This review essay explores three recent academic studies situated at the intersection of Black studies and animal studies: Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man, Bénédicte Boisseron’s Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question, and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. As these books make clear, wide-ranging possibilities can emerge when one reads Blackness and animals together. Each author finds ways of reexamining the human-animal divide, of calling into question other labels and hierarchies, of seeing subjectivity and vitality and resilience where blankness or death or limit have usually been the standard terms. Their work marks the beginning of what we can expect will be a wave of scholarship offering correctives to past silence and simplifications.
Animal studies and Black studies are linked in ways that critics had, until recently, almost entirely overlooked. Joshua Bennett, in Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man (2020), offers an eloquent image of the “all-too-fraught proximity between the enslaved black person and the nonhuman animal.”1 He points to a “kinship born of mutual subjugation, yes, but also the shared experience of opacity mistaken for emptiness.”2 That is, the ways in which Black people have been dehumanized for generations present artists and activists with radical opportunities to consider other devalued beings. Each of the books under consideration here suggests ways in which Blackness is inextricable from a vital set of human-animal questions.
Beginning with their front covers, these books ask you to reflect on points of contact. On Bennett’s cover, an anonymous sharecropper and horse plow a dry, weedy field; the line of the horizon underscores that the figures are connected by labor and are literally on the same level, with the man’s hat and horse’s upright ears both silhouetted against the sky. On Bénédicte Boisseron’s Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question (2018), the student Walter Gadsden is being attacked by a white officer and a German Shepherd in Birmingham—one moment in the long history of dogs used to control Black people in the Americas. Finally, Nandipha Mntambo’s sculpture Europa (2008) gazes out from the cover of Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (2020). This figure, who looks directly into the camera, has slightly worn horns and long ears, with hide-like hair that extends across her forehead. She maintains eye contact with you as you try to separate her into hide and skin: in her hybrid person, cow and woman seem to come together in ways that evoke but also transcend exploitation and racism.
Free of words that nudge or disambiguate, photographs are open-ended; these three photographs throw into relief the problems attending attempts to write about animals and, particularly, the relations between animality and Blackness. But like the books they introduce, these images also indicate a range of tonalities across which Blackness and animality can exist: grave, exhausted, companionable, contemplative, kinetic, affectionate, hostile, inscrutable.
That being Black is bound up with animality is a starting premise for each of these spacious, multidirectional books, which explore the intersection of Black studies and animal studies. Most centrally, they take up what scholars in animal studies can learn from considering the study of Blackness in the United States and beyond. The potential for the environmental humanities more broadly is significant: animal studies, as a central part of environmental studies, takes up what humans have walled out, boxed in, warped, sanitized, or exploited; in seeking to replace stale values and terms with more interesting perspectives, the environmental humanities has much to learn from Black studies. And at the same time, each of these books pursues what scholars in Black studies—those examining Black experience in America as well as scholars in critical race studies, African studies, and diaspora studies—can learn from “the animal turn.”
The Absent Presence: Current Scholarship
Over the last half-dozen years, a number of scholars, including scholars in the environmental humanities, have begun to explore the central role of race in the animal turn. Claire Jean Kim, an ethnic studies and political science scholar who investigates the conflicts arising from white desiderata about animal rights in the United States, observes that “interpretive success depends on our ability and willingness to engage with these two taxonomies of power, race and species, at once—and to understand their connectedness.”3 Julietta Singh’s Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (2018), poised at the intersection of postcolonial studies and the environmental humanities, reads authors who transcend worldviews defined by control and power. Lindgren Johnson’s Race Matters, Animal Matters: Fugitive Humanism in African America, 1840–1930 (2018), which draws on work in African American environmental studies and particularly on Kimberly Ruffin’s interest in Black Americans’ ecological agency, proposes that “African Americans . . . were animal agents long before animal rights or even animal welfare movements existed in the United States, and their perspectives are essential to understanding the full scope of thinking on both human and animal liberation.”4 These writers have pressed at how Black thinkers, calling into question the systems that entangle with racist oppression, offer new ways of reckoning with personhood, societies, subjectivity, and forms of life.
