim to reject them. They seek to assimilate within their ranks transmasculine people who are willing to accept sex-as-class theory in order to accept the notion of transfeminine people as “invaders” at the expense of reifying the position that they are not and will never be “fully” men or escape womanhood. Those who refuse this assimilation are positioned as “traitors” who are seeking to claim the oppressive positionality that cis men occupy within the strict hierarchy that radical feminists insist lies at the core of and fundamentally defines patriarchy.
Queer theory has attempted to offer a corrective framework to the bioessentialism of preceding feminism(s), most notably in the oeuvre of probably its preeminent theorist, Judith Butler. Butler’s theory of gender performativity is commonly misunderstood as arguing that gender is a matter of performance and therefore it is imaginary and immaterial; however this is inaccurate. What is actually imaginary, according to the theory, are the normative scripts which form a “structure” that acts as a conceptual box (a range of performances) within which repeated social behaviors are performed according to gender norms which ultimately constructs and reifies those norms. From this, we see that Butler is making a case similar to Money, in that gender precedes sex and therefore for the former, sex is derived from social and political directives which seek to contain differences with gender as its mediator. Where Butler diverges is that they argue against any innate gender identity which is expressed through gender roles. Through this, Butler simultaneously solidifies the entanglement of sex and gender, while seizing upon and removing the term "gender" from its previous usage as a medically diagnostic tool.
Butler has faced substantial criticism for neglecting to consider race, and in particular Blackness, within their theory of gender performativity. After all, it succeeded poignant critique from Black feminism about other feminisms discussing gender from a decidedly white perspective—most notably Spillers’s Mama’s Baby discussed earlier. When Spillers is placed alongside the intervention made by Saidiya Hartman, we find that Butler’s analysis is destabilized because it relies upon an ontological ordering of gender that is fundamentally disrupted by slavery and (anti)Blackness. For Butler, there is a heterosexual/normative law which is both juridical and socially disciplinary tied to certain kinship ideals which serve to place pressure onto individuals to engage in particular gender performativity. What is missing from this is a recognition of the ways in which Black people have been completely abjected from these kinship ideals on the basis of race. What is also missing are intersex and transgender people. Butler does not directly reference these two groups as paradigms with which to analyze gender performativity and instead focuses on drag which “implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself — as well as its contingency.”
Contrary to some interpretations of Butler, I do not read their utilization of drag to articulate gender performativity in ways that defy the aforementioned heteronormative law as being a normative paradigm. That is to say, I do not read it as suggesting that Butler is making a normative claim which states that drag is the ideal or “correct” way to challenge heteronormative gender performance. However the decision to center them—or more accurately, employ them as a paradigm at all—without any broader context which considers trans people or intersex people, results in an inability to recognize the complicated and troubled nature of subjection within the spaces of gay “male” culture. This crucial critique articulated masterfully by Viviane Namaste is part of a greater recognition that “critics in queer theory write page after page on the inherent liberation of transgressing normative sex/gender codes, but they have nothing to say about the precarious position of the transsexual woman who is battered and who is unable to access a woman’s shelter because she was not born a biological woman” (Namaste 2000, p. 10). From this desire to center the actual experiences of those who transgress gender norms through performativity, Namaste provides proper context to the drag performance that Butler hinges on, explaining that despite gay men’s bars heartily consuming drag queen performances on stage, the stage itself serves as a designated space these drag queens are restricted to. When they are not being denied entrance to these bars, within them they are allowed only to exist as mere performances that functionally exist on the periphery to serve as entertainment.
This serves as a crucial point, because if drag is performance that is restricted to the stage, this creates a polarity where drag is not at all indicative of the performer’s identity, whereas the gay men in the audience who are not captured in any way within these spaces are permitted to simply be. Namaste summarizes this as such:
“While Butler reads drag as a means of exposing the contingent nature of gender and identity, I suggest that we point to the essential paradox of drag within gay male communities: at the precise moment that it underlines the constructed nature of gendered performances, drag is contained as a performance in itself. Gay male identity, in contrast, establishes itself as something prior to performance” (Namaste 2000, p. 13).
Namaste further reads this as part of a wider problem with Butler relying upon the trans experience as a point of analogy which can then be broadened to serve as an explanatory tool for other socially informed constructs. A deeper inspection of this criticism will have to be saved for another time, but in any case I would like to extend it to Black feminism and Black queer theory. The latter has emerged from an attempt to rectify what Namaste recognized as a foundational flaw within queer theory which conceptually renders Black gender unintelligible. Recently however, Black feminism and queer theory have, with exhilarated glee, found it necessary to invert the analogous propositioning of queer theory—in other words, queerness and transness have been theoretically Blackened. This has become embodied within the maxim “Black(ness) is trans and trans is Black”.
