In writing a book that develops a new vocabulary for black and trans life, C. Riley Snorton delves into the past 150 years of American history. Recognizing the UChicago scholar’s inventiveness and depth of research and analysis, his widely celebrated book Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) has notched another significant accolade. The Modern Language Association will award the William Sanders Scarborough Prize to Snorton for his groundbreaking scholarship on January 5 in Chicago.
Named after William Sanders Scarborough, a renowned scholar and university president who was the first African-American member of the MLA, this annual prize recognizes an exceptional book on black American literature or culture published the previous year. Both members and nonmembers of the MLA are eligible for the prestigious award.
“In his inaugural year at UChicago, Riley has brought new perspective to our research and teaching in literature, race, gender, and sexuality,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities. “The prestigious William Sanders Scarborough Prize of the MLA is the latest in a series of awards that he has won for his landmark, revisionist book, Black on Both Sides, on race and trans identity.”
The book began when Snorton realized there was a lack of material combining race and trans identity from the mid-19th century through the 20th century. “I knew that I would write this book someday, but I didn’t think it would be my second book,” said Snorton, Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature. “However, now is an archival moment for race and trans identity. The book seeks to define what gender means and how race affects it.”
In Black on Both Sides, Snorton invents a new vocabulary that helps to define this emergent, first-generation culture. The immediacy of contemporary media was critical to creating a transformative vision of black trans identity. The onslaught of what Snorton calls “death-scapes,” widely publicized spectacular black deaths, allowed him to highlight strategies for survival.
While researching his book, Snorton found many sources for inspiration that enabled him to formulate survival possibilities for more livable worlds. Those sources include Sylvia Winters’s “No Humans Involved” essay about the Rodney King riots, art educator and author Susan Striker’s best-selling Anti-Coloring Book series, and Harriet Ann Jacobs’s 19th-century autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Members of the MLA’s selection committee acknowledged how sources from different eras of U.S. history influenced Black on Both Sides. “Drawing on an abundance of archival material, Snorton shows how slavery and the production of racialized gender provided the foundations for an understanding of gender as fluid, multiple, and mutable. Black on Both Sides is essential reading for anyone working in the fields of black studies, literature, history, genders, and sexualities. Snorton is reimagining the history of how blackness has been articulated within transness and, in doing so, is creating new ways to imagine livable black trans worlds.”
The MLA often rewards innovative ways of thinking about literature, notes Deborah Nelson, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor in English and department chair who will receive the MLA’s 2018 James Russell Lowell Prize. “The MLA has embraced the novel way Riley has written Black on Both Sides.”
Snorton’s book also has received the Lamba Award for Literary Fiction, the 2019 John Boswell Prize in LGBTQ history from the American Historical Association, the American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book in Nonfiction, and the Sylvia Rivera Prize for Transgender Studies from the Center for LGBTQ Study, as well as recognition from the Organization of American Historians and the Institute for Humanities Research.
Snorton started at UChicago in the autumn of 2018 and expects to collaborate frequently with his new colleagues across disciplines. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, with graduate certificates in Africana studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies. Snorton’s first book Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) was published while he was teaching at Cornell University.
On the horizon, Snorton’s next monograph—tentatively titled “Mud: Ecologies of Racial Meaning” —looks at the constitutive presence of swamps in the formation of racial practices in the Americas. Currently, he is coediting the forthcoming editions Saturation: Racial Matter, Institutional Limits and the Excesses of Representation (New Museum / MIT) and The Flesh of the Matter: A Hortense Spillers Reader (University of Minnesota Press).