Break the Great Chain of Being: On “Becoming Human” and “Being Property Once Myself”

November 17, 2021   •   By Brigitte Fielder

Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World

Zakiyyah Iman Jackson

Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man

Joshua Bennett

DEHUMANIZATION IS AN old racist tactic. Denying Black humanity was a common justification for chattel slavery, as David Walker explains in his 1829 political pamphlet, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, writing: “All the inhabitants of the earth, (except however, the sons of Africa) are called men, and of course are, and ought to be free. But we, (coloured people) and our children are brutes! ! and of course are, and ought to be SLAVES to the American people and their children forever!!”

To counter arguments that Black people ought to be enslaved because they are more like nonhuman animals or more closely related to them in the Great Chain of Being, antislavery activists formed clear arguments for Black humanity and kinship: Am I not a Man and a Brother? Am I not a Woman and a Sister? Distancing Black people from association with animals has been a longtime humanist strategy toward racial equality.

Meanwhile, Black thinkers have often confronted Black relations to the animal rather than evading them, exploring racialized human-animality and theorizing Blackness beyond human-animal dichotomies. Rather than staking a place for Black people in a clear human-animal divide, such thinkers have acknowledged human animality as well as Blackness as a particular position from which humans have related to nonhuman animals.

Despite this attention to constructions of animality and humanity alongside race in Black studies, animal studies scholars have been slow to address the confluence of race and species from Black perspectives. Theorists of animal studies and posthumanism too often either evade race altogether in their understanding of “the human” or “the animal,” or conflate race and species hierarchies, equating Black (human) and animal experience. More still address race only via white supremacist exclusions — treating the exclusion of Black people from the category of the human while conspicuously failing to incorporate Black thinkers into their own citational practices and engagements. In such a scholarly landscape, projects that attend to animal studies from positions firmly situated in Black studies offer welcome interventions. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human and Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself are two such projects.

Both books raise issues similar to Walker’s contention about the ontological and relational spaces between humans and animals. Walker is not making an argument for Black humanity to white readers, though he critiques their racist logics. Instead, he writes for a Black diasporic community that needs little convincing of Black people’s humanity or importance but whose members must navigate these relationalities between “man” and “brutes” under chattel slavery. Evoking this human-animal conflation, Walker exposes the workings of racist logic: the pretense of an essentialist argument is meant to justify white violence. The distinction between human and the animal is a red herring of sorts; accurately describing the nature of either of these categories is not his point. Rather, he is interested in the workings of racial power articulated through the exclusion of Black people from the category of the human, from inclusion in “the human family.” Jackson and Bennett take their interrogation of human-animal categorization to the next level, questioning not only taxonomical hierarchies but distinctions between human and animal. Just as Walker’s critique rejects assimilationist rhetoric, so these two books examine the contradictions and insufficiency of humanist logic or tactics, searching for solutions — like Walker — in the Black diaspora.

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Liberal humanism has never been a simple or easy response to anti-Blackness. Put differently, acknowledging Black humanity has not dismantled the hierarchies of race with which human-animal hierarchies have been intertwined. In light of this impasse, Black authors and artists have pursued other configurations of human and animal, disposing of Enlightenment-era race and species hierarchies rather than reordering them, and allowing for more complex and shifting ontologies of relation.

Slave narratives and neo-slave narratives alike have explored Black people’s experiences of dehumanization, also registering the more complex relationships between humans and animals under slavery. While racist oppression has depended upon Black bodies for its production of “the human,” bodily, fleshly experiences of slavery are also reminders of human animality. Jackson shows that anti-Blackness wields human animality and Black humanity (“sentiment, sexuality, rationality, intention, and intelligence”) to its own ends. The liberal humanist project renders enslaved experience malleable: Black humanity functions as plastic, movable within a framework “whereby ‘the animal’ is one but not the only form blackness is thought to encompass,” as Jackson writes. Thinking rather of a correspondence between humans and animals, Blackness therefore allows for a reimagining of “black(ened) animality as abjection.”

