“[The New World], with its human sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New-World, diasporic plight marked a theft of the body — a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific.”
This searing passage from Hortense Spillers “Papa’s Maybe; Mama’s Baby: An American Grammar Book” gripped me from the moment I read it. Spillers is pointing out the ways that the grammar of anti-blackness is ungendered. Within the literal hold of the Slave Ship, gender difference becomes lost as Africans become Black. This was something I grew up my whole life experiencing, but this was the first time I read something this mind-shattering to confirm what I had already known. It turned the neurons in my brain to fields of pure electricity. Walls of information and hieroglyphics of the history of race-making propelled my mind through Spiller’s prose that waxes poetic.
Spillers crafts an argument about how anti-blackness as a system ungenders black people. She situates this claim using a numerous amount of textual resources such as Faulkner’s literary depiction of black family life, the archive of slavery, and the slave narratives themselves of Equionas and Frederick Douglass. For Spillers, race emerges as the grammar that informs other positions like sex and gender.
She argues for this specific arrangement of race informing other modes of human livingness saying “before there is body, there is the flesh, that zero degree of conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse or the reflexes of iconography.” Spiller’s usage of “flesh’’ here seems to be following a trajectory of other Black Studies scholars such as Frantz Fanon’s “racial-schema” that he introduces in Black Skin, White Masks. Because of this, we can understand the “flesh” in this instance to be not just abstract, but actual literal skin. Race becomes both phenotypic and cultural in the outcome as it becomes conflated with the “concentration of ethnicity.” Racialization operates on a higher layer because blackness conceals gender difference.
The Middle Passage converted human Africans into objected blackness. As the Slave Ships charted across the oceans, the Black Body became unmade. Spiller details how the literal violence of captivity within the hold of the ship was gratuitous. From the tightly wedged quarters to having to roll over your dead siblings as you try and keep your famished body alive, Black Bodies and blackness was positioned in a state of non-being, of non-communicable violence. This violence was enacted upon all modes of black people, male and female alike. This is the reason Spillers argues that anti-blackness ungenders black people. Specifically, Spillers says “under these conditions, one is neither female nor male, as both subjects are taken into accounts as quantities.”. The emphasis Spillers places on “quantity” here happens so because gender is an inherently human category, which is what allows them to be qualitatively sorted into categories. Anti-blackness removes humanity from blackness, thereby rendering us “captive bodies” without gender.
This grammar of how anti-blackness functions–as a mechanism of ungendering–cements the memories of my grandmother telling me to keep my cup close to me during frat parties. Sure, my grandmother’s a product of her time, a Southern Black woman born and living through desegregation, a world war, and a whole slew of other historical moments. So whenever she used to say these things, I used to just brush it off.
She needs to chill out. No one’s gonna try and make a victim out of me.Not another guy.
I wish I could have been wrong. But just like ancestor Spillers says
“under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific.”
College taught me the unfortunate many painful realities of young adulthood. Surviving sexual violation made me realize that the spectre of the Slave Ship is never too far behind.
Just like Equionos or Harriet, my flesh can always be unmade.
Just like my ancestors, the potential always lies for my body to become “a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not all all gender-related, gender specific.”