This recent attention is much overdue: in animal studies, explicit discussions of race and of Blackness have been limited. Decades after animal studies emerged into literary thought with the appearance of Margot Norris’s Beasts of the Modern Imagination (1985) and Joyce Salisbury’s Beast Within (1994), such an absence appears increasingly glaring. The last ten years—spurred by Cary Wolfe’s Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003)—have seen a wealth of books on the animal in contemporary English-language literature in particular, beginning with Mark Payne’s probing The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (2010). There are now twenty books in an animal studies series at Palgrave alone, and more than forty at Columbia University Press. But relatively few books mention race, even in their often incisive discussions of power, anthropocentrism, subjectivity, epistemology, and culture. The poets and novelists discussed are almost exclusively white; the perspective, when race is not explicitly mentioned, is implied to be universal—that is, to be white.
In a 2015 essay, Che Gossett remarks that “blackness remains the absent presence of much animal studies and animal liberation discourse.”5 For much of their history, these realms—which encompass cultural studies, ethical philosophy, law, psychology, and activism—were largely treated as implicitly white. Amie Breeze Harper, in a 2010 essay on the racialized dimensions of veganism, noted how white Americans can believe “that an event about animal rights, with 308 white people and 8 people of color, has nothing to do with USA’s history (and current state) of institutionalized and environmental racism.”6 Her insight into the willful impercipience of mainstream institutional animal rights movements could be applied more widely; the narrow moral certainty of proanimal proscriptions—do not eat meat, do not wear silk—has analogues across the flourishing academic studies of animals. This narrowness extends to environmentalism: as Axelle Karera observes, much discourse around the Anthropocene has downplayed questions of racism and colonialism.7 When racism has been evoked by the animal liberation movement, it has often been to draw an analogy between how white humans oppress Black humans and how contemporary humans oppress nonhuman animals, as in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975) or Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (1988). Accordingly, the analogy’s center of gravity has tended to be on relieving the treatment of animals, with less reference to considering the historical and current situation of Black Americans.
When Black writing itself is mentioned in the context of animal studies, it has often been taken as distancing from animalization. The impulse to keep away from the animal or animalistic stems from an understandable distaste for the long tradition of what Carolyn Finney—in her formative study of environmentalism and Blackness—summarizes as “the promulgation of the narrative that black people and animals are in close proximity to each other on the evolutionary ladder,” in which “blackness and primitivism” are linked.8 It is a narrative acknowledged in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when Sethe overhears the schoolteacher telling a boy to make a list that “put[s] her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right,”9 essentially dissecting her into a cluster of traits to be measured. Accordingly, white scholars in animal studies have often largely avoided accounts of Black life that involve any kind of proximity to the animal, much as white scholars in other academic disciplines have avoided forms of Black history and culture that may seem close to racist stereotypes.10 This caution, which stems from wanting to give a wide berth to racism, can obscure the full range of Black experience—a range that Black studies encompasses.
As Beloved or any other of Morrison’s novels suggests, much Black writing does not in fact seek distance from the animal. Despite the long history of dehumanizing Blackness, there are countless, fascinating references to animals in African American and Caribbean literature. Indeed, Boisseron, Jackson, and Bennett each find that the backdrop of racist history is partly what makes Black authors’ consideration of animals so searching. As Bennett asserts, “Rather than triumphalist rhetoric that would eschew the nonhuman altogether, what we often find instead are authors who envision the Animal as a source of unfettered possibility.”11 All three of the books under consideration here grapple with that sense of possibility and mark the beginning of what we can expect will be a wave of scholarship offering correctives to past silence and simplifications.
