Hortense Spillers

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Hortense J. Spillers
EducationB.A, University of Memphis, 1964; M.A. in 1966; Ph.D in English, Brandeis University, 1974.
OccupationProfessor, literary critic, feminist scholar
EmployerVanderbilt University
Known forEssays on African-American literature
Notable work
"Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book", 1987; Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, 1991

Hortense J. Spillers (born 1942) is an American literary critic, Black Feminist scholar and the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor at Vanderbilt University. A scholar of the African diaspora, Spillers is known for her essays on African-American literature, collected in Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2003, and Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, a collection edited by Spillers published by Routledge in 1991.


Spillers received her B.A. from University of Memphis in 1964, M.A. in 1966, and her Ph.D in English at Brandeis University in 1974. While at the University of Memphis, she was a disc jockey for the all-black radio station WDIA.[1] She has held positions at Haverford College, Wellesley College, Emory University, and Cornell University.[2] Her work has been recognized with awards from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations.[3] In 2013, she was the founding editor of the scholarly journal The A-Line Journal, A Journal of Progressive Commentary.[4]

Critical work[edit]

Spillers is best known for her 1987 scholarly article "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book", one of the most cited essays in African-American literary studies.[5] The essay brings together Spillers' investments in African-American studies, feminist theory, semiotics, and cultural studies to articulate a theory of African-American female gender construction.[6] Spillers is concerned with the alleged problem of matriarchal family structure in black communities. However, rather than accepting the Moynihan Report (which established the trope of the absent black father), Spillers makes two moves—one historical and the other political. First, she argues that the absent father in African-American history is the white slave master, since legally the child followed the condition of the mother through the doctrine partus sequitur ventrem. Thus, the enslaved mother was always positioned as a father, as the one from whom children inherited their names and social status. Similarly, black men and women were both positioned as "vulnerable, supine bod[ies]" capable of being "invaded/raided" by a woman or man (77) --that is as "ungendered" (68) and separated from its own "active desire" (68). After suggesting that this lineage removes African Americans from patriarchal gender and places them outside of family, she concludes by suggesting that men and women descended from this situation might be well positioned to overturn patriarchy, not by joining the ranks of normative gender but by operating from the androgynous "boundary" (74) where they have been placed—that is, by black men's saying "'yes' to the 'female' within" and by black women "claiming the monstrosity of a female with the power to name" (80). Overall, Spillers aims to draw connections between the structures of the black family that were created during slavery, and the ways in which they have manifested into contemporary familial phenomenons.

Spillers also emphasizes in her work the sexualization of black bodies. In "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book" Spillers states that the black community is "captive" and treated as a "living laboratory" (68). In this essay Spillers creates a distinction in the case between "body" and "flesh". The body, in this case, is representative of the captor whose existence represents that of the free or the "liberated subject-position[s]" (67)."Body" is a discrete entity whereas "flesh" is related to desire, sexualization, and that the flesh is an undistinguished mass of black people; particularly black women. The massification of black bodies stems back to her point about black people becoming "ungendered" (68). To her, "gendering" took place within domesticity, which gained power through cultural fictions of "the specificity of proper names" (72). While Spillers's explication of the body/flesh binary naturally lends itself towards a discussion of heteronormative gender relations, her reading of the black body as becoming a site of ungendering points to a queering of our understanding of Western domesticity and with it the place of both black men and women in Western society.

In a 2006 interview entitled, "Whatcha Gonna Do?—Revisiting Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book" Spillers was interviewed by Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Jennifer L. Morgan, and Shelly Eversley. In that interview Spillers shares insight into her writing process, and her interviewers collectively elucidate the seismic impact of the essay on the conceptual vocabulary available to subsequent generations of Black Feminist scholars. She states that she wrote "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" with a sense of hopelessness. She was in part writing in response to All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (1982). Spillers was writing to a moment in history where the importance of black women in critical theory was being denied. She wrote with a sense of urgency in order to create a theoretical taxonomy for black women to be studied in the academy.[7]

The Moynihan Report as basis for Spillers' critical work[edit]

