Faculty Spotlight: C. Riley Snorton

March 26, 2019

C. Riley Snorton is a Professor of English Language and Literature at UChicago in residence at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. A cultural theorist who analyzes representations of race and gender throughout history, Snorton is the author of two books, Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low and Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. In January 2019, Snorton was awarded the Modern Language Association's William Sanders Scarborough Prize for Black on Both Sides. Snorton shared information on the evolution of his research and how it led to his current project, a book about swamps tentatively titled Mud: Ecologies of Racial Meaning.

Q. Describe your primary research interests and explain how they inspired your first two books.

A. I’ve always been interested in complex relationships between race, gender, and sexuality. Also, my work always has to be interdisciplinary, which is why I was so excited to join the University of Chicago and the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies last year. My first book, Nobody is Supposed to Know, traces the concept of the down low, focusing on black men who have sex with both men and women and what that tells us about power and identity. The second book, Black on Both Sides, examines the racial history of trans identity, and how the production of blackness becomes a generative sight to explore how gender might be understood as something that can change. 

Q. Harriet Jacobs is someone who factors prominently in Black on Both Sides, and you plan on incorporating her work into Mud as well. Can you share some additional details about your next book?

A. Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was one of the first works of its kind published by a black woman. In my recent book, I started thinking about gender as a way of life and examined how Jacobs changed her gender in order to move to and from the swamp. Jacobs is a key theorist for my next project. I’m interested in thinking about her experience of the swamp as a way to think about racialized geographies, and as she notes about her choice to go there, as a hiding place when “in no situation to choose.” In Mud I read her experience with another figure in the Florida swamp who the police attempted to deport in 1975. That narrative is a kernel of truth in Florida lore, referred to as the Green Swamp Monster.

Q. You’ve also been editing two anthologies. What are they focused on?

A. The first is titled Saturation: Race, Art, and the Circulation of Value. It raises questions about racial representation in terms of meaning and value and is more artistic than some of the other projects I’ve worked on, which has been enjoyable. The other anthology is titled The Flesh of the Matter: A Hortense Spillers Reader. It focuses on Spillers’ contributions to black feminist criticism.

Q. How do the themes explored in your books translate to the work you’re doing in the classroom with students?

A. In the Winter 2019 term, I taught Bodies of Transformation, a cross-listed course I’ve retooled since coming to the University of Chicago to reflect how ecology might give us fresh ways of thinking about embodiment. Sylvia Wynter’s work kicks off the course, which is critical to geography studies. Wynter helps us examine how man has been constructed and how transformation is possible. I’ll teach the same course again next fall, along with the On Man course, which continues conversations about the production of the human in relation to time, space, and colonial violence.