Editors’ note: Insurrect! was founded as a publication in part because we wanted to create more scholarly networks of support for graduate students that supplemented, rather than relied upon, the formal academy. Like many junior scholars, this week the editors of Insurrect! have been consumed by the ongoing fight against sexual harrassment at Harvard University led by Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava and their supporters; and also overwhelmed by the incredibly disheartening way that senior scholars at that institution have responded. As an online magazine that is devoted to critiques of colonial legacies, and to the foundational work of Black Studies, Indigenous Studies, and postcolonial feminist theory, we cannot ignore how institutions today uphold these legacies through the gendered mechanisms of power and abuse, even within fields designed to analyze them. To that end, we are sharing a personal narrative from one of Insurrect!’s co-founders that speaks specifically to the ways that our working lives as scholars and academics cannot be divorced from gendered institutional power. We are incredibly fortunate to work with and know someone as brave and brilliant as Kellen Heniford.
Transness is a theory of change, of futurity. As trans people, we reject pre-written narratives to build more livable futures. Maybe this is why transsexuality is a recurring trope in science fiction, why whenever transness receives media attention it is framed as unheard of and new. Perhaps this also has bearing on why our histories are so often difficult for many of us. The Gender Dysphoria Bible, describes a condition of “existential dysphoria” – profound feelings of loss manifesting as a sense of a lost past. The fact that I was raised as a boy means I missed so many of the crucial experiences of girlhood: whatever changes I acquire through my transition, I’ll never go to my first slumber party to whisper secrets and do my nails. I wonder if existential dysphoria might also describe a deeper condition of having no past as a people. If we broaden existential dysphoria out from our personal histories to our erasure from larger cultural narratives, dysphoria emerges not merely as personal discomfort, but as social critique, a dissatisfaction with our removal from history. In this light, attending to the lost trans women of history becomes a kind of care work, a working through of my own existential dysphoria and a righting of the wrong articulated by my dysphoric critique.
The Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) founded by K.J. Rawson is a free online archive hosting digitized materials donated from a variety of host institutions. Part of my work at the project over the last year and a half has been to search the content of other archives for unmarked trans content that we might make more accessible on the DTA. Surfacing trans lives out of the chaos of the past on the DTA allows for a reengagement with our histories, reminders that we’ve been here before. The DTA can be thought of as a kind of balm for existential dysphoria, inviting visitors to explore the complex, understudied, and incomplete items attesting to trans history.
One of the people I’ve returned to with increasing fascination over the course of my work at the DTA is Mary Jones, a figure whose public existence as a woman in the mid-nineteenth century contributed to her risking and enduring incarceration. The materials collected by the DTA about Jones are among the site’s most disturbing in their depiction of a potent confluence of anti-Black and transmisogynist bigotry, even as the archival items predate these terms. Jones has been exceptionally well-recorded in comparison to other trans people of color from the period, but we still know little about her life. We know she was born free in New York City, where she lived most of her life. We know she served in the military. We know that white men solicited sexual services from her, and that she reportedly suited herself not only in women’s dress but also in a contraption made of beef or leatherdesigned to mimic a vulva. We know that she was a frequent target for carceral violence and public mockery. We know the lurid details of her legal troubles made her a minor recurring figure in local newspapers during her life. One rare glimpse of her own voice comes from court testimony recorded during People vs. Sewally when she was asked why she wore women’s clothing. Jones explained:
I have been in the practice of waiting upon Girls of ill fame…they induced me to dress in Women’s Clothes, saying I looked so much better in them and I have always attended parties among the people of my own Colour dressed in this way – and in New Orleans I always dressed this way.²
But beyond the brief, strategically crafted narratives given in court, little of her life, thoughts, feelings, and relationships is known.
Jones’ interactions with the carceral system–and her intermittent, sensationalizedappearances in newspapers throughout the 1830’s to 50’s–must be understood within her specific historical context. The United States’ growing urban populations, particularly in northeastern cities such as New York, rendered trans communities increasingly visible, inviting increasing public and political concern with crossdressing. A wave of anti-masquerade laws intended to forestall deceptions across racial lines were passed across the United States during Jones’ lifetime, including New York’s 1845 penal code 240.35(4); they were also quickly marshaled to harass trans people. In 1836, Jones was arrested for stealing the wallet of Robert Haslem, a white man who solicited her sex work. A lithograph published following her conviction for grand larceny depicts Jones as a beautiful woman, elegantly dressed and calmly side-eyeing the viewer. The caption describes her as “The MAN-MONSTER.” As Tavia Nyong’o notes, her treatment in the press spoke to cultural fears about amalgamation in Jones’ person (and in her crime), white and Black, man and woman, human and animal mingle in ways unsettling to a popular audience.² Hence “man-monster,” a label that at once denies Jones’ womanhood by suturing her to the category “man” while excluding her from that category through the epithet “monster.”