To be clear, trans here does not refer necessarily to transgender, but rather it refers to trans*, which represents a comprehensive grouping of any identities that are not housed within the cis binary. It is meant to denote a transgression on the basis of gender, of which Blackness is inexorably bound up with. Because (anti)Blackness is partly constituted by onticide, claims of an ontology of gender are constructed upon an ontological murder in which Blackness is excised from this ontological order and subsumed under a violent policing that positions Black people as being unable to properly perform gender, i.e. “doing gender wrong”. However, recall that ontological plasticity mediates the capacity for Black people to undergo subjection through being folded into humanism based on convenience. The employment of ungendering and fungibility within this context serves the function of “loss” for cis Black feminists and queer theorists and this “loss” brings Black cis people into proximity with Black trans* people. Within this context, trans* therefore refers to the gender fugitivity described by Spillers, Hartman and by C. Riley Snorton. Of these, Snorton is the one who most explicitly and directly references Black trans* (enslaved) people whereas the principle subjects for Spillers and Hartman are those who are functionally presumed cis or have their positionality and identity airbrushed over through having cisness transplanted onto them via their reduction into the ontological categories of “male” and “female”. Those who face the triple jeopardy of fungibility, ungendering, and misgendering are occluded by the ever sweeping and all-encompassing metaphysical hegemony known as cis, and this is often justified through the argument that Blackness occludes both trans and cis and yet, rhetorically speaking cisness seems to anchor this and render trans to the periphery.
Namaste’s critique of queer theory becomes crucial here, as gender fugitivity operates within Black cis people in a qualitatively distinct manner from Black trans* people. For example, in Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, he utilizes Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to demonstrate “how fungibility emerges as a tactic of maneuvering from within the morass of slavery’s identity politics” in a way that “stages through Brent’s ungendered body the various ways fungibility and fugitivity pass into one another” (Snorton 69). An autobiography initially published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, the text describes the way in which Jacobs dons a sailor’s uniform to cross-dress as well as blacken her face with charcoal, with Jacobs describing the blackening as “completing” the disguise and the disguise itself as “pass[ing]”, i.e. being able to successfully move through a town within which friends and previous lovers resided without being detected. Snorton reads this “passing” both through its transitive and intransitive usage—that is to say, movement through space versus “performance of false identity.” Snorton ties Jacobs’s blackening of her face and her cross-dressing together to conclude that “fungibility sets the stage for gendered maneuvers on a terrain constituted by modes of viewing blackness, in which Jacobs’s blackness and going blacker color her gender as well as her face” (Snorton 71).
It’s crucial to emphasize this act as performance, which, through the framing of gender performativity does reveal the “illusion” of gender and according to Hazel Carby, “revealed the concept of true womanhood to be an ideology, not a lived set of social relations.” I have emphasized “true” here to denote this “true womanhood” as being the overdetermined form which sustains Man. Through recognizing this as performance however, this brings the decision to employ it as a paradigm of the function of Blackness as exposing the interstices between distinction and categorization under scrutiny in a similar, though distinct matter to Butler’s theorizing. Specifically, through an attempt to consolidate these gender performances which face specific contextual restrictions and the gender inhabitations of of Black trans* people, the experiences of the latter, in particular transgender men and women, become allegorical and are transformed into an imaginary relation. In other words, the contextual gender performance that accompanies these acts of fugitivity which employed cross-dressing in service of transitive passing, unintentionally renders it as “contained as a performance in itself” while the so-called true gender identity they are “passing” as “establishes itself as something prior to performance”. For Black women and men of trans* experiences therefore, the specificity of the violence that unfortunately accompanies these experiences is subsumed, unintentionally or not.
My intent here is not to particularly implicate Snorton, but rather to reiterate the unintentional ways in which attempts from the academy to seek out a new epistemological framework for understanding Black gender is colored from a certain metaphysical presumption which refuses to abandon a certain gender ontology and this is borne out through the ways in which Black Studies, Black feminism and Black queer theory engage with specific archives. As Calvin Warren states, “The choice of archive is also a philosophical statement; it reflects what body of knowledge is worthy of philosophical examination and what experiences contribute more to thinking than just singularity” (Ontological Terror 20). The decision to implicitly identify the point of origin of Black people’s relation to gender as the hold of the slave ship which then expands into anti-Blackness as weather and consequentially becomes as all-encompassing as the air that we breathe. Within Black feminism and queer theory, this philosophical statement emerges from a fundamental need and desire, both conscious and unconscious, for womanhood to not be expansive.