Blackness and Generative Unruliness
For Bennett, Boisseron, and Jackson, to look at animals from the condition of Blackness is to replace established, taken-for-granted divisions with more generous and demanding values. As Syl Ko writes, rather than “pulling humans and animals into the same space[,] a better rebellion might consist of forming an utterly new basis by which we draw contrasts altogether.”12 In rejecting standard white definitions of humanity and animality, these books have affinities with the work of Colin Dayan, who seeks to “make readers complicit in a world without demarcations such as those between past and present, primitive and civilized,”13 and to explore a “rendition of creaturely experience that upsets the reliable, reasonable, and moral order of things . . . an oscillation between the categories that bind.”14
Boisseron’s Afro-Dog, which appeared in 2018, concentrates on exemplars of “how the history of the animal and the black in the black Atlantic is connected, rather than simply comparable.”15 The early pages of her book document the ways that white Americans have addressed “speciesism” in terms of racism, setting out a revealing history of analogies between slavery and animal cruelty. Moving to scholarship in which the animal turn has followed the postcolonial turn, Boisseron observes that questions of Blackness and animality need “to be addressed as a true combination rather than as a succession of thoughts that . . . look at race first and then move on to the animal question.”16 A central point, early in her first chapter, is that a misguided “logic of subsequence” has positioned animal studies as a natural successor to Black studies: such racially ignorant logic “presupposes that we have progressed beyond blackness in our considerations of (de-)personhood, when blackness should constitute the primary matrix in which we think about animal rights.”17 Although hierarchical differentiation is what both antiracists and animal activists hope to undermine, Boisseron issues a reminder that “replacing the human-animal divide with a debate about a race-animal divide that frames animal subjugation as analogous to black slavery is a perverted form of recompartmentalization where the black is once again removed from the human species.”18
In the chapters that follow, Boisseron shows the interconnectedness of Blackness and the animal, both through how systems of oppression persistently associate Blackness and animality, and through how Caribbean and other non-European cultures relate in less controlling, less calcified ways to animals. Chapter 2, which charts how dogs were used to control slaves and later protestors (shaping a long-standing cultural fascination with dogs attacking Black people), discusses the way African people were “animaliz[ed]” in the Americas, over the same period that dogs were racialized.19 Chapter 3 turns from that violence to a gentler relation between dogs and humans—one found in Creole cultures, in which dogs may be free to roam, entering and leaving human spaces as they please. Chapter 4 analyzes historical debates around ownership and property in the French Caribbean and beyond, contending that “not only being owned as an animal but also owning an animal” have been historically significant factors in understanding personhood.20 Finally, Chapter 5 fans out to address the silenced gaze of Black subjectivity alongside the silent animal gaze, and the circumstances in which they speak or are spoken for.
Jackson’s Becoming Human likewise registers deep links between animal life and Black life, arguing that Blackness is not subsidiary but essential to questions of species and to scientific discourse. Focusing on the centrality of Blackness to the historical development of understandings of “the animal” and “the human,” Jackson calls for a thorough “reconsideration of the extent to which exigencies of racialization have preconditioned and prefigured modern discourses governing the nonhuman.”21 Responding to how animal studies has suggested that the human-animal binary informs later “discourses of human difference, including, or even especially, racialization,” Jackson suggests that racialization in fact presages that binary.22Becoming Human argues that “antiblackness is actually central to the very construction of ‘the animal’ that recent scholarship wants to interrogate and move beyond but also that (anti)blackness upends these fields’ frameworks of analysis and evaluative judgments.”23 Central here is the concept of ontological plasticity, the way that a range of power structures have rendered the idea of Blackness as malleable and abject, as taking whatever is projected on it. For Jackson, plasticity “neither posits that human form can become ‘any kind of form’ nor affirms such a potential; rather, it concerns the way potential can be turned against itself by bonds of power”24: plasticity is imposed, meant to sustain the supposedly rigid, clear-cut categories of white human and animal.
Each chapter of Becoming Human takes up these antiblack frameworks, alongside contemporary thinkers who have pushed back against them. In chapter 1, Jackson reads Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison for how they interrogate Enlightenment humanism. While Morrison sees the genre of the slave narrative as often appealing to the logics and ethics of the master order, her reworking in Beloved investigates those appeals. Chapter 2, on Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, presses at Western ideas of the one and only world; Hopkinson upends Martin Heidegger’s notion of ranking humans, animals, and stones by their ability to conceive of worlds. Chapter 3, on Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” addresses how racism infiltrates biological discourse: the compounding of race and species absorbs Judith Butler, who sees “how received ideas about species are always a question of power.”25 Chapter 4, on Wangechi Mutu’s Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors and Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, continues to examine how discourses of race and species are interrelated across politics, scientific fields, and aesthetics: for Mutu and Lorde, one contested site for this interrelation is the Black female body.
