Transfiguring Masculinities in Black Women’s Studies – The Feminist Wire

Transfiguring Masculinities in Black Women’s Studies

By C. Riley Snorton

Although there continues to be controversy regarding whether men can create black feminist scholarship, numerous black feminist theorists have argued for the inclusion of black men and studies of masculinities as components of black feminist thought and practice.  These debates are borne out of the relationships between racism and sexism, which have been important in figuring alliances across movements while also illuminating the tensions that emerge from privileging race over gender-based oppression.  Black feminist scholars, like Angela Davis, Barbara Smith, Hortense Spillers, Valerie Smith, bell hooks, Hazel Carby, and Audre Lorde, among others, have taken this up in their work.  However, the Combahee River Collective (CRC) Statement, a founding text in black women’s studies and a theoretical blueprint for numerous movements within the last several decades, is among the earliest texts to explicitly engage and theorize an inclusive black feminist politic. More than once the authors of CRC Statement make clear their commitment to a black feminist politic that does not leave out Black men, women, and children.

As the CRC Statement authors suggest, “Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand” (CRC 1983, 213). They go on to state:

We have a great deal of criticism and loathing for what men have been socialized to be in this society: what they support, how they oppress.  But we do not have the misguided notion that it is their maleness, per se—i.e., their biological maleness—that makes them what they are.  As Black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic. (CRC 1983, 214)

Embedded within this critique, aimed particularly at white lesbian separatist politics, is the grounds for a black feminist analysis of gender, and consequently masculinities, that circumvents a biological determinism that informs questions; such as how can black (cisgender or non-transgender) men be feminists?   Rather two questions emerge from this formulation: what opportunities are made possibly by black feminisms’ radical inclusivity, and how does that shape the study of masculinities within black women’s studies and Women’s Studies more generally?  As such, I begin from the premise that studies of masculinity, which are situated within black women’s studies have benefited from the inclusivity of the black feminist political and scholarly project.

In fact, black feminisms’ legacies of radical inclusivity of gender make possible the formation of what we have come to understand as “black male feminism,” a term I would like to draw attention to and more specifically place under scrutiny by bracketing off the “male.” Although addressing the question of who can claim a feminist identity remains a salient concern for black men with anti-sexist commitments, evidenced in the semantic negotiations, which have produced various linguistic tongue-twisting transmutations like “male pro-feminist,” “male womanist,” and “black male feminist,” this essay represents a meditative critique of black (male) feminism’s reliance on a gender binaristic model and offers up the site of transition as an analytic space, through which to reimagine struggle against concurrent forms of oppression. Ultimately, I suggest that research, which encourages porousness in the line of gender distinction, necessarily resituates black feminist transgender and cisgender men—queer and straight—within black women’s studies, in such a way that it acknowledges and extends the expansiveness of black feminist theory and practice.

In his epilogue to Black Men on Race, Gender, and Sexuality: A Critical Reader, Devon Carbado eloquently frames the controversy inspired by black (male) feminism. Carbado argues that there are three central concerns: territory, safety, and authenticity that create barriers for pro-women men to become “feminists” (Carbado 1999). His concerns index a logic, which implies that feminism is “women’s work” for political, spiritual, economic and intellectual survival and therefore consequently women’s voices are the “real” ones to be heard in this discussion. Working along a tangential vein, Michael Awkward provides a blueprint, of sorts, as he describes the methodological benefits and dangers of a “situatedness in feminist discourse” and the necessity for (male) scholars to develop and practice modes of self-reflexivity that are adequately able to rigorously understand masculinity while also sustaining a critique of patriarchy (Awkward 1995, 49).