In other words, rather than womanhood being seen as a far-reaching and vast terrain and the womanhood of those we now refer to as “cis” encompassing simply one region, those who are not cis are merely “trapped” within “broken” bodies who seek to approximate cis womanhood. Cis Black feminists and queer theorists exploit the fact that trans* is a recent configuration to conceal relations that are not cis. Because a framework which sufficiently names the violence against those relations would necessarily require toppling cis womanhood from its “pedestal” so-to-speak, the “Black female body” serves as its last refuge and Black gender-based violence must be retroactively read through it. The body is reaffirmed as flesh and from this Womb Theory is reified. This is why when I speak of womanhood in contradistinction to womanhood made hegemonic per Womb Theory, I am in actuality referring to womanhoods. This shift represents a reframing of womanhood away from its metaphysical positioning as an enclosure whereby some obtain “ownership” at the expense of those captured within to womanhoods-as-commons whereby fugivity becomes no longer necessary.
Joy James’ poignant indictment of the academy’s lack of potential for revolution becomes ever-more relevant, particularly in conjunction with her calling for the development of maroon philosophy. However, just as various maroon societies in the past were not necessarily liberating for those trans and gender-nonconforming—many attempted to reproduce the cisheteropatriarchal normative relations found within the very society they sought to escape from—maroon philosophy must not simply seek to repackage Womb Theory and make it Black. Black queer spaces need to definitively expel any and all remnants of white feminism such as the “male socialization” idea discussed earlier. For white feminism, to reject it is to deny the very “real” experience of those assigned and “raised” as “female” and thus this is misogyny. In other words, the function of this concept (and this is something that they will sometimes admit outright) is to present those who are “socialized as male” undergo gender development with a misogyny that is distinct and inherent to them and from this claim that this also applies to trans women and that it is something that we must exercise from ourselves. Without putting in the effort to combat such transmisogyn(oir), femininist “leadership” such as Adichie will continue casting aside Black trans women/transfems, facing backlash, and doubling down through not only a refusal to self-reflect, but centering their own claim to victimhood—as Adichie did in a 2021 blog post. They will continue allying themselves with neo-fascists and conservative ideals about trans women such as those espoused by Chappelle, as we can further see with Adichie’s defense of JK Rowling.
Black queer theory has thus far failed to substantially distinguish itself from its white counterpart and Black queer spaces often serve as extensions of this. Black queer spaces continue to prioritize certain voices above others in a way that mirrors white queer spaces. Specifically, within white queer spaces there has been an attempt to be “trans inclusive” while functionally centering those deemed as “experiencing misogyny”. One common expression of this is the persistence of the “[assigned gender at birth] socialization” concept. This idea most commonly is focused around “male socialization”, which, as it sounds, is the idea that those “assigned male at birth” (AMAB) are socialized in a particular way that distinguishes them as a class from those “assigned female at birth” (AFAB). What is interesting is that despite there being no actual evidence for this in terms of research (in fact, what we do have suggests the complete opposite) and the fact that everyone in these spaces ostensibly understand intersectionality, and would therefore recognize that the Black gender experience is distinct, this concept continues to be relevant. Those white who espouse it are in my experience not very subtle about their intentions in employing it, as to reject it is to deny the very “real” experience of those assigned and “raised” as “female” and thus this is misogyny. In other words, the function of this concept (and this is something that they will sometimes admit outright) is to present those who are “socialized as male” undergo gender development with a misogyny that is distinct and inherent to them and from this claim that this also applies to trans women and that it is something that we must exercise from ourselves.
Black queer theory, while not quite employing the “male socialization” model in such explicit manner and as frequently, fails to properly challenge these presumptions through categorical erasure of Black trans women/transfems in service of “Black male” qua “Black man”. As a result, both white queer theory and Black queer theory are able to posture as “trans inclusive” while presenting patriarchy in a form completely stripped of its cishetero foundations. To be clear, they do this for different reasons, but only slightly. For white queer theory, “male socialization” is a convenient shorthand to preserve the ever-persistent threat of the “Black male”. Thus, even white trans women/transfems can find themselves converging upon the concept in the hope that if white womanhood can be “expanded” enough to include them, they will bear the fruits of that anti-Black imago while simultaneously continuing the ontological death of Black trans women/transfems. For Black queer theory, there is an amalgamation of implicit incentives to preserve this concept not to necessarily preserve the “sanctity” of white womanhood, but to stabilize Black queer theory and Black feminism as a foil to white feminism and white queer theory with the “Black female body” as its embodiment. Put another way, “male socialization” implicitly persists within Black queer theory out of recognition that Black trans women disrupt the cis presumptions of Black feminism and attempts to remedy this through claiming a distinct gender development between trans and cis women such that trans women are always necessarily oppressors of cis women and therefore do not experience “real” womanhood.
