2019 May 2019

The Regular and Necessary Practice of Black Trans Necromancy

Blu Buchanan: In this essay I explore the problem of absence and abjection in Black trans experience, both in the historical archive of slavery and in the contemporary moment, asking how and why Black trans necromancy is so important to our everyday lives.

by Blu Buchanan

For #ClaireLegato, may we say the names of all our sisters. #SayHerName

Image One: Permission received from artist: https://www.instagram.com/p/BYTn_5EFPPg/.

Necromancy has been, and continues to be, a fundamental part of Black life. The popular American narrative of zombies arises from hoodoo traditions, and is deeply entangled with Black life and death in the Americas – it is representative of both white fear and Black persistence in the face of incredible dehumanization[i]. Beginning with a necro-orientation towards history, I ask how Black trans people engage in our own historical invocation rituals. These invocations, contrary to the empiricism of academic history, are based not on archival accounts but on their absence. In this essay I explore the problem of absence and abjection in Black trans experience, both in the historical archive of slavery and in the contemporary moment, asking how and why Black trans necromancy is so important to our everyday lives.

What did the first non-gender conforming Black person experience as they were taken off the slave ship and onto North American soil? Answering this question requires turning to archival and historical documentation of life for Black people under slavery. This answer though, is incomplete, unable to ever be complete, and partial to whiteness[ii]. Archives are constructed by dominant institutions and social forces; they lend themselves to a particular set of reconstructive practices[iii]. For instance, the documentary evidence we have available to construct a trans reading of white bodies in the 18th and 19th centuries is, if not plentiful, certainly a reasonable subject of archival research. The archive itself engages in a whitewashing of history –in the creation of white history, easily translated into de-racialized, universal accounts of “human” experience.

Lauren Klein, a historian, speaks on the problem of the archive of slavery, “Whereas individual voices, even those illuminated in their absence, remain compelling markers of personhood suppressed, they cannot counter what Hartman (2008, 12) has characterized as the ‘irreparable violence of the Atlantic slave trade,’ nor can they redress what Best (2011, 151) has identified as a consequence of chattel slavery: the fundamental ‘deformation’ of its archive.”[iv]  Black experiences of gender variance are eliminated by both the active violence of slavery and the institutional violence of an archive of whiteness. Their abjection leads to an archive that is silent, conspicuously so, on the lives of Black trans people.

But where the archive is too often silent on the experiences of Black trans people from their own perspective, it is cacophonous, belligerently so, in describing the gender anxieties of white people during slavery. Slaves were often used to bolster the masculinity of their masters and to create the vision of fragility so necessary to white mistresses. Scientific racism was frequently focused on the sexual organs and “traits” of slaves, and the idea that slaves were less sexually dimorphic was used to negate any ethical responsibility of whites for the sexual violence and rape of Black bodies. Even white sex difference was constructed in opposition to the Black “other.”

Image Two: Advertisement for A Florida Enchantment, 1914.

One particularly poignant example Siobhan Somerville examines is the case of A Florida Enchantment, a play[v] in which a white woman visits a plantation-style house and switches sex using seeds procured (by white colonial forces) from Africa[vi]. Somerville argues that by depicting Africa as a place in which sex and gender can be and are shifted, this cultural narrative — one of the earliest examples of gender play and homosexuality in America — continues the conflation of already entrenched racist medical pseudoscience, which argued African bodies were less sexually and gender dimorphic. Extending this analysis to trans bodies, we can see that the assumption that Black bodies were more “primordial” and less differentiated based on sex means they were never quite “cis” in the way we understand it today [vii]. 

This demands asking, what of Black subjectivity? Historical sociology would argue that to speak on this requires a basis in empirical archival documents – in being seen as trans – for such a recuperative project. There is precedent for this kind of seeing, in the archival documents of Black trans icons like Mary Jones and Frances Thompson. But these are exceptional cases, and I am most interested not in the exception, but the rule. The focus on empiricism does a disservice to Black trans narratives by limiting them to the exceptional.

Image 3: “The Man-Monster; Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones,” 1836. 

In the absence of archival completeness, what does it mean to engage a process of imaginative recuperation? Where does Black gender variance fit within what scholar Steven Blevins calls the process of restorative historiography[viii]? This process of recuperation is urgent – not simply because of the ephemeral nature of what few documents exist (we see this ephemerality in the destruction of what few archives exist by white supremacists), but because this violence is ongoing. Here, I argue that using absence and abjection as historicizing tools can help us grasp at the frayed roots of Black trans experience.

Absence, in theory, speaks for itself. It’s the lack of documentation, of physical residues and oral history, a silent component of the way we tell stories. Abjection, a state of being cast off, of “the jettisoned object…[the] radically excluded…draws [one] toward the place where meaning collapses” These two negative states are the only logical place to start our process of imagining. They can be turned into tools by drawing our focus towards the non-empirical archive – an archive of whispers and imagining otherwise.

Saidiya Hartman can help us understand the role of imagination in speaking silence[ix]. In her work “Venus In Two Acts” she argues for the use of “critical fabulations,” of the use of narrative to fill archival silences by pushing the boundaries of the archive – of telling the story in new and sometimes unverifiable ways[x]. I extend the argument for “critical fabulations” to argue that Black trans people have consistently used these imagined narratives to fill gaps and construct a Black trans subjectivity – to situate themselves within a history – despite the absence in the archive.[xi] We are regularly engaged in the time travel and afro-speculation so poignantly described by Octavia Butler in her classic work Kindred[xii]. As abjections, the things cast off, we are not bound to time in the same way as subjects. We move, painfully, between times, as we imagine a world which is otherwise.

