The animal-rights organization PETA asked “Are Animals the New Slaves?” in a controversial 2005 fundraising campaign; that same year, after the Humane Society rescued pets in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while black residents were neglected, some declared that white America cares more about pets than black people. These are but two recent examples of a centuries-long history in which black life has been pitted against animal life. Does comparing human and animal suffering trivialize black pain, or might the intersections of racialization and animalization shed light on interlinked forms of oppression?
In Afro-Dog, Bénédicte Boisseron investigates the relationship between race and the animal in the history and culture of the Americas and the black Atlantic, exposing a hegemonic system that compulsively links and opposes blackness and animality to measure the value of life. She analyzes the association between black civil disobedience and canine repression, a history that spans the era of slavery through the use of police dogs against protesters during the civil rights movement of the 1960s to today in places like Ferguson, Missouri. She also traces the lineage of blackness and the animal in Caribbean literature and struggles over minorities’ right to pet ownership alongside nuanced readings of Derrida and other French theorists. Drawing on recent debates on black lives and animal welfare, Afro-Dog reframes the fast-growing interest in human-animal relationships by positioning blackness as a focus of animal inquiry, opening new possibilities for animal studies and black studies to think side by side.
Who am I to review this book? I don’t like being the first one to do so on Goodreads, but it looks like it’s me. This book explores – grapples?—with the issue (the “animal question”) of comparing a human population to an animal population. At least, that’s why I was reading it. I was reading it to understand the dynamics of it, to question it, to come to some stronger conclusion. I have seen posts like this that caution against doing so and I am even guilty of making the dreaded comparison. I regret how I have compared in the past, in part, but deep down I always knew there is an intersection. The research question, for me, was how best to do it, or if it should be done even if there is an “intersection” — if it should be done at all.
The two main populations mentioned in this book were, most obviously, Black people (i.e. slavery, mainly) and Jewish people (i.e. the Holocaust), basically because these two groups seem to be who are compared the most to animals in this culture. I was hoping this book could confirm or deny my modes of thinking, others’ modes of thinking. I’m not sure what it did for me, though it has indeed done something.
I recommend you actually read the Coda first if you start to struggle with what’s in the chapters you start to read, because this was the most enlightening portion for me and it might give the work better context than the introduction does. Before I read the Coda, the book seemed flip-floppy. The previous chapters seem to state in sections that you shouldn’t compare people to animals, only to do just that by highlighting where their struggles, most specifically Black struggles, often intersect. At other times it seems to confirm you can compare them, but only if you are part of the population being compared (which is a thought I have heard before, elsewhere). It was hard to process all this with the fact the book is one big comparison of Black humans to animals. Perhaps one critique is that the chapters are too objective (what this review would call “without much thematic structure or a temporal narrative”). I was hardly sure of Boisseron’s official stance at times, all of her observation laid out for us to come to our own conclusions. She’s clearly done the work of research and making connections, but what we should interpret from them is somewhat up in the air. And even the Coda is purposefully no official stance, showing that it’s difficult for even someone within a population to compare themselves to animals and be held as a lasting authority. Boisseron even questions herself and her authority, asking “Who am I to talk about the Afro-dog?” after pointing out Alice Walker, who wrote the forward for the Dreaded Comparison, is a lapsed vegetarian.
While I agree that if comparison is ever done it should be done in a careful way that focuses on the intersection, Boisseron makes a case for never doing it…but also for doing it? I think this paradox (?) is the point. What I am now struggling with (still struggling with?) is how to think about the “intersection.” To me, pointing out the intersections (what this review calls searching “for narratives of interspecies connectedness, rather than structural similarities used by activists”) is still a form of comparison and I don’t understand the definition of “structural similarities.” Additionally, I wonder if Boisseron’s work does somehow (and in what ways) validate Walker and therefore Spiegel’s Dreaded Comparison and works like it? Are these “acivitist” works? I’ve not read either, so some of what was said about them in Afro-Dog may have gone over my head.
The only word I was left with after reading this book was “frustrated” — not necessarily in a bad way. Perhaps this is because I’m having trouble understanding it (the issue itself and this scholarly work), which is why I didn’t want to be the first to review it! I do not know what I do not know.
But to the most interesting parts of the book (for me): Boisseron referenced so much dog literature that I had never heard about. Apparently that’s a thing — white people writing about dogs and their struggles. My favorite chapter was “The Naked Truth about Cats and Blacks” – where it examines interpretations of the Biblical Ham story. It was eye opening (quotes from it below). In some ways it reminded me about the scene in Fifteen Dogs where the woman realizes the dog can speak and starts to change her behavior around him. I also don’t think I’ve ever (?) seen Carol Adams (author of The Sexual Politics of Meat) and Donna Haraway mentioned in the same book. If that tells you anything about where this book is coming from and going, it means it’s a necessary contribution and read. Please tell me your thoughts on it and help me better understand this book!
“Rankine says in Citizen that she always thought that racist language erases you, but, through Butler, she now understands that it makes you exposed and hypervisible. The racist language takes the measure of your addressability. Likewise, the animal-black analogy is not only a question of racial or species elision, but also one of (hper-) visibility and addressability. The addressability of both in a malapropos context makes them as visible as an uninvited guest at an intimate dinner party.”
