This week we are reading Hortense Spillers best known work, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” The essay brings together Spillers’ investments in African–American studies, feminist theory, semiotics, and cultural studies to articulate a theory of African-American female gender construction. Spillers is concerned with the alleged problem of matriarchal family structure in black communities. However, rather than accepting the wisdom of the Moynihan Report (which established the trope of the absent black father), Spillers makes two moves—one historical and the other political. First, she argues that the absent father in African-American history is the white slave master, since legally the child followed the condition of the mother through the doctrine partus sequitur ventrem. Thus, the enslaved mother was always positioned as a father, as the one from whom children inherited their names and social status. Similarly, black men and women were both positioned as “vulnerable, supine bod[ies]” capable of being “invaded/raided” by a woman or man –that is as “ungendered” and separated from its own “active desire.”. After suggesting that this lineage removes African Americans from patriarchal gender and places them outside of family, she concludes by suggesting that men and women descended from this situation might be well positioned to overturn patriarchy, not by joining the ranks of normative gender but by operating from the androgynous “boundary” where they have been placed—that is, by black men’s saying “‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within” and by black women “claiming the monstrosity of a female with the power to name.” Overall, Spillers aims to draw connections between the structures of the black family that were created during slavery, and the ways in which they have manifested into contemporary familial phenomenons.
Friday, March 8th