“He was man, and as such, the author and finisher of light. Whenever she shouted: ‘Oh Lord!’, he growled ‘Y-e-s’, deep in his throat.” This is how Hortense Spillers describes the Black couple at the center of her short story, “A Lament,” published in 1977. Here we find the central themes of Spillers’ scholarly work: an interrogation of gender roles in Black culture, a belief that such an interrogation can learn from the texture of everyday Black life, and a belief that Christianity can tighten the knot that binds race and gender.
“Oh Lord!” – evoking religion but also exasperation, ridicule, and playfulness. Religious language used by a Black woman to assert herself. This hints at another theme of Spillers’ work. For her, Black women are not merely victims or paragons of resilience but sources of creativity, sometimes fueled by Christianity.
At the end of “A Lament,” the female protagonist goes to a club to track down her mate. She finds a woman dancing on a stage “in a tiger print mini suit, several sizes too small for her swinging buttocks.” After a few moments, she realizes that the dancer is a man – her man. Here is another feature also found in Spillers’ scholarship: it surprises.
Hortense Jeanette Spillers was born in 1942, in Memphis. Trained as a scholar of English, Spillers completed her dissertation, directed by the renowned Jewish poet Allen R. Grossman, at Brandeis University in 1974. She most recently has taught in Vanderbilt’s English Department.
Spillers’ writings have long been admired by scholars of Black literature. In the last few years, Spillers has been regarded as one of the leading lights of the rejuvenated, interdisciplinary field of Black studies, a key influence on much cutting-edge scholarship – often grouped with other Black feminist luminaries such as Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and Christina Sharpe.
Spillers describes herself as “the daughter of deacons of the southern black Baptist church,” and she reports that in her youth she “had stored an infinite number of sermon performances in memory.” The Black sermon became the topic of her dissertation, where she writes of the Black preacher as a “poet,” the Black sermonic tradition as like a musical tradition. The archive of Black literary texts may be thin, but scholars of Black literature ought to pay attention to this religious archive that is rich and robust – so Spillers argues.
In her dissertation, Spillers examines the rhetorical strategies and ideas of Black sermons from the past and present, primarily Christian, but she also dwells on a Louis Farrakhan speech, which she takes to be an exemplary case of Black preaching. Spillers engages with James Cone, Nathan Scott, Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, and other figures from the religious studies canon in order to appreciate the deep, orienting work that Black sermons perform. She also gestures toward continuities in the Black American sermon and Yoruba religious practice.
During the mid and late 1970s, Spillers found “theory” – poststructuralist philosophy, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. The essays for which she is most recognized explore how theoretical insights can inform and be transformed by study of Black culture. Spillers does not simply “use” European theory; she writes in the confident voice of a theorist. Indeed, Spillers’ work transformed Black studies through modeling rigorous engagement with theory, and she transformed theory by modeling serious engagement with Black culture – though the effects of these transformations have only recently been felt fully.
In a 1988 essay, “Moving on Down the Line: Variations on the African-American Sermon,” Spillers revisits her dissertation material after having grappled with European theoretical perspectives. Now, Spillers reads Black sermons as presenting a complex, ultimately ambivalent hermeneutics. From a position that is both shaped by the dominant culture and resistant to the dominant culture, “African-American sermons offer a paradigmatic instance of reading as process, encounter, and potential transformation.”
Instead of seeing Black sermons as an alternative canon or tradition, now Spillers writes of Black sermons as participants in an open-ended rather than hierarchical or authoritative “community of texts.” While Black sermons are ambivalent in how they relate to American culture, this community is not characterized by undecidability of the sort embraced by Jacques Derrida, opening a never-ending play of meanings. Instead, Spillers reads ambivalence in Black religious texts as evidence of what she calls “wounding.” At their best, rather than an opiate, Black sermons work a cultural wound and announce that healing is possible, in Spillers’ view.
“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” published in 1987, is the essay for which Spillers is most well-known. The Black literary critic Farah Jasmine Griffin suggests that Spillers’ essay stands next to W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk” as works that set the agenda for a generation of Black thinkers. Spillers was surprised by the essay’s wide circulation, but she also describes writing it as an intense experience. She “wrote it with a feeling of hopelessness”; while writing, she “was on the verge of crying.”
The bulk of the essay is an analysis of how Blackness and gender entangle. Spillers theorizes in ways that draw explicitly on scholarship about the history of slavery and implicitly on European thought. But the essay opens with two paragraphs in the first person singular. Spillers lists names she has been called, racist terms for Black women. The essay is an attempt to understand what motivates such name-calling.
In a slogan: Spillers claims the Middle Passage strips Blacks of gender. The effects of the Middle Passage continue in the New World, up to the present. Among these effects: Black femininity and masculinity are constructed in ways that deviate from the white norm. While US institutions police such deviancy and sometimes criminalize it, Spillers sees it as an opportunity that feminists of all races ought to embrace to do gender differently.
It is easy to overlook the novelty and power of Spillers’ claims. Three years before Judith Butler published Gender Trouble, Spillers argued that gender was a performance enforced by a normative order. Butler argues against European feminists who imagine a time “before” or “outside” of gender, and Spillers agrees – but only for whites. Spillers argues that there was a time and place when gender was stripped away from Blacks: in the Middle Passage. By this Spillers sometimes means the literal voyage, in the hold of a ship traveling from Africa to the New World, but she also means slavery more generally – and slavery’s afterlives.
