How Ya Mama’n’em?: Blackness, Nonbinariness, and Radical Subjectivity
Author(s): Marquis Bey
Marquis Bey is an Assistant professor of African American Studies and English at Northwestern University. Bey is the author of the forthcoming Black Trans Feminism (Duke University Press) and The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Gender (University of Minnesota Press).
Abstract: This essay thinks through the nonbinary pronoun "they" and its proximity to black vernacular usages of the word as a descriptor of a certain kind of openness to subjectivity. This tendency is brought into conversation with gender nonbinary thinking around they pronouns. In other words, there is something to the pervasive usage of "they" (e.g. "How ya mama and them?" "Where they do that at?") that speaks to the presence of (gender) nonbinarism as intimate with a notion of blackness.Tags: Blackness, Language, Nonbinariness, subjectivity
Enter with me, reader, into the possibility of a profound intimacy between blackness and nonbinariness through the vernacular query How ya mama’n’em?
There is a muted peculiarity to being thrown outside of a recognizability philosophers would tell you is necessary for livability and legibility. The outsidedness to recognizability is indexical of a type of subjectivity not currently known, an identity on some shit the likes of which we ain’t never seen. It is a type, to my mind, among others of course, that can be sensed in the linguistic; a type alluded to by the phrasal iterations and vernacular swings found in propinquity to blackness. There is something there, flittingly, to be caressed and put on secretive display, if only for a brief moment.
What concerns the present essay is the various ways language seeps from black milieus and characterizes a different, open way of coming into being. Certain terms, turns of phrases, and gestural diction allude to a way of mobilizing the they similar to, familiar with, yet in swervingly skirted distinction from the word’s use in gender nonbinary settings (though the two settings are not mutually exclusive). Phrases like that of the title of this essay, “How ya mama’n’em?” permit a more capacious understanding of one’s subjectivity, one that casts a they or them (or, ‘em) onto someone in order to imply their subjective breadth in excess of individuation. It is not that I believe, or have witnessed, black folks at the vanguard of using nonbinary pronouns for themselves and others (though, to be sure, I share community with more black nonbinary folks than nonbinary folks of any other racialized demographic); it is, instead, that the they of nonbinary genders and the they of certain ways of linguistic expression autochthonous within black sociality share something, some kind of other-mother relation where the two uses of they are cousins but not really, which means, of course, that they are family nonetheless.
They as a descriptor of a gendered identity uncontainable by the gender binary is not new per se, though its assumption as an identity by those who find a home in being unhomed by the binary is a more recent phenomenon. They has been in use in English, to conservative grammarians’ chagrin, for centuries. It is not a twentieth- and twenty-first-century linguistic phenomenon, strictly speaking. As an epicene term, they has been in use at least since the fifteenth-century. Later, it made appearances in the work of Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, and other notable literary heavy hitters (Bjorkman). In A Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare writes,
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
Swift, in Polite Conversation, has written “Every fool can do as they’re bid.” Thus, they as a designator of non-gender-specific personhood has a centuries-long history.
Not until the eighteenth-century, in 1745, did the pronoun as a gender-neutral term come under serious fire. Ann Fisher argued that the universal pronoun, the pronoun for all, the pronoun to end all other pronouns for general use, should be “he.” That is, when referencing someone of unknown gender or speaking of general, perhaps hypothetical persons one should use “he,” a foundationing rationale for which being the ungrammaticality of “they” in similar instances. Fisher writes, “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says” (see Fisher). He’s universalization took hold as a result of Fisher’s argument, no doubt buttressed by a pervading patriarchal environment. But this practice, while becoming pervasive until recently—a mitigation brought on by the feminist movement’s insistence on “he”’s phallogocentrism and vocabularic instantiation of cis male supremacy—was never fully able to eradicate the use of “they” as a gender-neutral term for unknown persons.
Contemporarily, the pronoun has exploded onto the public discursive scene thanks in no small part to the agitation and principled insistence on its use by our beloved enbies (that is, “NBs”: “nonbinaries” or nonbinary people), trans and genderqueer people, and radical feminists (and, to be sure, those who may identify as more than just one of these). They has won out as the nonbinary reference of choice over “it” or “which,” as Samuel Coleridge would have preferred; and is more commonly used than neologisms like ze/hir, as someone like Leslie Feinberg would have liked, at least on some occasions.1 Indeed, they has reached such a zenith that, in 2015, it was named Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society (ADS). Hegemonic societal doxa has long mandated, and in some ways still does, what Miqqi Alicia Gilbert calls “bigenderism,” a pervasive understanding that prohibits variations, exceptions, or deviations from gender protocols (Gilbert). Such prohibitions are predicated on “commonsense” axioms: there are only two genders, genders do not and cannot change, gender identity is identified through genital shape, the gender binary is “natural,” and the like. Nonbinariness and myriad expressions of gender transgression via identification with transness undermine this doxa, one that only permits certain grounds for life and livability. To undermine this, then, results in a staunch counterarticulation posing valid alternative forms of being and becoming a subject that rejects binary, stultifying thinking—a veritable, if you will, “Nah, we don’t do that over here.”