The name “man-monster” places Jones at the nexus of two continuing histories of attempted dehumanization. Misogynoir constructs Black women as improperly feminine and therefore improperly human. Transmisogynist bigotry dehumanizes trans women by denying manhood and womanhood, thus rendering us neuter–an inhuman “it.” The archival objects that inform us about Jones bear witness to forms of oppression that continue to the present– to an intricate, pernicious, and ongoing mingling of racism, misogyny, and transphobia. The public mockery and carceral violence inflicted on Jones should be understood as analogous to the violent backlash against trans women of color that has followed our current moment of trans visibility – a backlash resulting in 2021 being the deadliest year for trans people on record in the United States. Justice demands that we remember the cruelties Jones suffered as we work to build a world that would make them truly locked in a historical past.
But Jones, even the version of Jones offered by a hostile press, cannot be reduced to her victimization. Following her incarceration, Jones reappears again and again–always in women’s dress. Ten years after the sentencing narrated in the lithograph, Jones returns, still appearing in public as a woman. The DTA has collected several newspaper clippings documenting Jones’ return to the spotlight. An author for the Newark Daily Advertiser hatefully described Jones, but also hinted at a begrudging respect when they wrote that her “ruling passion appears too strong for punishment to subdue.” Another account of an arrest for “sailing under false colors” attests that she put up “some show of fight” against the police. In collecting these items, the DTA allows for readings counter to their apparent design: we can see in them glimpses of Jones’ strength, her commitment to living her truth in the face of enormous hostility. Attending to these glimpses allows us to surface her subjectivity, and relate to her in sisterhood.
When we attend to the narratives of trans women in nineteenth-century American history we soothe the ache of our existential dysphoria and know the truth of our past. Technologies like the DTA allow us to reorient ourselves to our histories, re-experience our presents, and pursue new futures. Too many historical narratives describe Jones as a deceptive queer man. Reading against the grain of her mocking narrators, we can imagine her dress not as a deception but as a manifestation of her truth. Doing so unlocks new modes of understanding a key moment in transgender’s prehistory. Historical practices that might do justice to Mary Jones and the other lost trans women of history also do justice to the trans people of today. In attending to them, we can know ourselves not as the latest invention of Western medicine but as the scions of a long tradition of people who fought to determine the shape of their lives. We might draw on the strength of those who came before us as we steel ourselves to today’s fight.
¹ I intentionally use the anachronism “trans” throughout this article not to reduce the complexity of historical gender practices but to affirm the kinship a contemporary trans person might feel with people of the past with non-normative relationships to gender. ² And here we might also consider C. Riley Snorton’s insights regarding the fungibility of Black persons, including their gendering.
Further Reading: For existing scholarship on Mary Jones, I recommend Tavia Nyong’o’s Amalgamation Waltz, Jonathan Ned Katz’s Love Stories, and C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. Further information on Jones can be found on the DTA and in the transcripts of her trial. For historical context including information on anti-masquerade laws see Susan Stryker’s Transgender History.
Eamon Schlotterback is a doctoral candidate in literature at Northeastern University. Her dissertation project seeks to understand gender transition and memoir as technologies of self-making. She is currently Lab Coordinator at the Digital Transgender Archive.
We left off in Part One in the midst of a discussion about the connections between the history of geology and the histories of settler colonialism, the imperial state, and extractive industry in the U.S. We continue that conversation here, with our two participants, Tamara Pico and Gustave Lester. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Gustave Lester is a PhD candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University and a current dissertation fellow at the Science History Institute.
Tamara Pico is an assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and affiliated with the Science & Justice Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Slave courts pervaded colonial society. British settlers founded the first ones in Barbados in 1661 to judicially regulate enslaved Africans. By the mid-eighteenth century, this institution operated in nearly every British colony, and each individual parish or county had its own court. Manned by two to three Justices of the Peace along with a small group of elite planters, in this court the convicted possessed no right of appeal. From trying petty theft to executing accused murderers, these courts had absolute jurisdiction to try, convict, and execute alleged enslaved criminals. Once sentenced to die, court officials examined and evaluated enslaved people to compensate enslavers for their executed property. If the compensation amount did not suit the enslaver, they could petition to transport the slave out of the colony instead and sell them for a potentially higher price on the Atlantic market. The sentence of transportation allowed colonial authorities to reshuffle labor that was meant to be destroyed but was often too valuable to do so. In both the American South and the Caribbean islands, these courts remained in operation until emancipation in the nineteenth century.
