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Issue: 7.2: Spring 2009
Guest Edited by Christine Cynn and Kim F. Hall
Rewriting Dispersal: Africana Gender Studies

Tavia Nyong'o, "Barack Hussein Obama, or, The Name of the Father"
(page 4 of 6)


In "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book," Hortense Spillers subjects Daniel Patrick Moynihan's notorious black matriarchal thesis to a powerful genealogical critique. Moynihan's thesis purported to explain racial subjugation in America by means of the supposedly inverted gender hierarchy in African American culture produced by chattel slavery. "In essence," to quote the Moynihan report itself, "the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is too out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well."[19] In a telling excerpt, the report names the advantages of patriarchy precisely in terms of how the symbolic father grants, through the transmission of his name, his children accession to the social order:

The white family, despite many variants, remains a powerful agency not only for transmitting property from one generation to the next, but also for transmitting no less valuable contracts with the world of education and work. In an earlier age, the Carpenters, Wainwrights, Weavers, Mercers, Farmers, Smiths acquired their names as well as their trades from their fathers and grandfathers. Children today still learn the patterns of work from their fathers even though they may no longer go into the same jobs.[20]

This explanatory discourse innocently installs "the white family" as the norm to which family life as such should aspire. This belies Moynihan's ostensibly inclusive gestures towards black American forms of life. The principle alibi for the white Name-of-the-Father that secures this ruse—its archaic relation to occupational status—is dropped just as quickly as it is raised, leaving the assumption that white rank in the racial hierarchy comes from "patterns of work" rather than through generations of discrimination with just a fig leaf of justification. Hidden in plain sight in the quote, of course, is a reference to the transmitting of property, to which we might add, the transmission of whiteness as property in an American vernacular.[21] More shockingly, it elides the former power of the white name to transmit enslaved black people as property, the magnitude of which it must somehow disavow if it is to maintain its tight focus on the pathology of the black family, rather than the necropolitics of slave life.

Spillers' work serves as a trenchant corrective to Moynihan's deployment of the patronymic as ruse. Instead of benignly attributing the cause of racial hierarchies to "patterns of work," her genealogy of race, gender, and embodiment reopens the traumatic wounds of enslavement and the Middle Passage as an alternative origin for racial capitalism:

The symbolic order that I wish to trace in this writing, calling it an "American grammar," begins at the "beginning," which is really a rupture and a radically different kind of cultural continuation. The massive demographic shifts, the violent formation of a modern African consciousness, that take place on the sub-Saharan Continent during the initiative strikes which open the Atlantic slave trade in the fifteenth century of our Christ, interrupted hundreds of years of black African culture. We write and think, then, about an outcome of aspects of African-American life in the United States under the pressure of those events.[22]

Insisting upon the historicity of the symbolic that more conservative readings of psychoanalysis might deny, Spillers rejects a facile retroactive and compensatory gendering of the enslaved African, insisting that, to the contrary, the calculus of violence and profit by which life was merchandised and consumed in the cauldron of Atlantic slavery targeted a violated, ungendered flesh. Partus sequitur ventrem, or the American "innovation" that proclaimed that the child born of an enslaved mother would also be enslaved (regardless of the condition of the father), inaugurated not an actual black matriarchy (that is, a social system in which black women dominate men) but rather, an emergent symbolic order of gender and race:

This human and historic development—the text that has been inscribed on the benighted heart of the continent—takes us to the center of an inexorable difference in the depths of American women's community: the African-American woman, the mother, the daughter, becomes historically the powerful and shadowy evocation of a cultural synthesis long evaporated—the law of the mother . . ..[23]

Spillers rejects, in other words, the Moynihan report's comparison between the white family and the black family as baseless in both theory and history, given the dependence of the historical production of the former on the destruction of the latter. What partus sequitur ventrem introduces (keeping in mind its status as a patriarchal law designed to protect the property rights of slaveholders) is not the comparability but rather an "inexorable difference" within "American women's community," an innovation upon gender Spillers calls the "shadow" or threat of a "law of the mother." That this synthesis has long since evaporated (but is perhaps still perfuming the air?) suggests a mystique that is also a mistake—the mistake, that is, of a patriarchal symbolic order, in writing into its legal codes the consequential presence of a female shadow power. As Spillers writes of the post-slave black woman:

This problematizing of gender places her, in my view, out of the traditional symbolics of female gender, and it is our task to make a place for this different social subject. In doing so, we are less interested in joining the ranks of gendered femaleness than gaining the insurgent ground as female social subject. Actually claiming the monstrosity (of a female with the potential to "name"), which her culture imposes in blindness . . ..[24]

I have already suggested how the insurgent potentiality of the black female social subject to "name" reversions Barack Obama as the Name-of-the-Father, endowing him with a symbolic black maternity that places the pressure of its "inexorable difference" on his actual white maternity. In my conclusion, I want to continue to think through this "inexorable difference" in relation to the "thwarted romance" Obama presents in Dreams from My Father, that between a white teenager from Kansas and a glamorous and worldly student from Africa. How are we to approach this apparent fusion or fission of the black family with the white, the black-white family, or really, the white family with one black/white child (and a later Asian/white child)? Where in the cut and augmented hermeneutic circle of blackness does the white mother belong?

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© 2009 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 7.2: Spring 2009 - Rewriting Dispersal: Africana Gender Studies