In 1906, black man went on a killing spree in Asheville, NC, killing six humans, some black, some white. The city issued a two-day manhunt to find him. When they finally found him, rather than put him to trial, the police lynched him on the spot. He has since become an object of paranormal urban legend, with any memory of his race forgotten, save within the black community.
His name was William Harris.
On July 30, 2010, female bear and her cubs were captured after killing one human and injuring two in Yellowstone National Park. The state of Montana’s Fish & Wildlife Department euthanized her immediately and sent her cubs to Montana Zoo.
Her name came to me as Mother Bear.
The point behind these snapshots is that African Americans’ and animals’ lives are interconnected, have been for centuries. While I assume I don’t need to go into a long dissertation on how our lives are interconnected, this relationship is not always apparent or welcome in social justice circles where communities of color fight for basic needs, political rights, environmental justice, and social welfare. In a conversation with Daniel Lim on environmental justice for animals, he suggested that his co-workers at the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance are open to the idea of inclusion when animals’ rights are concerned, but they remain hesitant to full acceptance–partly because the topic is not one they discuss often in their communities, partly because they haven’t developed a culturally relevant language for this shared struggle with animals, partly because they as activist communities haven’t mediated the conflict that often drives them away from animal suffering.
We as Africans and animals are expected to be agents of violence toward an innocent white society. I cannot search the web for African Americans and animal rights without accidentally stumbling on a racist blog that would argue that Africans are genetically preconditioned to be afraid of animals and less compassionate toward animals since all Africans evolved from biologically diverse, violent “jungles.” I cannot write about animal abuse in the black community without my blog post coming up in a search for white supremacists looking to demonize African Americans, once again, using search terms as “black people are violent animals” and “black people abuse animals.”
The violence committed against us–as African Americans, as animals–has been so normalized throughout European history that we’ve come to accept them as proper ways to live. After William Harris was lynched, the police hung his body on display for the public to see. The Asheville black community responded with complacent disapproval: Things were bad enough, no need to make things worse by protesting. When Mother Bear was murdered, it was just like any other bear killed for being too aggressive when threatened with limited space, displacement, and harm to her babies. According to a comment on the LA Times blog story, “when bears lose their fear of humans…that bear must be removed from the gene pool.”
In other words, uppity negroes and rowdy animals have been necessary objects to suppress for a while in European society.
But we don’t always require violent actions for Europeans to consider us rowdy.
“You might encounter a horse who’s a bit of a smarty pants,” says Wahl Equine “who’s trying to out-think you all the time. ” The way to deal with her, he advises, is to make her run, keep her running until she forgets what she’s resisting or is too tired to resist you. Hold her fast with rope and make her think that she will get hit if she doesn’t run, but you don’t need to actually hit her. Just pretend and you can condition her well enough to be put back into her place. And she will go willingly, just like the black community of Asheville in 1906 and onward.
For the past three weeks, I’ve noticed a surge in talk throughout the black community about the plight of animals. Black thinkers and community leaders are beginning to demonstrate vocal support on our shared struggles and more specifically on the plight of animals. Amie Breeze Harper has been exploring these interconnections for several years now in her critical race black feminist approach to veganism. Most recently, she’s been sharing with the intersectional community her experience with Angela Davis and her conversation with her father–both of which favored support for animals’ rights in the grand scheme of social struggle. This is a big deal, especially to hear this from Angela Davis! We as a black community don’t openly acknowledge these issues often. We spend more time mentioning why animals’ struggles aren’t a priority or concern for us rather than appreciating the struggles we share as animals. So I want to take this opportunity over several blog posts to join the discussion. I have no intention to take an academic turn into studies that have already been explored and to deconstruct arguments already critiqued. Rather, I intend to tell stories that often go untold, of individual passions and struggles. Most importantly, I see this shift in thinking as an opportunity to transform the attitudes that prohibit our collective potential to love animals, to love ourselves. This marks the beginning of what I unoriginally call “Afro-Animal.”