Black trans people engage in these critical fabulations regularly, and I’d like to move from critical fabulation as narrative to critical fabulation as practice. The individual stories may fade, and the documents may be lost or destroyed, but our practices – emerging from and exceeding the archival fragments we have to work with – orient us towards the past and towards the present. Here, I’d like to argue that Black trans people have three practices which emerge from our absence and abjection within the archive.

The House. The Ball. The Revolution. Houses are an extension of the familial networks which have helped Black people survive the trauma and dehumanization of anti-blackness. With the dissolution of communities and the industrialization (and then deindustrialization) of the United States, Houses are fundamentally organized to support marginalized people of color. Houses provide literal housing, food, and support networks in addition to their performances[xiii]. Houses are also archives of “otherwise” – they mark the history of their family in relation to an alternate genealogy. The mothers and fathers of the Houses are an archive of collective memory and life lessons – how to stay off the street, how to protect yourself – not just of the successful members of the house, but of those who have been lost as well. Houses also have their “legends,” their elders and icons, and they have their “children,” the future legends and the ones who carry on the traditions and parental status of their houses.

The Ball, an interrelated component of House life, provides a public place to practice one’s creativity and flair. These events also allow for Black trans and queer people to practice the past – to read themselves into European courts, American galas, and glittering penthouse affairs. This is both a fraught practice – of identifying with normative standards – and a resistant one[xiv]. Rather than argue whether Balls are liberatory or not, I’d instead like to draw attention to them as locations in which absence and abjection are noted, examined, and queered. What if the world wasn’t the way it was?

These practices of survival also oriented Black trans people toward revolution, of seeing themselves as part of a longer Black struggle, from slavery till the present, to be free. As Marsha P. Johnson said of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), “We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary”. The everyday practices Black trans people undertake are revolutionary, in that they prioritize and celebrate Black trans life in the overwhelming face of Black trans death.

Despite the impact these critical fabulations have on both queer and trans culture in America, Black trans people continue to experience abjection and absence. One example of this is the Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR). Largely organized by trans women of color, TDoR is meant to celebrate and organize around those killed every year — folks like Black trans women who have an average lifespan of roughly thirty years. However, the event is dominated by white trans women. Princess Harmony, a trans writer of color, illustrates this issue clearly — “I can’t take the overbearing whiteness of Trans Day of Remembrance events. I can’t stand that white trans women use it as their day to decontextualize, co-opt, and practically consume the deaths of trans women of color in order to put themselves at the center of trans oppression.” This act of remembering reflects the way Black trans erasure and death is central to the structure of history itself.

And so we will continue to raise our dead. To wonder, without documentation, what kind of subject we are – and if we want to be subjects at all.

Image 5: By Blu Buchanan via https://www.instagram.com/p/BjvBAcxBUDj/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

Blu Buchanan is a Black trans graduate student at the University of California, Davis. They specialize in historical sociology, with a focus on the racial, sexual, and gender politics of the United States.  Their specific research interests lie in the areas of homonationalism, whiteness studies, and conservative social movements. Alongside their academic work, they also organize at the intersection of trans justice, Black liberation, and labor mobilizing. Currently, they are heading up a campaign to disarm campus police officers across the University of California system.

Further Reading

[i] Kette, Thomas (2010). ‘Haitian Zombie, Myth and Modern Identity’, Comparative Literature and Culture, 12, no. 2; McAlister, Elizabeth (2012). ‘Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies’, Anthropological Quarterly, 85, no. 2, pp. 457-485.

[ii] Michelle Caswell, “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” The Library Quarterly 87, no. 3 (July 2017): 222-235. https://doi.org/10.1086/692299; Farmer, Ashley (2018). “Archiving While Black” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Archiving-While-Black/243981

[iii] For more on this see: Perkins, Yvonne (2012). “Women and Archival Silences.” Stumbling Through History Links. https://stumblingpast.com/2012/03/09/women-and-archival-silences/; Arondekar, Anjali (2009). For The Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India. Duke University Press.https://www.jstor.org/stable/23069907; and Perkins, Yvonne (2012). “Women and Archival Silences.” Stumbling Through History Links. https://stumblingpast.com/2012/03/09/women-and-archival-silences/

[iv] Klein, Lauren F. (2013). “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings.” American Literature, Volume 85, Number 4. Duke University Press. The two references contained in the quotation are from Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts (cited below) and Best, Stephen. 2011. “Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive.” Representations 113, no. 1: 150–63.

[v] Later adapted into an early silent film in 1914.

[vi] Somerville, Siobhan (2000). Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Duke University Press.

[vii] Snorton, C. Riley (2017). Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press.

[viii] Blevins, Steven (2016). Living Cargo: How Black Britain Performs Its Past. University of Minnesota Press.

[ix] I also encourage folks who are interested in learning more to check out Tavia Nyong’o’s newest work Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life.

[x] Hartman, Saidiya (2008). “Venus In Two Acts,” in Small Axe. Duke University Press. For more on this as practice, see Hartman’s latest work “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval.

[xi] This speaks to Muñoz’s answer to Nyong’o’s question, “Is there something black about waiting.” Muñoz argues yes – that being situated as other is to be disjointed from history; to be waiting. You can find more in Muñoz’s book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.

[xii] Butler, Octavia. 1979. Kindred. Doubleday Books.

[xiii] Bailey, Marlon M (2011). “Gender/Racial Realness: Theorizing the Gender System in Ballroom Culture” in Feminist Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 365-386.

[xiv] Ibid.

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