Like Walker, Jackson foregrounds sites of reproduction to challenge human-animal dichotomies. She demonstrates that Black women, in particular, have occupied a position that humanists have been unable to conceive or contain. Black female bodies, Jackson holds, become the limit test for the category of the human. Their position, then, is most open for retheorizations of the human, and Jackson fittingly prioritizes the work of Black feminists for the capaciousness of the ontological possibilities their work offers. Deftly reading the theoretical in the literary, Jackson proposes, for example, Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Brown Girl in the Ring and Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild as a counter-ontologies to a familiar hierarchical schema of race and species. And like other Black Feminist projects, these counters interrogate the ideological structure subtending the human-animal divide, rather than simply Black women’s place within that structure.

Butler’s representation of racialization and speciation, for example, transforms colonial-imperialist relations of power, as well as theories of the subject. Considering parasitic and symbiotic interspecies encounters, Butler’s work maps “humanity and nonhuman species [as] part of a wider pattern of relationality and not discrete, unitary monads that preexist interspecies exchange.” Reading the symbiotic as a model for the relations of race and species discourse is an alternative to Eurocentric anthropocentricism and the false human-animal dichotomy.

This evolutionary reimagining of species necessitates a reimaging of individual bodies. Just as race and species are interdependent, so are gender and sexuality essential to Jackson’s readings of fleshly materiality. Her book ends with readings of Wangechi Mutu’s mixed media series Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors and Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, posed against aestheticist evolutionary theory. These readings culminate with a discussion of reproductive health care and its persistent anti-Black legacies.

Like countless thinkers before her, to find meaning an anti-Black world, Jackson looks to Black creative production. Here, one finds the rigor and depth to break the Chain of Being and recognize the full complexity of human animality. Jackson frames this work as reparative, writing, “[I]f history is processual and contingent, then art holds the potential of keeping possibility open or serving as a form of redress. In other words, art can be a remedy and may be a means of setting right a wrong.” This “setting right” is not only about the framing of Blackness, but a radical vision for being and becoming human.

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Similarly disrupting the divisions between human and animal, Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself embraces the animal as a point of possibility rather than foreclosure. Where Walker critiqued the ontological framing of Black people outside of “the human family,” Bennett addresses instead “kinship born of mutual subjugation.” We see Blackness and animality entangled in this interspecies kinship, though not in the usual derogatory ways. In this theory of Blackness, foundational theories of race/species hierarchies are insufficient as “black people and animals are co-constructed.” Because Black people’s own relation to animals has not been in simple hierarchy, but collaborative, Bennett’s chapters treat distinct the human-animal relationships. Reading depictions and resonances of the horse, rat, cock, mule, dog, and shark, Bennett’s framing of literature’s theoretical labor parallels Jackson’s. His readings show that “the black aesthetic tradition provides us with the tools needed to conceive of interspecies relationships anew.”

The figure of the pest becomes a vehicle for mediating thoughts about Black death. We see here not only human or animal life but its valuation — “in moments when the figure of the black is inextricably linked to the pest animal […] blackness and vermin being […] yoked together.” Richard Wright’s rats — in Native Son and in his poetry — provide key examples. Both “Bigger’s metaphorical ratness” and “the rat’s literal and figurative blackness” reveal forms of Blackness as vulnerability, “blackness as a site of denigration or availability to death.” But Blackness, like pestness, is a construct. At times, “actual, living animals explode the reductive significations that are so frequently mapped onto their bodies.” A rat removed from human urbanity becomes “illegible as a pest animal in any meaningful sense.” The contingency of this human-animal relation is revealed via “an open space in which the rat might dwell or imagine the world as if it were otherwise.”

