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Professor speaks on 'Black Feminisms and the Mutability of Gender'
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2018-02-27

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Cornell University Associate Professor of Africana Studies C. Riley Snorton kicked off the University of Chicago's ( UChicago's ) Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality ( CSGS ) speaker series with a talk—"Fleshy Encounters: Black Feminisms and the Mutability of Gender"—Feb. 19 at UChicago's CSGS building.

Snorton has received multiple fellowships and is the author of two books—Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low and Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. His writing is also featured in Black Scholar, the International Journal of Communication, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics and Culture, and Society.

Following a brief introduction by CSGS Faculty Director Kristen Schilt, Snorton told the approximately 50 people in attendance that his "research explores the relations between and among the signs Black, queer and trans historically and contemporarily."

Snorton explained that he uses Black feminist theory, literary criticism, performance theory, disability studies, media studies and other fields to interrogate and illuminate how race, sex and/or gender drives how one interacts and perceives the world.

In the first two chapters of Black on Both Sides, Snorton noted the ways that doctors like Dr. James Marion Sims ( who practiced in the 1800s ) used slaves ( chattel ) as guinea pigs for new medical practices such as silver sutures that led to a vesicovaginal fistula ( VVF ) cure. These slaves were fungible, according to Snorton, and Sims treated them as such during his experiments.

"A vesicovaginal fistula is a breach in the vaginal wall that opens into the urinary tract and produces continuous involuntary discharge of urine," said Snorton.

VVF, Snorton explained, was more often found among slaves due to the sexual violence they experienced at the hand of their masters.

Shifting gears, Snorton said, "Fungible flesh also became a site for fugitive maneuver."

Snorton noted this can be seen in the book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs ( the first text of its kind to be published by a Black woman in the United States ) where she used a narrator-cum-protagonist Linda Brent to tell her story.

"Brent's dramatic escape maps a different terrain of ungendered Blackness that simultaneously marks the intersection and mutual envelopment of fugitivity and fungibility," said Snorton. "Narrative portrayals of the protagonist's sexual negotiations clarify aspects of Brent/Jacobs' ungendering."

Snorton elaborated on the idea of the ungendering that Brent/Jacobs engaged in during various instances and how the Snaky Swamp played a role in that ungendering where she dressed in men's clothes to safely navigate the world around her.

"Incidents portrays the swamp as a death-space for human life, or, more precisely, a space of near-death into which some other quality of living is assumed out of necessity," said Snorton. "Its perception as uninhabitable is what also constitutes the swamp as a 'loophole of retreat.' Yet the protagonist also notes at the conclusion of her description how she prefers the terror of the swamp and its inhabitants over the forms of racial and gender terror exercised by white men in so-called civilization."

Ahead of the Q&A session, Snorton teased his third book, tentatively titled Mud: Ecologies of Racial Meaning. This book will examine the presence of swamps to racial practices and formations in the Americas.

Princeton University's Regina Kunzel and the University of Maryland's Christina Hanhardt will be speaking on April 25 and May 17, respectively.

See gendersexuality.uchicago.edu/ for more information .


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