A similar movement—of chipping away at given or stock views of race and species—animates Bennett’s On Being Property Myself. Bennett focuses on authors who articulate alternative forms of personhood, companionship, community, and affect, in and through their attention to animals. In going beyond Eurocentric and anthropocentric ways of reading, Bennett reevaluates earlier attention to animals in Black texts. His reading of the rat in the famously grim opening of Richard Wright’s Native Son is a good example. Noting that prior interpretations see both rat and protagonist merely as stuck, doomed, and frustrated, Bennett argues that such readings “fai[l] to extend beyond the realm of the apocalyptic”: they echo a “depiction of black social life broadly construed that evacuates all potential for flourishing due to material conditions.”26 They ignore the protagonist’s obviously intricate inner life and also ignore “the rat’s rich history in the US cultural imaginary as infinitely more than just a figure under duress.” Rereading the rat as a “kind of kinesthetic brilliance under pressure,” however, can move beyond the “received logic of ubiquitous sorrow and decay.”27 For Bennett, Wright’s rat “argues for a more expansive interpretation of [Bigger Thomas], one that repudiates white gaze in favor of rendering black lives as those that are infinitely more intricate than any humane/inhumane binary”; Bigger “is what the world has made him and exceedingly more.”28
Like Jackson, who foregrounds the interactions of racialization and sexuality across her book, Bennett is attentive to gender as part of subjectivity. Chapter 2 takes up the white peacock in Morrison’s Song of Solomon, in which Morrison counterintuitively renders Black masculinity through a nearly flightless bird; this bird allows Bennett to theorize from “the premise of abundance rather than absence.”29 Chapter 3, on the mule in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, turns to what Bennett calls “muleness” as a partial correlative to Black womanhood: both are often defined and summed up by oppression, both contain multitudes of potential. Chapter 4, beginning from the observation that the normative dog-as-man’s-best-friend cliché might not work so neatly for those who have not been considered men, shows how the dog at the core of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones revises prevalent, tiered notions of human alliances and human-animal alliances. In Ward’s novel, motherhood is not just nurturing but violent, and the dog-teenager relation is far from vertical. Chapter 5 explores Blackness and antiblackness in the remote, extreme darkness of the ocean, the territory of the sharks that haunt the Middle Passage. Even here, the points where animals and Blackness meet can offer multiplicity in place of a void, and persistence in place of predetermined death. In Jackson’s words, these texts are “generative because they are unruly.”30
Interspecies Empathy and Multiplicity
In the three books under consideration here, the centrality of Black studies to animal studies becomes evident through arguments pursued across bracingly diverse texts and techniques, drawing on a variety of theorists and researchers. Bennett tends to ground his chapters—beautifully close readings of modernist and contemporary American novelists and poets—in one animal encounter within one text but opens these readings up by incorporating a range of other genres: the chapter on rats, for example, begins by quoting nearly all of Tara Betts’s poem “For Those Who Need a True Story” as an example of a moment in which “the figure of the black is inextricably linked to the pest animal,” before moving to Native Son and finally to Wright’s late haiku.31 Boisseron similarly reads the figure of the dog across American, Caribbean, and French history, culture, literature, linguistics, philosophy, and law, moving nimbly between multiple domains not frequently placed together. In the space of three pages, for instance, she makes use of the Hebrew word kishta, the Arabic word mustanbith and the Bedouin practice of barking to locate a village, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and Aimé Césaire’s “Des crocs.” Jackson spans genres and disciplines, discussing nineteenth-century slave narratives, realist and speculative fiction, and contemporary visual artists. Her book’s wide scope and theoretical approach—a reexamination of philosophers who have perpetuated racist notions of the human-animal divide, partly through the diasporic thinkers who have questioned them—suggest affinities with other ambitious, conceptual interventions in posthumanism and biopolitics, among them Mel Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (2012), which theorizes interactions between various kinds of matter, and Kalpana Rahita Seshadri’s HumAnimal: Race, Law, Language, which argues that racist systems have wielded the very logocentric human-animal division itself against nonwhite peoples.
