SPILLERS, Hortense

Hortense Spillers is a black feminist theorist, and literary and cultural critic, who is especially known for having written several influential interventions in the field of psychoanalysis, race and gender. In her work, she contests psychoanalytical clichés, found in literature from Freud to Fanon, to question white gender and family norms. Her key strategy is to not stop at mere critique, but to suggest models that keep being dismissed or demonised as potentially valuable alternative models. In particular, her 1987 essay ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’, on African American gender construction, has become famous for contesting the stereotype of the absent black father that has also been perpetuated in policy literature (e.g. the 1965 Moynihan Report The Negro Family: The Case For National Action). In Black, White, and in Colour, she draws attention to the missing and twisted sexual representations of of black women:


Black women are the beached whales of the sexual universe, unvoiced, unseen, not doing, awaiting their verb. Their sexual experiences are depicted, but not often by them, and if and by the subject herself, often in the guise of vocal music, often in the self-contained accent and sheer romance of the blues.’’ (2003: 153)

Aside from challenging policy, psychoanalytic and white feminist discourse, she actively opposes the financial and mental costs that occur through the subjection of education to global capital.


Spillers is known for her innovative writing techniques such as the use of poetic language and the ability to weave together seemingly disparate topics and lines of argumentation.


Essential Reading

Spillers H J (1996) All the things you could be by now if Sigmund Freud’s wife was your mother: Psychoanalysis and Race. Critical Inquiry 22

Spillers H J (1987) Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book. Diacritics, Vol. 17, No. 2, Culture and Countermemory: The “American” Connection (Summer 1987), pp. 64-81.


Further Reading

Cooper, B C (2016) Black Girl Is a Verb: A New American Grammar Book. Crunk Feminists. 28 March 2016.

Davis D, McGlotten S, Agard-Jones V (2009) No Beached Whales. Souls 11 (2): 87–93.

Spillers, H J (2008) The Idea of Black Culture (Video lecture based on her article/book with the same title) University of Waterloo English Department, Winfried Siemerling’s “Contemporary Critical Theory” class, March 19, 2013

Spillers, H J (2003) Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Spillers, H J (1985) Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, eds. Hortense J. Spillers and Marjorie Pryse. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.



Describe how Hortense Spillers views the image of the ‘black woman’. How does she arrive at this impression? Do you agree? What do you think about the ways that her work has travelled e.g. through academic discourse, popular culture?

How does Hortense Spillers question American identity and family norms?

What other models does she point to? Can you name other (fiction, academic) authors that have been pursuing similiar ideas?

What is the role of history in Spillers’ work?


Submitted by Angela Last. 26 July 2017

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