Spillers distinguishes between the body, ruled by cultural norms that include prescribed gender markings and performances, and the flesh, the unformed body, not even individuated. Turning African bodies into flesh, making them available to the slave market, involves physical violence. As flesh, the enslaved are not seen as having personalities, are not seen as subjects of ethics. They are interchangeable objects; if they differ it is in height and mass, like any other object – unlike a human. As pieces of flesh, the enslaved are seen as incapable of relationships, incapable of kinship. Taking the baby from the arms of its mother is thinkable if both are mere flesh.
The treatment of the enslaved as flesh runs up against the US gender regime – against gender discourse, language. How to talk in gendered terms about female Black flesh? She can only be improperly a woman, hence the varied epithets Black women endure ranging from the hypersexualized to the desexualized: “Brown Sugar” or “Sapphire,” “Aunty” or “Granny.”
While the slave ship is a site of “ungendering,” according to Spillers, attending to it also reminds us of “a wild and unclaimed richness of possibility.” We think of the slave ship as a place of violence, but Spillers urges us to appreciate the ambivalence of its violence. There is, in the disorder that violence unleashes, a reminder that other orders are possible. Attending to “ungendering” on the slave ship reminds us that the patriarchal norms of gender that seem natural in the white world are actually constructed. And we realize that we could live otherwise, the body could be ordered otherwise.
Further, we can imagine kinship otherwise: because the enslaved were ungendered, they could not have familial relationships governed by patriarchal laws and norms but instead created “Black Family” based on “powerful ties of sympathy.”
In short, Spillers urges Black women to refuse cultural pressure for gendered performance, to refuse turning flesh into a well-ordered body. Instead she urges “claiming the monstrosity” of differently ordered bodies made possible by attending to the flesh. European Christianity, she argues, is often on the side of patriarchal norms, and the monstrous, the ugly, and the pagan are siblings. (Spillers does point to how this story is complicated by African Christianity, in the present and all the way back to Augustine, Tertullian, and Origen.)
What would it mean for scholarship in political theology to claim monstrosity? Perhaps it would mean focusing on underappreciated aspects of the Christian tradition, and other religious traditions, particularly those developed by women’s intellectual labor. Perhaps it would mean following Silvia Federici in reflecting on witches. Perhaps it would mean turning to figures of the sovereign beyond God and king – the werewolf (as Agamben suggests), the grotesque body (as Bataille suggests), or others.
In graduate school, Spillers was involved in Black student organizing, and she has talked and written extensively on the possibilities and pitfalls of Black studies as an academic field. She is very aware that the aspirations of Black student organizing rarely panned out. Spillers does not hold back: she charges that under-resourced Black studies programs and departments, usually led by underqualified men, have taken their priorities from the business-minded university and have failed to develop coherent identities grounded in rigorous analysis and theory.
In her own scholarship, Spillers models a different approach to Black studies. While she trained as a scholar of literature, she sees history and literature as conjoined fields. She sees her own work as essentially interdisciplinary, using a variety of theoretical tools, with a commitment to scholarly rigor. She worries that some Black studies scholars are allergic to “theory,” seeing it as a European import; Spillers points out that the same impulse toward justice that fueled the racial and gender justice movements of the 70s also attracted scholars to Marxist, psychoanalytic, and poststructuralist theory at the same time. While Spillers will engage with Lacan, Althusser, and Barthes in her writings, they are never the only or primary figures at work. Black individuals and practices, including cooking, orient her texts as well, and are treated as equals to the world of European theory.
Engaging with an array of sources is a way for Spillers to keep the scholarly conversation about Black studies fluid rather than fixed on an object (racism, constructed in a particular way). As in the more recent work of Robyn Wiegman, Spillers is acutely aware of the crippling effect that institutional pressures to tether a field to an object can have on vibrant inquiry. We might think of a similar problem in political theology, with its object sometimes tethered to a particular historical place and time (Weimar Germany) or figure (Augustine, Moltmann, or Schmitt), blinding scholars to essential questions (of colonialism, religious diversity, or sexuality).
Further, Spillers probes the subtleties of disciplinary orientation, what they reveal and what they conceal. In 2006, for example, she worried that a focus on the cosmopolitan and on the Black Atlantic conceal questions of gender. In 1991, in the heyday of embracing “otherness,” she worried that “heterogeneity itself now threatens to become a new teleological narrative that functions in the same way as the totalizing economies that have been discredited.”
In short, Spillers has consistently been suspicious of what is trendy. She describes herself as aspiring toward a writing style that resists “making friends and influencing people” – that stays true to the aspiration of Black studies as an insurgent intellectual project. Her texts make turns, and turns of phrase, that surprise. Perhaps this offers a lesson for scholars in political theology: about taking other fields, such as Black studies, as sites of extraction and commodification, and about writing in ways that thwart expectations.
Paradoxically, after spending a career criticizing the trendy and marshalling resources to think otherwise, Spillers has found her own writings trendy, her own name cited to signal good politics. Perhaps the best response is to remember how Spillers treated the problem of patriarchal Black clergy. Rather than fetishizing the preacher, she opened and entered the community of texts they preached. Spillers might similarly invite us to enter the community of texts, theoretical and historical, with which she engages.
Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
This collection brings together many of Spillers’ most important essays, including “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” on Blackness and gender, “Moving on Down the Line,” on the Black sermon, and “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date,” an assessment of the role of the Black intellectual in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
“Fabrics of History: Essays on the Black Sermon.” Brandeis University Dissertation, 1974.
Includes discussions of historical and contemporary preaching and preaching as an organizing principle for literature (there is a chapter on James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain). Duke University Press has plans to publish this text as a book.
“’Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35:1/2 (Spring-Summer 2007): 299-309.
Leading scholars of history and literature engage in conversation with Spillers about her influential essay and its impact.