Imagining otherwise also involves retheorizations of gender. The chapter “Cock” explores affect and Black masculinity by way of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Birds here represent something of “how it feels to be a Black man,” via what Bennett describes as a “certain weight.” These animals signal what Black men bear, “as heaviness, as excess, as adornment, as vanity, as exorbitance.” Here birds are not simply a symbol of mobility but often tethered, laden, indicating failed flight. Accompanying the question of the desire for flight is one of spectacle — “his desire to be seen doing so” — and of the social burden of this spectacle. Flight is weighted as “both egress and ascension” and not only individual, but communal escape — or even leaving behind. 

Black femininity is most directly addressed in Bennett’s chapter “Mule,” in which the mule becomes a central figure for Black feminist thought. As with the rat, the mule indexes value and relationality. The mule signals labor and control as well as “the taken-for-granted suffering that occurs beyond the power or purview of social accountability.” Via this suffering, the mule thereby signals “a certain kind of invisibilized interiority, a black feminist apositionality that bears a striking resemblance to something like freedom in the hold, like fugitivity.” In a text like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, we might understand the mule as a position for thinking Blackness and fleshly animality but also Black thought, “a figure that is necessary to think with when we consider the most radical possible vision of black liberation.”

Reading Carl Phillips’s “White Dog” and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Bennett turns from animals’ more symbolic resonances to questions of companionship. In these texts and others, Black people’s relationships with dogs threaten the employments of dogs toward white supremacist violence. In these depictions of human-animal intimacies and Black possibilities, “dominant taxonomies are razed to the ground in favor of unruly, unregulated ways of organizing disparate forms of life.” This reorganization constitutes, Bennett tells us, “a more liberating model of interspecies companionship than what is offered within the scope of contemporary animal studies discourse.” This model is one of belonging, kinship, familiarity, commonality — an interspecies Black sociality.

The close of Bennett’s study turns to what he calls “an Afro-diasporic ecopoetics […] species thinking, as ecological thought at the end of the world.” Here he discusses sharks and shared oceanic spaces of the Middle Passage. Sharks are “a kind of specter, both an ever-looming threat to the flourishing of black life and a release valve, a guaranteed exit.” This is a space of danger and death but also of fugitive possibility. The oceanic provides “a black hydropoetics that does not require solid ground in order to make its claims or sustains its movement but rather relishes the freedom of the open water.” This freedom breaches human-animal hierarchies and definitive categorizations. The unknowable raises a productive question:

What does black thought at the end times, at the End of Man, look like? Strangers gathered in the Clearing, perhaps, to envisage a new way. A loving glance. New language that might honor where we are now, where we have been, and the places we are going that we cannot yet imagine.

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Though there is overlap between Jackson’s and Bennett’s interlocutors, their investments diverge. While Jackson’s project is interested in categorical relations of “the human” and “the animal,” Bennett is concerned with specific human-animal relations that subvert racial and anthropocentric hierarchies. Becoming Human is a heavily citational and dense theoretical interrogation, and Being Property Once Myself embeds its theoretical engagements with ecocriticism and affect theory in extended close readings of literature. Though different, these approaches are complementary, revealing the richness of the possibilities for an animal studies that centers Black art and experience.

In truth, this is a discourse that cannot do without Black voices and which is already being reframed by them. In centering Black texts, these authors reach similar conclusions. Neither are ultimately humanist projects and neither scholar is preoccupied with the distinction between human and animal. Rather, they note that this distinction is an ontological fallacy: humans are animals, of a kind. Moreover, humanistic endeavors to wrench the two categories apart are not necessarily the liberatory move that some suspect. Black thinkers have long known this, even those who have argued more directly than Walker for white people to recognize Black humanity. Taken together, these texts illustrate not only the importance of Blackness for human-animal and posthumanist thought but also a sense that a full consideration of Blackness changes the terms and frame of the conversation. One comes away from this collective intervention with the sense that Black theorizations of the human and the animal are essential for a truly rigorous inquiry into the nature of the human/animal and our possible futures.

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Brigitte Fielder is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America (Duke University Press, 2020) and co-editor of Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African American Print (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019).