To return to Wynter and her description of race and gender serving as genres of the human, I feel it worthwhile to again bring her in concert with Jackson. Jackson makes a key intervention and clarifies that the Western episteme not only made possible the abjection of those Black from that liberal/bourgeois humanity, but also made it possible for those Black to be folded into that humanity under a conditional and circumstantial basis. However, because this is made possible through the ontological death of those Black as Africans it therefore ends up being the case that those Black can be subjected to humanization and ontological death. Therefore, with understanding of race and gender as genres of human, we find that those Black and cis do not experience Blackness or gender, or simply Black gender, the same way as those Black and trans*, and therefore those Black and TME do not experience Blackness or gender in the same way as those TMA.
I am therefore, in a way, nihilist about the “hope” that Black feminism and queer theory presents to those like me and I find myself returning to Joy James’ conclusion that “theorizing through a fulcrum can unseat Womb Theory, by allowing the Captive Maternal to leave the seesaw.” The Black Matrix as fulcrum is sustained with transmisogynoir as its foundation, granting legibility to the various signifiers which are theorized as Black(ened) gender and sexuality. Those Black TMA Captive Maternals who are the “least recognized” and yet mined as raw materials to make conceiving of Blackness as existing in excess of Western metaphysical ordering of gender must abandon the lever system and chip away at the fulcrum in order to topple it altogether. As James suggests, we can do this through the development of various maroon philosophies which enable us to escape and avoid capture through gender fugitivity. One such example is Nsambu Za Suekama’s gender-as-maroonage, embodied through the act of “flight”, a reference to “how Toni Morrison said that the ‘people could fly’ stories were a ‘psychological trick’ that enslaved folk used whenever they were asked about their spirituality. It was a symbol for the runaways.” For her, flight also reconnects us to our legacy as spiritual rootworkers while also bringing it forward into a political rootgrasping. “We must transform our ecogeny, by transforming the mode of material provisioning through transforming the mode of production, which is a question of class."
My Black trans*feminism rejects Black trans* people being enjoyed as (re)sources for analogy. It rejects the faulty “centering” of us while we are delegated conceptually to the periphery. It specifically names those Black slaves and maroons who were fixed into the positionality of trans*—because they were designated as “male” and their living as women was fundamentally transgressive—as being the true stress points for Western ontology and metaphysics. It recognizes that an obsession with theorizing Black gender, sexuality, and reproduction as embodied within the normative “Black female” form requires the obliteration of Black trans* women as women. It recognizes that genital fantasies form a double-bind whereby Black trans* women are utilized as Black depravity incarnate because the Black phallus and the Black penis in conjunction with womanhood represent not only the sexual threat but also the othering of Black reproduction.
My Black trans*feminist Nihilism therefore embraces the call from Spillers to “claim the monstrosity” but recognizes that those deemed to embody the form of monstrosity the most are Black trans women/transfems. Thus, it recognizes that we are in truth reclaiming the monstrosity, both from Womb Theory but also from Black feminists and queer theorists who deride us for “taking up space”. It recognizes that the absurdity, the incommunicability, of (anti)Blackness persists as such in no small part because preceding theorization would prefer proximity to Western abstraction rather than reckon with transmisogynoir-as-fulcrum. It thus amends Barbara Smith’s statement “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free” and clarifies that if Black trans* women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free.
Adichie, C. N. “Clarifying.” Facebook, 12 Mar. 2017, www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943/10154893542340944/?type=3&theater.
Channel4News, director. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Interview. YouTube, YouTube, 11 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=213&v=KP1C7VXUfZQ&feature=emb_title.
Douglass, Patrice D. “At the Intersections of Assemblages: Fanon, Capécia, and the Unmaking of the Genre Subject.” Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation, LEXINGTON Books, 2018.
Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. New York University Press, 2020.
James, Joy. “Afrarealism and the Black Matrix.” The Black Scholar, vol. 43, no. 4, 2013, pp. 124–131., doi:10.1080/00064246.2013.11413675.
James, Joy. “Airbrushing Revolution for the Sake of Abolition.” AAIHS, 12 Aug. 2020, www.aaihs.org/airbrushing-revolution-for-the-sake-of-abolition/.
James, Joy. “Political Trauma.” The Bloomsbury Handbook of 21st-Century Feminist Theory, edited by Robin Truth Goodman, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 345–354.
