Journal Club: Mammy and Black Asexual Possibility

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This month, the ace journal club discussed

“Still, Nothing: Mammy and Black Asexual Possibility” by Ianna Hawkins Owen (2018). (Requires journal access)

The journal club meets once a month on Discord, using text or voice as club members prefer. We discuss a variety of academic works in ace studies, ranging from gender studies to psychology. Don’t worry about journal access, we can provide access. If you’re interested, please e-mail me at for an invite.

Our discussion notes are below the fold.

This paper discusses a reparative reinterpretation of the mammy figure, imagining asexual possibility in Owen’s notion of declarative silence, using the novel Corregidora as a case study. The paper also tries to think about asexuality beyond an identity category, understanding it more as an aesthetics of possibility.

Declarative silence
– In a conventional interpretation, the Mammy is forcibly silenced, but the interpretation of declarative silence, or “saying nothing” re-foregrounds her agency.
– Declarative silence assumes the character has agency. But is that assumption correct or mistaken? We don’t know, because it’s silent. The paper says “we must reconcile ourselves with not knowing”.
– “Reconciling ourselves with not knowing” can be a way of acknowledging the right to opacity (even if here we’re thinking of fictional characters).
– We also drew a connection to how silence is interpreted in the context of consent (i.e. “silence is not consent”)

Reclamations of the Mammy
– We discussed a few artworks that have reclaimed or subverted the mammy figure, including Joe Overstreet’s “The New Jemima” and Andy Warhol’s “Mammy
– The machine gun in “The New Jemima” is particularly striking, subverting the silent passivity of the mammy. We discussed how it might have had different associations at the time when Black Panther openly exercised their right to bear arms.
– Andy Warhol’s “Mammy” supposedly destabilizes the image by introducing a bit of sexuality, through the lipstick.
– Owen’s reading of the mammy is similarly a subversion, but we noted that rather than changing the character, it is simply a change in how we interpret the character.

Expanding the notion of asexuality
– Owen suggests, “political asexuality must be broadened in scope beyond celibacy to account for the politics of constructing others (black women and Asian men, for example) as asexual in the service of national social orders.”, and here cites Vaid-Menon (2014).
– We discussed how we could find solidarity not just among people who identify as asexual, but also people who are misrecognized as each other. For example, like how straight trans and cis gay people are misrecognized as each other, but still form political alliances.
– In fiction, some people (especially academics) look for metaphorical queer interpretations, whereas in popular media, most people look for explicit queer representation. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but we discussed the value of looking for ace resonances over ace characters.

Other notes
– This paper was structured differently from most papers we read, because it’s a work of literary analysis.
– None of us have read Corregidora, but someone looked at the synopsis on Wikipedia. It’s a story of trauma and bad relationships spanning four generations. The mother character could be read as ace, based on her relationship behavior, but she repeatedly says nothing on that point.
– We discussed the utility of borrowing Eve Sedgwick’s notion of paranoid and reparative reading in understanding this paper. Owen seems to depart from a more conventional paranoid reading of the mammy figure as exhaustively knowable through her oppression and instead points the reader to a more reparative reading of the the mammy as disclosing black asexual possibility through her declarative silence, which is a kind of reclamatory act.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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