Tavia Nyong’o: "The Man-Monster: A Sapphic Tale of 1830s New York", April 8, 2011

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Keynote Address: Harvard University

Conference Title: Educational Bodies

Date: Friday, April 8, 2011

Time: 14:15 – 15:15

Place: Yenching Auditorium, 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA

Author: Tavia Nyong’o

Title: The Man-Monster: A Sapphic Tale of 1830s New York


In the summer of 1836, Peter Sewally, a.k.a. Mary Jones, was apprehended for theft while working cross- dressed as a female prostitute. His ensuing trial, and the hand-colored print published shortly thereafter, led to an enduring historical notoriety.

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His story has been told in relation to the history of male homosexuality, and in relation to the history of prostitution. I have previously explored why it has not as yet been told in relation to African American history.

But new archival evidence regarding H.R. Robinson, who published and sold the oft-reproduced image of Sewally, “The Man-Monster,” leads to the surprising but compelling suggestion that Sewally/Jones was primarily legible in 1830s New York, not in terms of “sodomy” but rather in terms of “Sapphism.”

Reconstructions of the illicit world of erotic and sensationalist representation that Robinson profited from, I argue, depict a lucrative traffic in pornographic images of female sexual agency and male erotic passivity. In public and private, women were increasingly visible as autonomous and desiring agents, and working class and African American women particularly so.

While the history of sexuality is often told “from above,” that is, in terms of the anxious, punitive and patriarchal discourses of enfranchised white men eager to keep or restore power, what might it mean to explore the Sapphic resonances of Sewally/Jones’ tale “from below”?

What significance might such an approach have for a queer history that has moved beyond essentialist/social constructionist debates, and embraces the interanimation of lesbian, gay and transgender histories?


Tavia Nyong’o is Associate Professor of Performance Studies at New York University. He holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. His first book, ‘The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory’, won the 2010 Erroll Hill Award of the American Society for Theatre Research. He has won numerous other scholarly awards, including an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship and a Ford Foundation Fellowship. He speaks often at universities and museums, most recently at the Smithsonian Institution’ s symposium on ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’. He has published widely on popular music, performance art, and is the web editor of the journal Social Text.