James, Joy. “Presidential Powers and Captive Maternals: Sally, Michelle, and Deborah.” Blog of the APA, 27 June 2020, blog.apaonline.org/2020/05/06/presidential-powers-and-captive-maternals-sally-michelle-and-deborah/.
James, Joy. “The Womb of Western Theory: Trauma, Time Theft, and the ...” The Carceral Notebook, 2016, www.thecarceral.org/cn12/14_Womb_of_Western_Theory.pdf.
Lillie, Frank R. “General Biological Introduction.” Sex and Internal Secretions: A Survey of Recent Research., 1934, pp. 1–11., doi:10.1037/13343-001.
Luqman, Jacqueline. “Political Profiteering off the Trauma of Black Women.” The Real News Network, 23 Sept. 2020, therealnews.com/political-profiteering-trauma-black-women.
Marriott, D. S. “Foreword.” On Black Men, Columbia University Press, New York, 2000, p. vii.
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Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Harvard University Press, 1982.
Rubin, David A. “‘An Unnamed Blank That Craved a Name’: A Genealogy of Intersex as Gender.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 37, no. 4, 2012, pp. 883–908., doi:10.1086/664471.
Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake on Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.
Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Spillers, Hortense J. Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 64–81., doi:10.2307/464747.
Warren, Calvin L. Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Duke University Press, 2018.
Warren, Calvin. “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 15, no. 1, 2015, pp. 215–248., doi:10.14321/crnewcentrevi.15.1.0215.
Wynter, Sylvia. “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Reimprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, Ofdesêtre: Black Studies toward the Human Project.” A Companion to African-American Studies, 1 Jan. 2006, pp. 107–118., doi:10.1002/9780470996645.ch9.
 I’d like to note that I do not at all believe that this list is in any way meant to be comprehensive. After all, Wilderson's own Red, White & Black which very much is the conceptual launchpad of sorts for his Afro-pessimist theorizing is absent. I do think however, it is usually the case that what is absent can derive meaning, even in lieu of explicit intent. https://mg.co.za/friday/2020-06-30-the-foundations-of-afropessimism-a-reading-list-by-frank-b-wilderson-iii/
 Patterson himself flip-flops between being a pretty standard liberal and dipping into arch-reactionary conservatism, which some use as an entry-way into critique of Afro-pessimism. Personally I do not find it a very useful point of critique and it would be worthwhile to engage with Wilderson’s own response and critique of Patterson. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/03/harvard-professor-reflects-on-the-kerner-report-50-years-on/
 Frank Wilderson’s Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms fleshes out this “grammar of suffering” in an introductory manner both generally and within the context of distinguishing the “grammar of suffering” of the Native verses that of the Slave.
 Pages upon pages could be written about Adichie’s blog post on her website—which I do not believe to be worth even citing—that invokes her parents’ deaths to gain sympathy based on “people” telling her that these deaths were “punishment” for her views on trans women. I will however try to keep this brief and state that, regardless of whether she is telling the truth or not, her parents' deaths have nothing to do with her flagrant transmisogyny, just as JK Rowling’s sexual assault in the past has nothing to do with her transmisogyny. Adichie’s favorable defense of Rowling’s essay which includes Rowling referencing said sexual assault as a defense of her claim that trans women should not be allowed into women’s bathrooms and other "same-sex spaces" is a defense of the imago of the predatory “Man In a Dress”. For Adichie and Rowling, womanhood is based in a particular victimhood in which the threat is the “male”. Adichie’s statement that the comments she received were “inhumane” confounds the inhumanity of her dismissal of the criticism she received as “American liberal orthodoxy” which exists in light of her explicit condemnation of the Nigerian state’s violence upon its people while among the worst of said violence is reserved for trans people. That the trans women from the African continent, including those who currently reside there as well as refugees, who offered up biting critiques of her commentary, can be hand waved away as “American liberal orthodoxy” as they are stripped of rights, hunted down, and murdered, is nothing short of abhorrent. Adichie does not challenge in any way “American liberal orthodoxy” unless one presumes that American liberalism is in the interest of protecting the lives of Black trans women. No, Adichie finds herself comfortably within the normative scripts of American liberal orthodoxy with her consideration of Rowling and her essay as “progressive” and her characterization of criticism of her transmisogyny as “trans noise”. Adichie does not see the “inhumanity” in her words because she views trans people, particularly trans women, not as humans, but as mere noisy buzzards. She is the ideal of American liberalism and, as Camminga astutely notes, a “spokesperson for the West”. If she represents any sort of future of feminism, then feminism is doomed.