Very simply, black (male) feminism is a positioning, akin to standpoint theory that provides a particular entry point to—or situatedness in—black feminist theory and practice.  As standpoint theory, black (male) feminism, serves as a critical voice in contemporary conversations on the relationship between black liberation and masculinity within Black Women Studies, and yet its reliance on maleness often seems to short-circuit its political and theoretical possibility. Indeed as standpoint theory, maleness becomes a critical prism for scholars working on feminist approaches to black masculinity, in which being a man becomes the space (of epistemic superiority) from which men talk to other men (mostly though not exclusively) about the dangers of sexism. At once, it linguistically marks Carbado’s claims, framing black feminism as a political praxis enacted by women interested in black women’s issues.  Yet simultaneously, it names a body of literature that addresses the concerns of male socialization and urgently speaks to the need to ameliorate its potentially antagonistic relationship to black feminist philosophies. As a version of feminist standpoint theory, Awkward rightly suggests that there are dangers in black (male) feminisms situatedness in feminism, broadly conceived.  One danger, of critical importance in my mind, is the way black (male) feminism reifies a binaristic model of gender—transfixing gender—obstructing a more critical understanding of the relational and spectral nature of gender formation and its various configurations and transfigurations of masculinities and femininities.

It seems that for many black (male) feminists, and here we could look to Mark Anthony Neal, Kevin Powell, Samuel Adu-Poku, among others, the end game is to inspire other men to take up anti-patriarchal modes of thinking and to open up space for multiple forms of black (male) gender performance. And at its most theoretically provocative, black (male) feminism demonstrates the fragility of masculinity, particularly when it refuses the safe harbor of patriarchy, heteronormativity and white privilege.  As Gary Lemons puts it: “being black and male in feminist alliance means being an ‘invisible (wo)man’—not a woman but neither a man in traditional phallocentric terms. Without oversimplifying this condition, perhaps, there is a kind of gender/ race ambiguity that informs the idea of black male feminist positionality” (Lemons 1997, 45).  This ambiguity Lemons describes is the result of a black feminist imperative to submit masculinity to critical scrutiny, in the efforts of uncovering repressed femininity. Part of transforming black (male) feminism, then, requires discarding familiar familial modes of thinking to, as Hortense Spillers has argued, say “‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within” (Spillers 2003, 228).

As such, black (male) feminism must include studies of masculinity along a range of bodies—never diminishing its critique of patriarchy—but refocusing its critique on processes of socialization that do not rely on particular (mis)readings of anatomy. What I am suggesting is markedly different from arguing for a proliferation of kinds of black feminism.  Rather, black (male) feminism should remember its heritage—as produced by the radical inclusivity of black feminism more generally—such that it includes black transfeminism, black butch feminism and the varied experiences of masculinities that exist within blackness—to reflect an understanding of gender multiplicity with and without a penis. As Hortense Spillers explains, the legacy of slavery for African Americans has transformed our understandings of gender in profound ways—ways that in fact benefit our scholarship—as they demonstrate the non-normativity of black gender performance and representation and its ability to critique hegemonic ideals of masculinity and femininity.

Masculinity is always an unstable term; its relational nature suggests that it shifts and moves differently across communities and cultures.   Its instability also relates to the ways in which various cultures and communities seek to produce, maintain and police masculinities even as any definition of the term dissolves under closer scrutiny. Colloquially, and often under the rubric of “common sense,” there is a collapsed distinctions between “male,” “man,” and “masculine.”  These collapsed designations play out in the clinic—as a site of gender transformation—as well as in one’s local barbershop—a homosocial site where gender is often conferred and confirmed.  Societies organized under heteropatriarchy are interested in proscribing and circumscribing articulations of femininity—that is to say that controlling women becomes part of the project of stabilizing masculinity.  As such, what is required in black feminist approaches to masculinity is a radical destabilization of maleness, itself.

As such I make use of “transfiguration” to gesture toward a space of transition as a site that allows us to understand the queer relationship between black feminist universality and black (male) feminist particularity.  While I realize that transfiguration has a specific religious connotation, I use the term to examine what objects should be exalted, transformed, and diminished in black (male) feminist modes of inquiry on masculinity.  In thinking about what it might mean to transfigure black (male) feminism/s—both in its objects and aims—and to bring to bear transsexual and transgender subjectivities on the subject matter at hand, I suggest that it ultimately requires a theoretical and political commitment to placing the category of black maleness under such scrutiny such that it implodes.  To draw on another anatomical metaphor, it is to bracket—to place clamps around—any notion of an essentialized, coherent maleness from the longer vein of feminist discourse of gender and performance such that it withers and dies.  And in its metaphorical death, to allow new inquiries and performances of gender to emerge.

