Sunday, September 13, 2020

Samantha Pinto's "Infamous Bodies"

Samantha Pinto is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, author of Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic, and coeditor of Writing beyond the State: Post-Sovereign Approaches to Human Rights in Literary Studies.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Infamous Bodies: Early Black Women’s Celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights, and reported the following:
What is it possible to feel when encountering Black women’s sexuality in the public sphere and historical record? What are the unacknowledged possibilities of Black vulnerability? What can texts--and critical readings of them-- that fall outside of diagnosing resistance or complicity do in the study of Black feminism, and in the thinking of the political? Page 99 of Infamous Bodies starts with a thick description of a Saturday Night Live sketch with Maya Rudolph as Sally Hemings and Robert De Niro as Thomas Jefferson— the climax of the sketch being when Jefferson asks her when she gets off of work and she deadpans “uh, never.” What do we do with this moment in a historically white show with overwhelmingly white writers, where liberties are taken with historical accuracy to think about the ludicrous idioms of seduction appended to our understanding of sexuality when faced with enslaved women’s sexual lives (following Saidiya Hartman, Brenda Stevenson, Ann Laura Stoler, and Emily Owens)? The humor of this scene exposes that logic, calls it out, and yet underscores the inevitability of Hemings’s sexual entanglement with Jefferson—coerced, forced, terrorized, privately contracted, ambivalent, and/or wholly expected sexual experiences between white enslavers and Black women were the “normal” of antebellum life.

My book, like the work of Danielle Fuentes Morgan, Racquel Gates, Jennifer Nash, Aida Levy-Hussen, Kali Gross, and Nicole Fleetwood, investigates the difficult political binds of “bad” representation of Blackness, and Black women in particular. On page 99, I ask what organizing around Black feminism’s complex and competing desires might look like— around those affects and attachments that don’t fit or can’t be disciplined into critical scripts of recognizably good politics. Early Black women celebrities, with their repeated public histories re-performed in art, culture, literature, and criticism, give us a glimpse into alternate genealogies of the political in the modern world— Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta. They help us see a black feminist politics invested in black women’s vulnerability as the base of all political subjectivity, not the lack that needs to be repaired to attain it, or ascend to it. My book delves into difficult moments of representation, consistently troubling the link between Black self-authorship and resistance (and Black performance beyond Black authorship as complicity, tragedy, minstrelsy) in order to ask what work pleasure, desire, humor, and ambition might do alongside and always tethered to histories and regimes of racial-sexual terror.

The understandable mood of the field of Black Studies and the ethical world is decidedly not bent toward humor right now, nor should it be. Infamous Bodies does not aim to wholesale diagnose and cure, but to gently press on assumed certainties and well-worn arcs of anti-Racist, Black Feminist, and Black Studies narratives to imagine, even briefly, what other scenes, affects, and attachments might bring to these fields, and to thinking about this dire political moment. What if Black study brought significant critical eyes to the attachments brought to the table in criticism that delimit the questions we are wil

ling to ask or perform, and that tacitly discipline our texts, our tastes, our readings? In embracing the “radical temporariness” of embodied existence that these five early Black women celebrities performed in their moments and in their popular repetitions, Infamous Bodies and its page 99 try to imagine different horizons and trajectories for the political that take Black feminist thought as its foundation, not its savior.
Visit Samantha Pinto's website.

--Marshal Zeringue