Several leading concerns become visible amid this scope and multiplicity. Jackson asserts that “key texts in black cultural production move beyond a demand for recognition and inclusion in the very normative humanity that . . . is fundamentally antiblack,” and the same holds true for Bennett and Boisseron; this refusal of canonical white notions of what it means to be human (or animal) is a central contribution to the field of animal studies.32 Writing against presumptions of universality, against the idea of racially unmarked discourse about human and nonhuman animals, these authors demonstrate that reading animals through race is a way to get beyond current neoliberal, hegemonic thinking on the nonhuman animal and on Blackness.
Jackson sees immense possibility in a historically oppressive relationship and argues for “a new epistemology and transformative approach to being” through attention to disregarded subject positions.33 Bennett embarks from the same fraught history to set out capacious readings of both Black life and nonhuman animal life, arguing for “what W. E. B. Du Bois might have us think of as the gift of black culture, the gift of blackness: the great chain of being come undone, life itself unfettered and moving in all directions, a window into the worlds that thrive at the underside of modernity.”34 The effects of a disruption are felt up and down the chain, until the chain disintegrates.
In rejecting vertical, Enlightenment-inflected relations, these writers make horizontal ones—those of fellow feeling—central. For instance, Boisseron does not seek only to expose a brutal history: through the literary and historical encounters she documents, she focuses on forms of “interspecies connectedness” that can “reorient the discussion on black-animal relations toward an empowering frame of reference,” a frame that empowers both the nonhuman animal and the Black human. That is, the objects of a long racist association might use the links between them for defiant alliances.35
For these three books, a defiance of hierarchy is bound up with sympathy across difference, with kinship amid difference; it is thus also bound up with a sense of unexpected abundance. These books take up authors who find subjectivity, vitality, and resilience where blankness or death or limit have usually been the standard terms. To look this way at Black writing is important to the intersection of environmental studies and Black studies as well. As John Claborn summarizes, “Because of the violent histories of slavery and racism, African-American writing often expresses a traumatic and tragic relation to the natural environment—and this tragic relation has been overemphasized by ecocritics at the expense of more positive valuations of nature in African-American literature.”36 As Boisseron points out, a similarly simplistic view of animals has been difficult to dislodge because human understandings of animals’ inner lives have been shaped largely by Jeremy Bentham’s focus on their suffering. Boisseron seeks to “defy the construction of blacks and animals as exclusively connected through their comparable state of subjection and humiliation”; that construction “results in essentializing both and desensitizing us to the actual being.”37 Bennett, too, seeks an alternative to tragedy, to seeing Blackness and animality as states only of deprivation: his authors articulate versions of Black sociality that are not defined by being demeaned or exploited or stifled, nor by demeaning or exploiting or stifling in turn.
