Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, Summer 1987, pp. 64–81.
In “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” Hortense Spillers offers a complex and thoughtful analysis of how the American grammar (symbolic system) insistently marks black females' flesh with a series of meanings that profoundly complicate their gendering. The dynamics that cause these tensions began with the transatlantic slave trade and the disruption of the familial bonds of black people. In this enforced movement, the father is (made) absent and the mother's bonds to her offspring (as well as the responsibility that comes with them) are no longer recognized. The arrangements from slavery, Spillers argues, transfer from one generation to the next, even if in disguise via "symbolic substitutions." She points out, for instance, how "African-American female's 'dominance' and 'strength' come to be interpreted by later generations–both black and white, oddly enough–as a 'pathology,' as an instrument of castration." (74) The absence of the father and its potential effects on his children (especially his male children) are interpreted as the mother's failure. This systematic rupture between the black female body and core aspects of womanhood (motherhood and sexuality) also opens a breach between predominantly white feminist fights and those of black feminism. Rather than demanding inclusion in the feminist agenda, Spillers closes with an call to "claim monstrosity" and its radical possibilities for black female empowerment.
How do Spillers' ideas about the (un)gendering of black female bodies open up questions about the gendered and racialized nature of emotional labor performances? What are the "symbolic substitutions" that occur in the commodification and digitization of feeling? These are questions that carry over to other pieces in this collection, Wingfield’s and Shanahan’s in particular.
To read Hortense Spillers’ full article, click here.