At worst, nonbinariness and affixation of it to insistences on “they” pronouns is seen as faddish, a temporary sojourn in the hipness with which genderqueerness is regarded; at best, it is assumed that nonbinariness is merely relational, only “in relation to the colonizer, to White culture, to Western, mutually exclusive ideals of masculine and feminine,” centering these “as normal, typical, the true measure of gender” (Rajunov and Duane 48–49). Departure from both assumptions is necessary, as the former deprives nonbinary genders of a seriousness that can commingle with or without a persistency, and the latter disallows nonbinary as itself a gendered subjectivity marked not simply by the melding of masculinity and femininity but also as their excess, their uncapturable outside.
This is an essay that attempts to skirt, evanescently and only in small irruptions of diction, the staid genre of the academic form—though it is one I love, one I find as hospitable to certain discursive and intellectual flexions—because the subject at hand demands such. If the subject at hand, a hand the focus of which is the black-hand side, is one that peers in the distance something that might mirage vision, it stands that the present essay must heed what such a miraging demands. And that demand is one that cannot be confined to a certain form ’cause said form has long jettisoned and dissed the demand for fear that the demand would infiltrate—as it no doubt would, infectiously so—and start to clean house. (And no wonder, as there is a striking and socio-epithetic alignment between the literalization of the colloquialism “cleaning house” and its seething racialized, racist history that implicates many of us.)
I wish not to hail this essay, as such, as an essay, inasmuch as the genre of the (academic) essay carries a certain baggage the forthcoming expression of a radical subjectivity begotten by the blackness of the “them,” or the nonbinariness of blackness, sends running. So I want to hail this meditation as an invitation to come sit on the porch and rap with it; or a beckoning to stay awhile and don’t get going so soon; or an offering of home-cooking so you got something in your belly before you go on off to work; or a loving, incisive, other-mother-working query as to How ya mama’n’em?
It is not, and cannot, be my claim that there is something specific to and peculiar of the racialized demographic known as black people that makes it—them; us—more accepting of gender transgression and excess. Though, it is and can be my claim, asymp/totally differently, that blackness, and those given to an understanding of its anoriginary, desedimenting openness and unfixing, is such that it invites the marginalized and outcast. In other words, if blackness has manifested socio-historically by way of an “insurgen[cy] [that] constitutes a profound threat to the already existing order of things,” which is to say an openness to those who are said to threaten the purity of the hegemon, via the mellifluous “Come on, you too, baby” or the “If you ain’t got nowhere to go then you stayin’ right here,” it is blackness that then names the cultivating condition for radical subjectivity (“Do Black Lives Matter?”).
What I am trying to suggest in a language that takes on the tenor of its source is how language spun through the annals of blackness by what we can tentatively call black folks, or black milieus, allows for another possible subject to emerge not simply when the subject is unknown, but when the subject is “known” but not captured. In other words, they ain’t gotta be unknown to be they, and in the possibility of being they yet known, they become possible in another kind of way. This language of the they bears a shifted texture when arising from, as it were, blackness. For the word to emerge from black environs renders it no mere pronoun but, supplementarily, illuminative of “a path toward a way of life between available language and the space of the ‘unthought’ or, at least, unspoken.” It is, as Tiffany Lethabo King writes in a different context, an “extradiscursive and semigrammatical performanc[e]” (King 73).
Having grown up around the “dark, abiding, signing…presence” known as blackness, I’ve noticed a rich tendency at the level of phrasal referentiality (see Morrison). I sense something not quite the oft-quoted nonbinary, or more precisely in this instance gender-neutral, “Someone forgot their wallet.” It is different and more than this. I grew up around blackness and black folks who used the term they as a descriptor of a certain kind of openness to subjectivity. Even when known, the referenced person can be shrouded by, and indeed engendered via, the “they” such that who they can be is unstitched from ontological moorings that have long fixed us into hes and shes. To query something like Oh, how they been? or alternatively, and notably expressive of black vernacular English’s (ana)grammatical copula deletion, How they? after being told about Jimmy having just gotten home allows for the referenced subject a life unbeholden to certain constraints. So while the folks I grew up around were not necessarily saying someone was outside the gender binary, there is something to the pervasive usage of they that speaks to the presence of (gender) nonbinariness as intimate with a notion of blackness, and that functions in a way that effectively transes subjectivity, insisting that there are “other ways to be…” (Snorton 175).