Abundance is central to these books. It manifests in how they cross disciplinary lines to draw seamlessly on Black studies and animal studies, to open up possibilities in both directions. For instance, Boisseron formulates a new theory of sociality by drawing together Creole culture and the ecological concept of commensalism, a term for relationships in which one species draws benefit from another without benefiting or harming it. Commensalism is at work in how Creole dogs accept help when they please but are not expected to stay in domestic arrangements or otherwise gratify the human. In another chapter, Boisseron offers a correction to intersectionality, an approach that she sees as risking essentialism through its labels; recognizing that “the goal of intersectionality should simply be to open our minds to the exponentiality of intersections but with no ambition to address them all,” Boisseron adapts Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of the Umwelt, of the particular world of a particular organism.38 An Umwelt is independent yet has countless intricate links to other Umwelten. So too, Boisseron suggests, for people: “The Umwelt of black women is fundamentally unique, but within this Umwelt, and in connection with other Umwelten, each black woman is also unique.”39
Boisseron’s reference to Umwelt brings up a common thread between the three books: each at least touches on von Uexküll, a prominent figure in animal studies. As Jeff Malpas has observed, von Uexküll’s “determination of the world by the organism is an important idea that undoubtedly fed into von Uexküll’s racism and anti-Semitism: different races form the world in different ways.”40 Geoffrey Winthrop-Young points out that “Jews were to Uexküll the epitome of Umweltvergessenheit or the ‘forgetfulness of Umwelt’—an inability to grasp and experience one’s own pre-ordained environment that is both brought about and glossed over by vague appeals to universal liberty and justice.”41 Given von Uexküll’s essentialist streak, it is intriguing that so many books in animal studies—such as Kari Weil’s Thinking Animals (2012), Onno Oerlemans’s Poetry and Animals (2018), and Timothy Baker’s Writing Animals (2019)—turn to von Uexküll for the idea of Umwelt, largely without noting the racism that appeared so explicitly in his correspondence. Bennett, for example, draws on von Uexküll in passing when he reads Carl Phillips’s poem “White Dog,” which he sees as heeding “the animal’s relationship to its umwelt, its personal life-world, over and against and apart from the speaker’s vision of the landscape.”42 Whether or not von Uexküll’s link to Umwelt can be disentangled from his racism, he returns repeatedly in current work at the crossing of Black studies and animal studies (as exemplified by Boisseron’s use of von Uexküll to correct essentialism); references to Umwelt might be sharpened by addressing its earliest contexts more fully.
Another common thread—and a good example of the interdisciplinarity of these three books—appears in their attention to forms of looking. After considering the inscrutable, knowing, silent animal gaze in John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” and Jacques Derrida’s reflections on being seen naked by his cat in “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” Boisseron places these readings alongside the episode in Genesis in which Ham sees his father Noah’s nakedness and is cursed for it, a passage later used to justify slavery. Ham is to Noah as the cat is to Derrida: their relations—of silence and knowledge, exposure and shame—attest to “the master’s shame of becoming aware, through slave narratives, of having been observed and judged all along by the seemingly invisible and silent slave.”43 Jackson, scrutinizing the rooster apparently watching Paul D. in the neo-slave narrative Beloved, suggests a similar attention to the gaze as a lurking “disruption that is already there—latent and repressed—in liberal humanism’s textuality.”44
Across all three books, reading animality alongside Blackness supports and expands both fields. Bennett’s readings, for example, offer alternatives to what Kevin Quashie has described as “the dominant expectation we have of black culture,” in which Blackness is associated with a highly visible resistance and must be “expressive, dramatic, or loud.”45 In emphasizing overlooked forms of interiority, Bennett continues Quashie’s interest in indeterminacy and openness. In the final pages of his chapter on rats, for instance, he turns to a Wright haiku that ends with an image of how the rat “rears in the moonlight / And stares at the steeple.”46 In recognizing that “all we are given is a set of physical gestures—its rearing and staring that are perhaps rooted in, but nonetheless exist in excess of, instinct or reflex,” Bennett recognizes both the objective motions of the rat and the vision of possibility beyond those objective motions: Wright creates a space apart from “the unrelenting danger of the domestic sphere, an open space in which the rat might dwell or imagine the world as if it were otherwise.”47
Conclusion: Openness, Centrifugality
The word imagine, used just above for the rat’s unknowable subjectivity, is a word Bennett has used for himself a page earlier: “I imagine that Wright left room for us to see creatures committed to their own survival, ones whose everyday comings and goings are sources of fear only for those who live outside their sensory world.”48 In being willing to write imagine, and perhaps and might, and to foreground a first-person I, Bennett acknowledges the thorniness of language: by admitting the personal, this precise, delicate prose often seems both truthful about and forgiving of one’s own inevitable misreadings. So too with Jackson and Boisseron, who address the vexed role of language in ethics and cultural assumptions, in subjective interferences and empathies. As Native Son makes clear—the rat is a “he” while the insistent cat who appears later is an “it”—words tilt perspective incessantly.
