June 8, 2015

Examining black 'transness' through contemporary media

C. Riley Snorton
Jason Koski/University Photography
C. Riley Snorton is assistant professor of Africana studies and feminist, gender and sexuality studies in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences.

For C. Riley Snorton, assistant professor of Africana studies and of feminist, gender and sexuality studies in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, winning a coveted National Endowment for the Humanities-Schomburg Center Scholar-in-Residence fellowship is the chance of a lifetime. 

He will examine a topic that has intrigued him since college, when he first self-identified as a transgender person – and write a book about it.

Not that Snorton’s first book – “Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low” (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) – was a career cop-out.

Indeed, the provocative book – with a hyper-curious scholar of pop culture, history and contemporary media rethinking one misunderstood slice of Americana – goes where few have dared.

Snorton goes after the characters who inhabit – sometimes with operatic intensity – the world of down low, “which typically refers to black men who have sex with men and women and do not identify as gay or bisexual,” he explains.

Public health policy histories should take note of down-low characters like Sylvester, Rufus and Chuck in the rap opera, “Trapped in the Closet,” which is thoroughly examined in Snorton’s book.

The characters in “Trapped in the Closet” exemplify the stakes of the down-low man, “a figure who is by all accounts undetectable and also omnipresent, and is being described (by the federal Centers for Disease Control) as the cause for increased rates of HIV/AIDS cases among African-American women,” according to Snorton.

“Of course the full book looks at a variety of things – the genealogy of the term ‘down low’ itself, about the dynamics it is supposed to reflect. I ask: What about duplicitous sexuality, about factors of race, and drawing on and elaborating on the work of [“Boundaries of Blackness” author] Cathy Cohen. I also think about it in relationship to the ‘state’ story of how HIV/AIDS works.”

Snorton says he is less interested in what people are doing (even in the eminently binge-watchable YouTube “Trapped” episodes) “and more in what the narrative was revealing about contemporary politics and sexuality and disease transmission.”

As a historian of black gender identities – and one of BET television’s “Ten Transgender People You Should Know” – Snorton knows the next question, replying: “I understood myself to be trans, I think, maybe in my junior year of college. That was one of the identifications I held, and when I went to graduate school people expected that I would work on ‘trans-related topics.’ … There aren’t very many – probably, six black trans academics in the U.S.”

He already knows his next book will cover 1850 to 1992. The 19th-century has two researchable epochs of “transness,” Snorton says: the heyday of the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves and “the founding of gynecology, the moment where people are exploring and codifying how genitals ‘should look,’ and creating medical discourse to normalize what genitalia looks like.”

Snorton will catalog “the host of stories we get in the mid-1850s of people who are gender crossing in order to get from the South to the North, in the Underground Railroad or other modes of escape.”

In the 20th century, Snorton says, he wants to examine “the relation between how we think about blackness and something we would call transness ... a kind of open-ended, non-normative gender articulation.”

The Schomburg Center, based in New York City, affords research access to a rich archive, including magazines such as Ebony and Jet, which in the mid-1900s frequently published gossipy outings of trans people. Snorton wonders: “What do these stories of gender revelation and gender transformation also tell us about the politics of integration and our understanding of the period, referred to as the long civil rights? ... the ways the period (1945-54) is narrated as America’s anxiety around the increase in technology, epitomized by the bomb, but also of the ways somatic technologies let people become attuned [to transness], through a figure like Christine Jorgensen.”

Snorton’s next book just might lift the uniform cap of the recently discovered “first black woman to be a Civil War soldier.”

Or was she?

“I don’t want to get into tit-for-tat about matters of precision in the historical record,” Snorton stipulates. “What I want to do is give the stories room, so rather than place your finger on ‘what gender was that person?’ I want to say: ‘Look at how gender was a strategy for how that person lived.’”