And it has, I think, generatively corrupted me. Being bred in such a cauldron has permitted an ease to approaching others without presumption. As I learn indirectly of a friend’s shift from “he” to “they” pronouns, it is the blackened sociality, I contend, that makes moving alongside, harmoniously, their pronounial shift easier. I have been bred in a space that is conditioned by shifts, by people who come into existence via a categorical shift—that is, I come from a people and environment who shift the categorical desire, loosening categorization which thus enables an irreverence toward categorical holds. The trouble Malcolm X, at the Audubon, noted he was born into via his blackness, and the gender trouble Judith Butler made famous through performativity, find expression in the use of they by my grandmother, cousins, and aunts. That is, blackness-as-trouble and gender nonnormativity-as-(gender) trouble converge in uses of they by my aunt, for instance, giving a singular person a multiply subjectivity in order for that person to exist as more than themselves. Reverberatory in the black and blackened they is a sort of mellifluously daimonic linguistic genius whereby ungrammatical iterations reconfigure subjective possibility. The radical inclusivity characteristic of black sociality, where black sociality denotes an edgeless edginess with the capacity to hold all, has endemic to it a transed modality expressed in its “steady singular love of mutability and continual shape-shifting,” to amplify the viscous poesis of Juliana Huxtable (Huxtable; capitalization in original). Loving the mutable, the shifting shiftiness that slides in a pronoun, engendering someone’s multiplicity, is our constant coalitional dislocation.
Too, the corruption has been indelible on my personhood as well. Though somewhat fine with being addressable by “he” pronouns—though that is not to say fine with the masculinity the pronoun often lashes onto me—I also, equally, find myself conveying an addressability via “they” pronouns. The frequency with which I use and feel validly hailed by they as a gendered (or, un-/non-gendered) pronoun may not qualify me for status as nonbinary in the community, which is to say that folks in the community may not deem me “nonbinary enough,” a uranium-glowing can of gummi worms I won’t open up here. But it has nevertheless been facilitated by the theys of “How ya mama’n’em?” and “Where they do that at?” My flirtation with they as a subjective descriptor of my own gender has come about precisely because of a desire for another way to be, a way to be hinted at in the vocal echoes of calls and conversations and down-the-street-yelling of the folks surrounding me in the urban and sub-urban dwellings of Philadelphia.
Curious it is, I find it, that my go-to examples are interrogatives. Perhaps that gives they its radical subjectivity, where a radical subjectivity, or a kind of existence that includes modes of existence jettisoned by the tenets constituting Existence with a capital-E, is accessed by way of interrogation. To question is to fracture the purportedly impenetrable. Questioning, interrogating, delivers to inquirers that which the declarative obscured and hence disallowed as possibility. The interrogative couched in phrasal dispersals of they unmoors the disallowance and asks for, insists upon, shadowed possibilities.
My point, circuitously gotten to as it may have been, is that the reverberation of How ya mama’n’em?, How they been?, and other interrogative suspensions of (gendered), knowable personhood by black folks has the effect of some kind of opening to existing with and through one another on nonviolent, intra-active grounds. It is a discursive nonbinariness begotten by blackness, I am submitting, that enables this. It seems ultimately that the nonbinariness that engenders the possibility for a radical subjectivity through blackness and its sociality amounts to a profound assertion to “come become beside me,” in the poetic incantation of Andrea Gibson, to suspend the ontological imposition for subjective opening, an indentificatory journeying that comes into itself with another, a being-and-becoming-with ostensible only when we recognize another’s unrecognizability as the vehicle through which they become recognizable in a way not predicated on a violence (Gibson 20). And this plants seeds for collective, coalitional, liberatory life in pronounced opposition to neoliberal grammars of extricatory individuation.
