Hortense Spiller’s Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: an American Grammar Book

Spillers, Hortense J. Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: an American Grammar Book. 1988.


Hortense Spillers deals with what she calls the “symbolic integrity” of “male” and “female,” as two subject positions that lose validity and differentiation within a regime of captivity (i.e. through dispossession). Her argument for ethnicity is that ethnicity “de-genders” people by trapping them within a timeless mode of thought, characterizing them always in terms of their ethnic background disrespective of personal identity types of gender, since the “female” within an ethnicity isn’t the same as the “feminine sphere,” instead, the female body has been deprived of the feminine. Ethnicity is that which masks people within a type that assumes “the look and the affects of the Eternal” (66). The ethnic puts the subject into either a Museum of Art or a Museum of ethnography, objectifying human and cultural motives as a constant “opposition in binary meaning” (66). The ethnic Other is placed within a parade, a museum, and used to determine what “we,” the dominant culture, are most certainly not.

The danger and fatality of ethnicity lies in the reversal of the gaze, the “split subject” that the ethnic Other becomes when faced with a dominant culture that presupposes them as an Other. So too does the ethnic black realize themselves as both subject and object, themselves as an ethnicity, which for blacks must be eternally patriarchal, if the white patriarchy is to be challenged. The black subject, to achieve success in a white-centered culture, must adapt a patriarchy in order to do so, at least that is the argument that suffocates black females from taking part in any power structure. The ability of blacks to form a concept of themselves, where the white is always the subject, is one of the many ensuing effects of being taken from Africa, which is, literally, a theft of the body.

Spillers outlines four psychological effects of the “theft of the body,” which occurs within a regime of captivity, in this case slavery: self as sensuality, self as object, self as “other,” and physical powerlessness. All four of these details are complimentary, for as embodying “sensuality,” the black is opposed to reason and therefore cannot take part as a citizen or even announce his/her status as a human being. Because the black is sensual being, they are consistently pushed into being the object to the white subject, and deprived of reason, must accept their being as property. Self as “other” and self as “powerless” are more-or-less reiterations of this theme.

The main point in this psychological reasoning of the ethnic black subject/object, is that within the process of sensuality, objectivity, otherness and powerlessness, the “male” and “female” realize themselves as gendered only in respect to how they are defined by the white subject, which as Spillers points out, is exactly that place where the woman “becomes a living laboratory” (68). The black woman faces a “counter-narrative to notions of the domestic” because she is displaced (one might say within a Diaspora), and therefore is in a state of passage that evades the domestic sphere, where the notion of the feminine resides. As the origins of the slave trade, and the displacement of African-Americans, Spillers discovers that the absence of the domestic sphere and the importance of the female was never fully recovered even after the middle passage, when women were still deprived of their abilities to operate within the feminine sphere by being deprived of both home and children. Any notion of gender then functions with no legal or social efficacy: there exists no gender formation within slaves. Both femininity and motherhood loses sacredness in the dispossessed.

Through the Atlantic slave trade, Spillers rethinks racial formation, by thinking of ethnicities in terms of dispossession and the slave trade. Ethnicity, like slavery, perceives of subjects as “the essence of stillness,” as an “undynamic human state, fixated in time and space” (78). The narrative of the slave, as well as the ethnic group, is fixated in time, because the narrative is already perceived as archaic, as one that already ended when the whites proved to be ahead in the foot-race, in the Diaspora-movement itself. Gender then, since it is denied to subjects who are “frozen in time,” must be rediscovered within black subjects in order to break the seals: in order to become identified as more than an ethnic subject, the subject must observe “the power of “yes” to the “female” within” (80).

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