In his essay, “Reconstructing Manhood; or, The Drag of Black Masculinity,” Rinaldo Walcott makes similar rhetorical moves to the ones that I am suggesting here.  Focusing on art created by or about black queer and trans masculine subjects, and drawing on transgender theorists Bobby Noble and Jack Halberstam, Walcott argues for greater exploration of the incoherence of black masculinity, such that masculinity is theorized “as a performance conditioned by myriad other performances, encounters, and interpellations.”  For Walcott, “central to the incoherency of masculinity in trans-politics are the ways in which language both fails and reaches its limits.”  Walcott’s notion of incoherence is constructed against a rhetorical tradition of “race men” who employ neoliberal cultural ideas to castigate various forms of non-normative black masculinities.  These race men—who frame black politics in terms of progress narratives and understand black masculinity as essentially in need of recuperation and rescue—provide the context for his turn to transmasculinity as site of discordant gender performance.  But rather than suggesting that black transgender bodies are sites of gender incoherences, which has the possibility of reinforcing the very idea Walcott (and I) argue against, namely that transgender (histories and presences) anatomically cannot cohere in the same ways that “biological” and cisgender maleness affords, I want to stress the space of transition as a place for feminist transformation and action.

I would argue that the space of transition serves as a place where particular assumptions about gender and its mapping on the body come under such scrutiny as to implode.  To transition, as it were, is to work to obliterate the category of gender one was assigned at birth, and in doing so to deploy a variety of strategies that radically de-couple sex from gender and gender from gender roles.  And I want to be very careful here to say, that the space of transition does not mean the conventional medical narrative of gender transformation, but includes a number of modes of anti-gender essentialist self-fashioning that occur in the everyday. To practice black (male) feminism in the space of transition then—as I attempt to do syntactically through the use of parenthesis— calls for feminist scholars to exert theoretical pressures on the category of maleness, itself—to allow it to destroy itself—and in so doing to allow black feminisms radical inclusivities to reemerge.  Saying yes to the woman within, as Hortense Spillers instructs, should also be reformulated in its inverse and in all the perverse mutations in which it is not always a matter of unearthing the repressed but also meditating a while longer at the surface of a body, allowing the stigma to sear the flesh.  In other words, transfiguring masculinities in Black Women’s Studies necessitates a move towards queer revaluations of the body as well as the family and sexuality.  Queering male bodies requires that we move from black (male) feminism to a proliferation of gendered bodies that talk very precisely about how they enter black feminist theory and practice. Inhabiting the queer space of the black body—a body that is always already figured as sexually non-normative—and transsexing black (male) feminism as a body of literature honors the ways that black feminisms have made room for all kinds of masculinities from its inception.

Works Cited

Awkward, M. (1995). Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender and the Politics of Positionality. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Carbado, D. (1999). Introduction, Black Men on Race, Gender and Sexuality: A Critical Reader. (New York: New York University Press), 1-18.

Combahee River Collective Statement. (1983). This Bridge Called My Back, 2nd Edition. Eds. Cheríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. (New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press), 219.

Lemons, G.L. (2008). Black Male Outsider, a memoir: Teaching as a Pro-Feminist Man, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press).

Lemons, G.L. (1997). To be Black, Male, and ‘Feminist’—Making Womanist Space for Black Men.  International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 17 (1/ 2): 35-61.

Spillers, H. (2003). Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book. Black, White, and in Color: essays on American literature and culture. (Chicago, University of Chicago Press), 203-229.

Walcott, R. (2009). Reconstructing Manhood; or, The Drag of Black Masculinity. Small Axe 13(1): 75-89.


C. Riley Snorton earned a Ph.D. in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University in Pennsylvania. His academic and teaching interests include transgender, feminist and queer theory, media anthropology, Africana studies, cultural studies, performance studies, and popular culture. Snorton has published several book chapters and his articles can be found in the International Journal of Communication, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, and Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. He is currently completing his monograph, The Glass Closet: Black Sexuality and Panoptical Imagination (University of Minnesota Press).