Boisseron observes that the speechlessness of animals “makes the work of counterbalancing the elision of race in the animal discourse all the more challenging.”49 These studies are alert to the binds that arise each time a word like nonhuman needs to be used or explained. A necessary word can also essentialize, potentially writing off a vast variety as a gaping absence: “Nonhuman animal species are defined in relation to the normative ‘human,’ as much as the black is defined in opposition to the compounded ‘white human.’”50 Reading these three books in succession suggests how often their authors were called on to decide whether to write animal as modifier or noun, as plural or singular; whether even to use humanize or animalize or bestial or other words to which years of connotation have accrued; and how to negotiate the smallest elements of speech, such as pronouns (we and they) and possessives (my and our).
These authors recognize that the language available to describe other creatures and our relationships to other creatures is piecemeal and makeshift; each of their books flakes off some of that accumulated crust of meaning. For instance, Bennett gives his chapters the stark titles of “Horse,” “Rat,” “Cock,” “Mule,” “Dog,” and “Shark.” Those monosyllables themselves push a little at labels, avoiding the definitiveness of the dog, a shark, that genus, this species. Jackson uses parentheses to create slippage in words such as black(ened), and she balances being off a parenthetical (human) when writing of the “prevailing notion of (human) being”51; her prose seeks ways of rupturing any decisive sense of universality.
In their openness, these books encourage centrifugality. Their ideas put out diverse shoots to other animals, other thinkers, other works. For example, Jackson’s interest in insects and parasites, Boisseron’s in vermin, and Bennett’s in rats call to mind images of pests in contemporary poetry: Audre Lorde’s “Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches,” whose speaker “alter[s] . . . to survive,” or Terrance Hayes’s enigmatic simile in which a protestor’s “thighs shimmered like the wings of a teenage / Cockroach.”52 Many ideas advanced here invite further consideration not only of Black fiction and poetry but also of popular genres like song and even stand-up comedy—think of Richard Pryor’s imitation of menacing “jungle” animals and of the bored, exhausted “animals you fuck over at the zoo.”53
Taken together, Bennett, Boisseron, and Jackson encourage scholars in animal studies and in the environmental humanities to attend to the intense potential of historically degraded or dismissed states of being: they reveal richness and complexity where lack, austerity, and suffering have often been the focus. Their explorations of animality and Blackness expose the profound interconnectedness of these fields. And though these authors do not cite one another (each of their books came out within about a year and a half), they talk to one another. They do so in the broad trends discussed here and in briefer remarks across nearly every page. For instance, Bennett’s chapter on the mule, which lingers on the moment when Hurston’s buzzards speak of a dead mule as a “man” just before eating him, calls to mind Boisseron’s examination of “the fetishistic nature of human nonedibility” and Jackson’s interest in “the practical fact of being a feast for others” in Octavia Butler’s work.54 Such interlocking passages are not only reminders that the body can be meat and is always flesh: they also are reminders that attempts to shore up human exceptionality, like attempts to shore up whiteness, rely on paradigms that can be unsettled or discarded entirely—and that those paradigms might be replaced by ways of thinking that are more accurate, more compassionate, and more interesting.
I am grateful to two anonymous reviewers, whose detailed comments sharpened an earlier draft of this review essay.
I am grateful to an anonymous reader for suggesting, by way of example, Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels, which chronicles forms of Black labor rebellion and radicalism previously downplayed in academic studies.
In Ko and Ko, Aphro-ism, chap. 17. See also Syl Ko, “On Black Veganism.”
Dayan, With Dogs, xiii–xiv.
Boisseron, Afro-Dog, xx.
Boisseron, Afro-Dog, xiii.
Boisseron, Afro-Dog, xxiv.
Bennett, Being Property, 45 and 46.
Boisseron, Afro-Dog, xix.
Boisseron, Afro-Dog, xx and 22–23.
Boisseron, Afro-Dog, xxiv.
Boisseron, Afro-Dog, xiv.