Black life in vast early America was molded by a politic of survival that allowed diasporas to adapt, resist, and constitute new life in the violent colonial landscape. Torn from their natal homes, kith, and kin, diasporas recreated new means of belonging and community to avert the threat of social death amidst the changing colonial currents. Spanish Jamaica’s autonomous Afro-ladino communities exemplify the activation of Black survival politics during the Anglo-Spanish imperial contest for the island in the 1650s. The English invasion of 1655 collapsed Spanish colonial society and introduced an opportunity for the island’s Afro-ladinos to create isolated communities or Palenques in the interior hinterland. Some Palenques aided Spanish efforts to defend the island. The Guanaboa Valepalenque led by Juan Lubolosided with the English, while many others sought to preserve their isolated autonomy. Significantly, Juan Lubolo’s alignment with the English undermined the Spanish defensive campaign, resulting in an English victory. That said, continued Afro-ladino resistance posed by other palenques contested English conquest and limited colonial expansion for another two decades. By the close of the seventeenth century, enslaved runaways drew on this contested geography and formed the island’s notable Windward and Leeward Maroon societies. The case of Jamaica’s seventeenth-century Afro-ladinos is an example of the dynamism of Black freedom practice and how such practices shaped the trajectories of vast early America’s colonial landscape.
When I decided to major in history at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) nearly a decade ago, I never thought I would eventually contribute to historian Karin Wulf’s articulation of #VastEarlyAmerica via a forum like Insurrect!. I did know back then, though, that I did not want to study 20th century Black life like most of my classmates and professors. As an undergraduate student, I yearned to better understand the world we lived in. I gravitated to topics that assessed how Black people encountered violence, and the strategies Black women, men, and children used to resist and survive. History professors at FAMU like Darius Young taught me about why our role as Black storytellers is important to our people’s self-esteem and knowledge of self, while also connecting us to West African traditions of storytelling like that of the griot. Building on my growing base of knowledge, I applied my learning over nearly three years at multiple African American public history sites during my undergraduate and early graduate school training and education. Ultimately, my interest in researching the history of enslaved people and the institution of slavery came in Spring 2017 when I took a Comparative Slavery course at Simmons College (now University) taught by Jessica Parr. Although not on Parr’s syllabus, it was in her class that I learned about Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book, Never Caught. As Providence would have it, Dunbar would one day become my dissertation advisor. After purchasing my copy that semester, I distinctly remember laying on my couch in Boston and blurting out, “DAMN, I WANNA DO THIS!” And “THIS” meant writing about enslaved women that escaped slavery like Ona Judge. Judge, who absconded from President George Washington’s home in Philadelphia, remained “Never Caught” after settling in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the end of the eighteenth century. Suffice it to say, great storytelling can positively affect people’s lives! What 2021 has also shown us, though, is that great storytelling can result in incredible controversy.
In May 2021, an abolitionist caucus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Graduate Employee Organization (GEO UAW 2322) joined up with the Cops Off Campus Coalition (COCC) to support Abolition May, “a month-long series of actions on campuses across Turtle Island to demand the removal of ALL campus police.” After a year of political education, we spent the month taking direct action on the UMass Amherst campus to support abolition. As a caucus, we secured a vote from union membership to prioritize abolition during contract bargaining: the police have a long history of busting unions and enforcing the exploitation of workers. For the May 3rd Transnational Day of Refusal we collaborated with the Illuminator Art Collective to project a virtual picket line with crowdsourced abolitionist messaging on the side of Herter Hall. On May 20th, we hosted an abolition “block party” with literature, art, zines, a student-led petition for budgetary reallocation and racial justice, and coalition-building among students, faculty, and localabolitionistorganizations.
As the language and logics of prison industrial complex (PIC) abolitionism enter the liberal mainstream, they also become subject to increased co-optation, bastardization, and de-radicalization. Black rage, Black grief, and Black militancy are incorporated, distorted, and sold back to us as Black capitalism, Black punditry, and Black “representation” in electoral politics. Burning police precincts becomes an appeal for small budgetary concessions. “Abolish” becomes “Defund” becomes “Reform.” We make promises for more diversity and more inclusion. We issue statements and elect the “lesser” of two evils. From the academy, we get what Joy James terms “academic abolitionism” – the rhetoric of abolition so severed from any Black radical, working-class, or grassroots origins that it no longer has radical potential. “There is nothing about the academy that has revolutionary desire,” James notes in a 2019 lecture, “And if abolitionism is about revolutionary desire, then you’re caught in a contradiction.” We become ahistorical about abolition. Business continues as usual.
The January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol building by a rightwing mob has launched “insurrection” into the center of American discourse, demanding that we reckon with this term and its connotations. As a member of the editorial committee that founded this magazine, I have been asked and have had to grapple with whether or not to double down on our controversial name. But to grant the pro-Trump “insurrection” monopoly over the meaning of the word is, I believe, to declare undue defeat.