It is fallacious to presume that individualism, or the belief in the benefits of individuation, is the ticket to our liberation. The goal is not to become singular subjects. They insists on coalitional desires to become subjects with others without assuming that we know others; it insists on a refutation of individuation. Allow me a pointed observation by Nat Raha:
quick thought on the gender neutral pronouns ‘they [them / their]’. It’s fairly well acknowledged that deploying these words, that reference a plural, is difficult to begin with. a key thing about collective life is overcoming some of that ingrained individualism sedimented into our minds and conceptions from growing and living within western (neoliberal) capitalist society. there’s a multitude of ways how such individualism manifests in our thinking and language; but how might – say, a pronoun of neutral, or multiple, gender(s) – take a step towards cracking the fiercely guarded barbed-wire around the contemporary individual; more, how can we as trans*/genderqueer persons and trans[*]gressors of policed gender, begin to challenge the individuality of an identity, and create a linguistic space that recognises & represents the contingency of our genders in relation to the communities, spaces, countries, cities, languages, etc., that give rise to them?2
The potential embedded in they and them lexically forsakes individualism, which laps up neoliberal logics, and forsakes the singularization of Jimmy, of Tommy, of Lydia and Riley and gifts them all with “them.” It is that commitment to collective life and coalitional sociality we be talkin’ ‘bout, that contingency we coax toward us because in it there is a refutation of immutable ontologization. We be we through they; we become we as a becoming. Whether via they as a nominative for known persons we wish to give more room to exist, or they as a nominative for ourselves in gendered excess, it becomes clear that blackness and nonbinariness give way to a radical, and radically opening, subjectivity.
What is being suggested here is that proximity to blackness, and blackness’s proximity to, or deployment of and intimacy with, nonbinariness asserts a refutation of the liberalized assumption of individual and individuated capacity for life and subjectivity. It is the nonbinariness of blackness—the force, as it were, generating things like “How ya mama’n’em?”—that reaches for a capacity for life understood as the desire for collective, coalitional communing necessarily dissolvent of binaristic and thus individuated sociality.
Blackness’s circulation with gender trouble and nonnormativity open up an aperture through which to cognitively peep the nonbinary, distilled into they, as “a metaphor for being free, for a grander ideal” (Rajunov and Duane 76; emphasis in original). It is about gender, surely, as gender is one of the chief modes of captivity and imposed, nonconsensual ontologies; it is, additionally, about how we come to freedom as an expansive-ass ante-categorical invitation. They refuses to assert that someone, anyone, was who they were told they had to be before, and remain in the future. They frees one from having to be, allowing them to become, and, too, allowing the person who offered the invitational they as a (non)descriptor to become alongside the referenced they. They, in short, facilitates the coming to become beside me.
- See Amanda Hess, “Who’s ‘They’?,” The New York Times, March 29, 2016, sec. Magazine; Bruce Weber, “Leslie Feinberg, Writer and Transgender Activist, Dies at 65,” The New York Times, November 24, 2014, sec. New York. Hess conveys that in 1808 Coleridge “suggested repurposing ‘it’ and ‘which’ ‘in order to avoid particularizing man or woman, or in order to express either sex indifferently.’” Feinberg, on the other hand, has noted: “referring to me as ‘she/her’ is appropriate, particularly in a non-trans setting in which referring to me as ‘he’ would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible. I like the gender neutral pronoun ‘ze/hir’ because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met. And in an all trans setting, referring to me as ‘he/him’ honors my gender expression in the same way that referring to my sister drag queens as ‘she/her’ does.” I must note, too, that nonbinary gender identity does not imply the exclusion of ze-hir pronouns, as there are still some enbies who use these pronouns.
- I’ve taken this from one of her Facebook statuses.
- Bjorkman, Bronwyn M. “Singular They and the Syntactic Representation of Gender in English.” Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, vol. 2, no. 1, Sept. 2017, p. 80.
- “Do Black Lives Matter? A Conversation between Robin Kelley and Fred Moten.” Dr. Lester K. Spence, 2014.
- Fisher, Ann. A Practical New Grammar: With Exercises of Bad English: Or, an Easy Guide to Speaking and Writing the English Language Properly and Correctly. J. Richardson, L. Hawes and T. Slack, 1763.
- Gibson, Andrea. Lord of the Butterflies. button poetry, 2018.
- Gilbert, Miqqi Alicia. “Defeating Bigenderism: Changing Gender Assumptions in the Twenty-First Century.” Hypatia, vol. 24, no. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 93–112.
- Hess, Amanda. “Who’s ‘They’?” The New York Times, 29 Mar. 2016. NYTimes.com.
- Huxtable, Juliana. Mucous in My Pineal Gland. Capricious, 2017.
- King, Tiffany Lethabo. The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies. Duke University Press, 2019.
- Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Harvard University Press, 1992.
- Rajunov, Micah, and A. Scott Duane, editors. Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity. Columbia University Press, 2019.
- Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
- Weber, Bruce. “Leslie Feinberg, Writer and Transgender Activist, Dies at 65.” The New York Times, 24 Nov. 2014. NYTimes.com.