The Moynihan Report states that the perceived cause of the deterioration of the black society was the black family's deterioration. The report proceeds to say that "the family is the basic social unit of American life: it is the basic socializing unit". Adult behavior is learned from what is taught as a child by the family institution. Mass media portrays the American family as one that are standardized to a nuclear family structure. In this report it is discussed that the families with stronger bonds "characteristically progress more rapidly than others". It goes on to convey that "there is one truly great discontinuity in family structure in the United States at the present time: that between the white world in general and that of the Negro American". The report states that "nearly a quarter of Urban Negro Marriages are Dissolved". The proportion of non-white women with husbands continued to decline between 1950 and 1960. This did not happen in white families to the same degree. It states that almost 25% of black births are illegitimate and that the number of illegitimate black births are increasing. Almost 25% of black families are led by females, in contrast with the typical patriarchal, nuclear structure. Moynihan links all of these 'deficiencies' in relation to typical conceptions of the American family with the breakdown of the black race, leading to an "increase in welfare dependency".[8]

The black family is differentiable from the white family through this report's conceptions that black families are impoverished due to the manner in which they dissolve the typical white family structure. The role reversal within black families—that the mother is the primary and present authority in the household and the fathers are absent, according to the report—deserves culpability for black familial "deficiencies". Spillers' work is a critique of sexism and racism in psychoanalysis of black feminism. Through naming typical stereotypes ascribed to black women, Spillers begins to refute the negative perceptions ascribed to the black family and black familial matriarchal structure asserted throughout the Moynihan Report. The report's relation between black men and black women leads to an ungendering of both sexes, as black sexes become interchangeable rather than distinct. As slavery was a primary factor leading to the contemporary formation of the black family, it is important to highlight slavery's role in ungendering as well. Both male and female slaves served the same purpose—as property or animals rather than people. The only discrepancy between the two was that black women could be used as birthing objects. In slave times, rarely was the father present in the lives of slave children, yet, typically there was a mother-figure present. Whether slave children were robbed of their fathers when they were sold to other plantations or due to the fact that their father was their slave master, unable to be present in the slave child's life, it became customary for slave children to endure distance from the father figure. While this translates to contemporary black families at times, it does not define all families, nor does it limit the capacities of the mother in her potential role as matriarch. Matriarchy does not destroy the black American family.[9]



  • Spillers, Hortense J. "Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture". Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.[10]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. "Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text.". New York: Routledge, 1991.[11]
  • Pryse, Marjorie, and Spillers, Hortense J. "Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition". Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.[12]


  • Spillers, Hortense J. “‘Born Again’: Faulkner and the Second Birth.” Fifty Years after Faulkner, edited by Jay Watson and Ann J. Abadie, University Press of Mississippi, JACKSON, 2016, pp. 57–78.[13]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. "Art Talk and the Uses of History.". Small Axe, vol. 19 no. 3, 2015, p. 175-185.[14]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. "Views of the East Wing: On Michelle Obama". Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 6:3, 307-310, 2009.[15]
  • Spillers, Hortense J, et al. “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?": Revisiting ‘Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book’: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan.” Women's Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1/2, 2007, pp. 299–309.[16]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “‘Twentieth-Century Literature's’ Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2007.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 53, no. 2, 2007, pp. vi-x.,[17]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “The Idea of Black Culture.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 6, no. 3, 2006, pp. 7–28.[18]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “A Tale of Three Zoras: Barbara Johnson and Black Women Writers.”. Diacritics, vol. 34, no. 1, 2004, pp. 94–97.[19]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “Topographical Topics: Faulknerian Space.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 4, 2004, pp. 535–568.[20]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. "Travelling with Faulkner". Critical Quarterly, 45: 8-17, 2003.[21]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “‘All the Things You Could Be by Now, If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother’: Psychoanalysis and Race.” Boundary 2, vol. 23, no. 3, 1996, pp. 75–141.[22]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date.” Boundary 2, vol. 21, no. 3, 1994, pp. 65–116.[23]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “Moving on Down the Line.”. American Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, 1988, pp. 83–109. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2713143.[24]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 65–81.[25]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “'AN ORDER OF CONSTANCY': NOTES ON BROOKS AND THE FEMININE.” The Centennial Review, vol. 29, no. 2, 1985, pp. 223–248.[26]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “A Hateful Passion, a Lost Love.” Feminist Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 1983, pp. 293–323.[27]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “Formalism Comes to Harlem.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 16, no. 2, 1982, pp. 58–63.[28]
  • Spillers, Hortense J., et al. “The Works of Ralph Ellison.” PMLA, vol. 95, no. 1, 1980, pp. 107–109.[29]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “A DAY IN THE LIFE OF CIVIL RIGHTS.”. The Black Scholar, vol. 9, no. 8/9, 1978, pp. 20–27.[30]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “Ellison's ‘Usable Past’: Toward a Theory of Myth.” Interpretations, vol. 9, no. 1, 1977, pp. 53–69.[31]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “A Lament”. The Black Scholar, vol. 8, no. 5, 1977, pp. 12–16.[32]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “: SECOND PRIZE-The Black Scholar Essay Contest: MARTIN LUTHER KING AND THE STYLE OF THE BLACK SERMON.” The Black Scholar, vol. 3, no. 1, 1971, pp. 14–27.[33]


