Derived from the Latin word genus, which refers to a race, class, or kind of something, “gender” shares its root word with concepts such as “genre,” “genealogy,” “genetics,” and “genius,” among others. Its etymology provides a partial context for how the term is frequently deployed to describe a finite system of types that are indexical of a bipartite model of sex to confer either a masculine or feminine designation. Among humans, and with an implied binaristic model of gender intact, gender is conceptualized as the product of a patriarchal ordering of difference invested in maintaining a relation of male dominance to female subordination. Although gender is colloquially used to refer to a generalizable typology to designate species into “men,” “women,” and sometimes “transgender” or nonbinary categories, such usage for black and blackened people is, at best, imprecise and, at worst, obscurant given gender’s arrangement with race and other modalities of difference.
Gender’s structures of meaning and attendant incoherences are particularly legible when situated alongside violent forces of racialization, which have indelibly shaped gender as a system of signification. The production of gender as a naturalized category calcified at the height of the European colonial era, and each node of the slave trade produced a critical environment for the numerous ways gender was articulated, disarticulated, and lived. As Hortense Spillers explains in her noted essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” in reference to the ordering of the New World, a project that would require both the theft of land and the theft of body, “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” (1987, 67). Spillers notes, “in th[is] historic outline of dominance, the respective subject-positions of ‘female’ and ‘male’ adhere to no symbolic integrity” (66). Rather, gender and what are often linked as cognate concepts, namely, the body and sexuality, are disarticulated for black and indigenous people in an American grammar produced by settler colonialism and chattel slavery.
As particular historical conditions constitute the grounds for the “ungendering” of blackness within a dominant symbolic order, Sylvia Wynter and others have gestured toward different semiotic arrangements that more accurately describe the particular expressivities of racialized gender. In an afterword to a collection of essays written by Caribbean women critics, Wynter uses William Shakespeare’s The Tempest to provide one explanation for how forces of racialization, in their colonial manifestations, alter orders of difference such that “sex-gender attributes are no longer the primary index of ‘deferent’ difference, and in which the discourse that erects itself is no longer primarily ‘patriarchal,’ but rather ‘monarchal’ in its Western-European, essentially post-Christian, post-religious definition” (1990, 358, emphasis in original). For Wynter, colonization and the establishment of a symbolic ordering to articulate colonial rule shifts “the primacy of the anatomical model of sexual difference… to that of the physiognomic model of racial/cultural difference,” such that encounters between different genders in this context are as much, or perhaps more, marked by the colonial rubric of racial domination as mere sexual (anatomical) difference (ibid.). Suggesting monarchal logic, expressed as the relationship of ruler over servants, gestures toward an alternative logic for how gender is assigned, as Wynter offers a rearrangement of the patriarchal formulation of the father over household to address how gender shifts according to its racial and sociohistorical contexts.
In matters of production and reproduction, race assembles the body, such that it proliferates gender (see, e.g., Morgan 2004; Hartman 1996; Haley 2016). In “Seduction and the Ruses of Power,” for example, Saidiya Hartman argues for the “divergent production of the category woman,” as she focuses on the legal and cultural responses to rape of enslaved women in the United States (1996, 556). For Hartman, gender, as it is produced through forced sex between slavers and the enslaved, constructed a female subject position, in which the “erasure or disavowal of sexual violence engendered black femaleness as a condition of unredressed injury, which only intensified bonds of captivity and the deadening objectification of chattel status” (556). While Hartman is careful not to produce a false equivalence between violence and gender, her argument underscores the psychic dimensions of gender with regard to injury, as it also reiterates how the meanings of gender are multiplied in light of the sexual violence that constituted chattel slavery.
