African American Studies The Animal and African American History
by
Bénédicte Boisseron
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0065

Introduction

From the Middle Passage to the Black Lives Matter movement today, the animal carries a long-standing tradition of intersecting with African American life in American history. The proximity between the animal and the African American subject, which points back to the chattel (etymologically affiliated with cattle) status of the slave in America, carries modern ramifications that are increasingly being addressed in scholarships and publications. The “animal turn,” which refers to the fast-growing interest in human-animal relationships across the humanities and social sciences, has opened a new platform for questions of race and the nonhuman within the context of an America impacted by slavery. This article retraces the itinerary of the animal presence alongside the black subject in American history and includes key concepts and authors related to animal studies and black studies. The resources are divided into five parts. The first focuses on Intersectionality, the theoretical apparatus that has enabled scholars to establish connections among gender, racial, and species discrimination. The intersectional approach initially appeared within a litigious legal framework in the United States, as it was used to address the combination of racism and sexism. The concept has since expanded to include other forms of oppression, including so-called speciesism, a form of discrimination against animals said to be analogous to sexism and racism. The second part focuses on the literature that has addressed, and at times questioned, the practice of analogizing animals with blacks. Though it is not new—it was part of a 19th-century scientific racism discourse that justified slavery—the analogizing practice has more recently been used to compare the condition of black slaves then with the modern exploitation of animals. The third segment revisits the historical role of watchdogs used as a repressive tool against blacks in American history from the plantation era in the American South to the race riots and demonstrations of the 20th and 21st centuries. The fourth part centers on the relation between breed specific legislation and institutionalized racism in America, specifically on pit bulls and African Americans. The fifth part deals with the prominent contribution of blacks in the history of horse managing and horse racing in the American South, first, as slaves and, following the Civil War and into the Jim Crow Era, as trainers.

Intersectionality

The historical and cultural interconnectedness that has endemically brought blackness and the animal question together in the history of America is commonly discussed through the theoretical tool known as “intersectionality.” Crenshaw 1989 introduces the term in the context of black feminism in America, calling attention to the compoundedness (gender and race) of discrimination for black women in the workplace. Adams 2015 shifts the intersectional context to the nonhuman by calling attention to the shared patterns of oppression between sexism and animal exploitation. Alongside the question of sexism, scholars and animal rights activists have drawn attention to existing connections between racism and animal oppression. Authored by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, Singer 2002 (originally published in 1975) popularized the term speciesism to define the discrimination against animals said to be analogous to sexism and racism. That said, the race/animal approach within an animal rights perspective is not new; indeed, it dates back to the 18th century when British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (Bentham 2009) first addressed the interlocking of racism and discrimination against the animal species within the context of the French Revolution and the abolitionist movement. More recently, animal rights activists Gary Francione and Anna Charlton (Francione and Charlton 2015) have spearheaded the vegan abolitionist approach in America using the abolition of black slavery as a foundation on which to argue for the liberation of animals. Inversely, as Fielder 2013 explains, 19th-century abolitionist discourse also used the connection between black slaves and animals in seeking empathy for blacks by way of identification with humans’ love for pets. The African American community has also been increasingly active in the vegan movement, finding connections between colonialism and animal exploitation. For example, Harper 2010 calls upon black veganism as a form of decolonization and as an answer to dietary imperialism. Ko and Ko 2017 deems the animal-human binary the root of white supremacy and advocates for black veganism as a path toward liberation.

  • Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781501312861E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1990. Standing at the crossroads between feminist and animal studies, the book paved the way for intersectionality studies. It brings meat eating, patriarchal domination, sexism, and sexual exploitation together. Adams’s contribution can serve as a stepping stone for other types of intersectional approaches.

  • Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1789. Bentham is often quoted in animal rights discourse because of his anti-Cartesian argument that animal rights should not be based on the animal capacity to reason but to suffer. The famous quote, which includes the analogy between the abolition of slavery and animal rights, can be found in Footnote #122, Online Library of Liberty.

  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1.8 (1989): 139–167.

    E-mail Citation »

    The article tackles instances of overlapping gender and racial discrimination in the workplace within the context of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  • Fielder, Brigitte Nicole. Animal Humanism: Race, Species, and Affective Kinship in Nineteenth-Century Abolitionism. American Quarterly 65.3 (September 2013): 487–514.

    DOI: 10.1353/aq.2013.0047E-mail Citation »

    The author complicates the well-known 19th-century scientific tradition that justified slavery by dehumanizing black people, as she examines the less known 19th-century abolitionist argument (particularly in literature for children) that consisted in likening blacks to pets in order to draw sympathy for enslaved blacks.

  • Francione, Gary L., and Anna Charlton. Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach. Newark, NJ: Exempla Press, 2015.

    E-mail Citation »

    The book is comprised of a manifesto in six principles that advocates for an abolitionist approach to animal rights, an approach seen as more radical than the welfarist one. See also the website Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach online for an overview of the vegan abolitionist approach.

  • Harper, A. Breeze, ed. Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society. New York: Lantern Books, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Sistah Vegan is an edited volume on black women’s experience with veganism. Many of the contributions focus on the importance of a healthier diet for the black community, making connections among institutionalized racism, neocolonialism, and disease prone diets in the black community. See Tashee Meadows’s contribution, “Because They Matter” (pp. 150–154), for a comparison between black suffering and animal exploitation.

  • Ko, Aph, and Syl Ko. Apho-isms: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters. New York: Lantern Books, 2017.

    E-mail Citation »

    The book offers an afro-vegan approach to the animal rights discourse, blending critical race study, feminism, and animal studies. It essentially argues that racism stems from the binary opposition between the animal and the human. See also the blog Black Vegans Rock online, founded by Aph Ko.

  • Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1975. Though Richard D. Ryder initially coined the term speciesism in a 1970 self-published pamphlet, Singer is credited for popularizing the term in this publication, as he made the analogy among racism, sexism, and speciesism explicit.

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