  • Spillers, Hortense J. “Review: 'Kinship and Resemblances: Women on Women.'” Feminist Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 1985, pp. 111–125.[34]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. Review: "Lorraine Hansberry: Art of Thunder, Vision of Light." Special Issue of "Freedomways". Signs, vol. 6, no. 3, 1981, pp. 526–527.[35]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. "Review: 'GET YOUR ASS IN THE WATER AND SWIM LIKE ME': NARRATIVE POETRY FROM BLACK ORAL TRADITION by Bruce Jackson". The Black Scholar, vol. 7, no. 5, 1976, pp. 44–46.[36]
  • Spillers, Hortense J. "Review: Black Popular Culture. by Michele Wallace, Gina Dent; Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. by Michele Wallace; Invisibility Blues--From Pop to Theory by Michele Wallace". African American Review, vol. 29, no. 1, 1995, pp. 123–126.[37]


  1. ^ "Hortense Spillers: Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor". English Department, Vanderbilt University. Retrieved March 19, 2013.
  2. ^ "Meet the Director". Issues in Critical Investigation, Vanderbilt University.
  3. ^ DeCosta-Willis, Miriam (2008). Notable Black Memphians. Cambria Press. p. 286. ISBN 9781621968634.
  4. ^ Spillers, Hortense (2013). The A-Line Journal. Department of English • Vanderbilt University.
  5. ^ Jarrett, Gene Andrew, ed. (2010). A Companion to African American Literature. Wiley. p. 414. ISBN 9781444323481.
  6. ^ Kowaleski-Wallace, Elizabeth, ed. (2009). Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory. Routledge. p. 543. ISBN 9780203874448.
  7. ^ Spillers, Hortense (2007). "Whatcha Gonna Do?: Revisiting "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe": An American Grammar Book". Feminist Press at CUNY. 35 (1/2): 299–309.
  8. ^ Geary, Daniel (September 14, 2015). "The Moynihan Report". The Atlantic. Retrieved December 13, 2018.
  9. ^ Spillers, Hortense (Summer 1987). "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book". Diacritics. 17 (2): 64–81. doi:10.2307/464747. JSTOR 464747.
  10. ^ Print.
  11. ^ Print.
  12. ^ Print.
  13. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1d2dqbb.9. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  14. ^ Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/602419.
  15. ^ DOI: 10.1080/14791420903063703
  16. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27649677. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  17. ^ http://www.jstor.org/stable/20479801. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  18. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41949535. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  19. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3805836. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  20. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26466996. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  21. ^ doi:10.1046/j.0011-1562.2003.00525.x
  22. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/303639. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  23. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/303601. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  24. ^ Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  25. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/464747. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  26. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23739209. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  27. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3177494. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  28. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2904137. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  29. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/461738. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  30. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41067859. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  31. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23240431. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  32. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41066909. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  33. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41203668. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  34. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3180138. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  35. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3173763. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  36. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41066452. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.
  37. ^ JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3042438. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.

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