“If Harper first saw vegan activism as a ‘white thing,’ it is mainly due to the fact that, as she explains, her ‘vegan classmates weren’t trained or well read enough in antiracist and antipoverty praxis to deliver their message to [her] in a way that connected to [her] social justice work as a Black working-class female trying to deal with sexism, classism, and racism…”
“The common appeal for the exotic animal in the Western world targets the woman, and even more so, in a system of intertwined racism, sexism, and speciesism, the black woman. Think of the Hottentot Saartjie Baartman, nicknamed ‘Vénus Noire” and “Black Venus,” a black woman with extremely large buttocks, who was exhibited in salons.”
“Examining defiance rejects the construction of blacks and animal as exclusively connected through their comparable state of subjection and humiliation, and instead focuses on interspecies alliances. In other words, to what extent are Josephine Baker’s animal impersonations not only a white-crowd-pleasing performance but also a means to reclaim her voice in a sort of auto-interpellation, as Louis Althusser calls it?”
“As Delise explains, by 1880, all productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin included a pack of ferocious-looking dogs for dramatic effect. The recurrence of the canine prop gave people the impression that Stowe’s book was filled with dogs chasing slaves when, in reality, the Eliza scene is the only incident in the book involving the idea of chasing dogs.”
“What I call ‘afro-dog’ is the result of the animal and his human victim merging through the bite in a mutual becoming against…Instead, human consciousness, namely feeling human as opposed to animal, could very well be based on the taboo of cannibalism. Humans eat animals but do not let other animals eat the, including the human animal. However, the dog bite, a somewhat mundane occurrence in our society, is a constant reminder that the human being is also an animal that can be eaten… The bite brings to mind the fetishistic nature of human nonedibility; it shows that human consciousness is based on the disavowal of being an (edible) animal. The dog, in this sense, is essential to the process of dehumanization since it is the only animal that dares bit humans on a regular basis, thereby constantly confirming the fragile nature of the human condition….The dog bite, when orchestrated by the white against the black, is a racially driven kind of cannibalism that uses fangs as a means of transference.”
“Blacks owning big dogs enacts Justice Brown’s double fear: the black and the dog together on the loose, without the white master. We may dare to make a symbolic connection between the 2005 pit bull ordinance and black men losing their lives (Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, or Eric Garner) at the hands of policemen and self-appointed authority figures: Blacks jaywalking or roaming the streets are like ‘dangerous’ dogs on the loose, threatening and to be contained at all costs.”
“Edgar Allan Poe draws a similar comparison in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ a short story in which a detective, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, is assigned a double murder case with no visual witnesses. There are several aural witnesses, however, who indicate that the unfamiliar sounds that the heard during the time of the killing came from a foreign (human) language. The presumed foreign language, as Dupin eventually discovers, is that of an orangutan, the perpetrator of the double murder. Poe’s story completes Kilito’s axiom: the animal is a foreigner to man, just as much as the foreigner is an animal to the native.”
“By addressing the right to marry, be baptized, or to be freed, the Code Noir acknowledges that the slave is not merely an animal or an agricultural tool. In other words, there would have been no need for the creation of the Code Noir if slavery had involved an equation of the human body with the animal or things alone, since animality and objecthood are, legally speaking, tow clear categories.”
“One of the many nuances of blackness today is the relationship of the black body to the idea of pre-ownership; the black is not a free man, but a stray in the legal and historical imaginary….Because of its stray dog population, Detroit has been depicted in the media as a postapocalyptic canine city with packs of stray dogs prowling through neighborhoods….The representation of Detroit’s dog population in visual media reveal that the majority of those dogs are abandoned pets avoiding human contact, rather than feral animals preying on residents. Yet the dogs’ status as previously owned and on the loose stigmatizes these animals as feral, aggressive, dangerous, and unrestrained. The media’s misrepresentation and amplification of this stray dog presence additionally depicts Detroit as a predatory and savage city.”
“Yet, how can one guarantee that the black will not eventually speak? How can one be so sure that there will never be an Olaudah Equiano or Frederick Douglass to tell on the white man? If the chattel (as in cattle) slave were truly an animal, the white would have no need to feel exposed—or would he?”
“Within an interracial encounter, the chattle/cattle slave can also be said to be figuratively à poil, not because the slave is naked, but rather, and on the contrary, because the slave looks covered in contrast to the exposure of the master; in that, the black is indeed an animal (cattle). The inception of slavery in the Americas seen through the lens of Ham’s curse allows us to understand nakedness as the constitutive taboo of plantation society.”
“The black and the animal are nonfaces that do not blush in return, as if they did not even care about what the Other – white and human – may think of them, as if they did not fear being caught naked.”
“The premise of the curse of Ham and Derrida’s cat is that of a silent or silenced one who has seen the exposure and will not tell about it. The difference between these two cases, however, is that one (human) can technically speak and the other (animal) cannot. Yet, the threat of feeling exposed is equally poignant in both cases since shame has more to do with wondering what the Others think of us than wondering what they will subsequently tell about is.”
“Who are we to talk about the animal? What are our credentials? Those questions also apply to Jacques Derrida, who, in The Animal That Therefore I Am, feels the need to tell his audience (also in a formal address as a guest speaker) that ‘animals are [his] concern,’ as if to anticipate the audience’s puzzlement at hearing the deconstructionist philosopher talk about the animal. Who is he to talk about the animot?”