Within the realms of lived experience, gender provides an aperture into modes of survival and personal or collective experiences of vitality (or lack thereof). Womanist and black feminist scholarship and activism have provided numerous rubrics for understanding how gender shapes one’s experiences of blackness, emphasizing the importance of self-determination and self-definition (see, e.g., Lorde 1984; A. Walker 1983; Combahee River Collective 1978). Attention to gender’s analytic utility within black communities has produced, for example, meaningful critiques of male chauvinism within black liberation movements or careful documentation of how sexism privileges nontransgender men within some iterations of a black studies canon (see, e.g., E. Edwards 2012; Carby 1998; Bambara 1981). Black masculinity studies has also brought focused attention to the gendering of African American and African-descended males and to the interrelatedness of black masculine gendering and black politics across the long twentieth century and has made use of textual, psychoanalytic, and spatial analyses to draw links between masculinity and blackness, as a lived category and as a potent vehicle for racial representation (see, e.g., M. Ross 2004; P. Harper 1996; Richardson 2007; Marriott 2000). Within the field, concepts such as “hypermasculinity,” which describes a racist projection onto black males in which black men are reduced to their genitalia, which is itself magnified—and retroactive responses to that projection—have come to explain how black masculinities are experienced and represented as hyperbolically masculine and therefore in excess to dominant codes of masculinity (see, e.g., Poulson-Bryant 2005; Fanon  2008). Furthermore, scholarship on the related concepts “the culture of dissemblance,” “the politics of respectability,” and “the salvific wish” highlight how black women practiced and espoused distinctly gendered modes of self-protection and policing in reaction to or to guard against antiblack racism and violence (see, e.g., Hine 1989; E. Higginbotham 1993; E. White 2001; Jenkins 2007).
Lived experiences of gender have also received considerable focus in scholarship within black queer and transgender studies, in which many scholars have attended to the performative dimensions of gender in order to highlight its contingent and situational production. For example, Marlon Bailey’s study of contemporary ballroom culture, defined as “a community and network of Black and Latina/o women, men, and transgender women and men who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, and queer,” describes a five-part “gender system” that structures how members are adjudicated in ballroom competitions across North America (2011, 367). The black trans studies scholars Enoch Page and Matt Richardson, moreover, have brought attention to transubjectivity as a concept to examine how gender remains a possible terrain to examine how black people have negotiated oppression (2010, 62–63). The possible connections between black studies and transgender studies are manifold in light of this discussion so far. Namely, as scholarship on black genders has frequently expressed how black genders are figured outside the traditional symbolics of “male” and “female,” black studies functions as a generative site for exploring how gender nonconformity and transness are imagined and experienced.
In the preface to Feminist Studies’ “Race and Transgender Studies: A Special Issue,” Matt Richardson and Leisa Meyer make explicit a critique of the limitations “of a predominantly white referent for transgender subjectivity as currently represented in critical theory” (2011, 247). Taking queer of color critique as a referent, “trans of color critique,” as a field of inquiry, has emerged as a scholarly articulation of the necessity of reading imbrications of racial formations and trans/gendered practices simultaneously. Like its scholarly forebear, trans of color critique is less a response to the perceived whiteness of transgender studies than a field constituted by an insistence on thinking racial and transgender concerns alongside and in light of other modes of difference (see, e.g., Page and Richardson 2010; Snorton and Haritaworn 2013; Wallace and Green 2013; Green and Ellison 2014; Cotten 2011; Snorton 2017). Writings by trans activists and intellectuals, such as CeCe McDonald (2015), for example, draw attention to the ways prisons and carceral logics express the personal vulnerabilities and political stakes of practices of black and trans self-determination.
In the broadest sense, gender, in all of its manifestations, is another metric of black self-invention. Relatedly, gender as an analytic becomes a critical mode to examine how blackness is lived and experienced. Whether gender is explored in relation to the frequently violent ways it has been given and enforced or in light of the ways it has been (strategically) deployed and redefined, scholarship on gender highlights a terrain of black life. Thus, gender might be understood as a testament to the unruly, monstrous, and marvelous ways blackness persists in the midst of ongoing forms of violence and violation. Put simply, scholarship on black genders reveals how gender (and sexuality) is as multiplicative as power is diffuse.