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Transcript: Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question


Paul Gilroy:

One of the most amazing publications of the last few years in the broad field of Black Studies, African American Studies, has been Bénédicte Boisseron’s book Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question, published by Columbia University Press. In the second of our Short Takes series, Boisseron joins us now to talk about Afro-Dog, and to discuss the places where the study of racism and racialisation intersect with Animal Studies, and why that connection is important for both areas of specialisation in the Humanities.

Bénédicte Boisseron:

I am Bénédicte Boisseron, a Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I am also the author of a recent book on race and the animal question. The title of the book is Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question, the book came out in 2018. My interest in the topic of race, blackness and the animal started a long time ago, twenty years ago. I was born and raised in France and I always lived around German Shepherds, and we always had German Shepherds at home. When my parents moved to the Caribbean, because my dad is originally from the French Caribbean island of Guadalupe - they moved there when I was in my twenties - they brought with them a German Shepherd. When I used to come and visit them very often, I was very surprised at the way that the people in Guadalupe reacted toward German Shepherds compared to the way people interacted around our German Shepherd in mainland France. My dad explained to me that it was due to the fact that during the slavery era slave owners used dogs to chase runaway slaves, and so today it was an atavistic reaction to what happened during slavery; people in Guadalupe and the other Caribbean islands fear German Shepherds, they were conditioned to fear German Shepherds because of the history of slavery. I found that fascinating and I started researching on the topic, not only in historical books but also literature, how writers would convey that relationship to dogs today in books. I also expanded my project into more than just the Caribbean and started thinking about the relationship between blacks and dogs, particularly big dogs, also in America and the American South and the entire Black Atlantic landscape. This brought me to very difficult questions, I wanted to write a book already back in the years 2000-2004 about it but it was a very difficult topic, I didn’t know how to expand it until I came that book from Marjorie Spiegel from 1989 called The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, and in this book Spiegel compares the fate and the condition of black slaves in the slave trade and in the Americas with the way that animals are being treated today. She juxtaposes in her book images of lynching and slavery with images of industrial farming and the way that cows are being treated for example. It was quite shocking for me but at the same time I found it interesting that this book had overall a very positive reception when it came out. But something changed, something changed around the years 1990s when PETA tried to do the same thing; they tried to use the same comparison in their exhibits, putting side by side pictures of blacks being mistreated, particularly during slavery but also lynching, and the way that animals are being used today in the modern era, and the reception was very different for PETA. So what Spiegel did is that she sued PETA because she felt that PETA was bringing a retrospective negative reception on her own book, and she sued under the claim that she had the copyright for that comparison, and that PETA had no right to use it and to shed some negative light on her work and comparison. The lawsuit didn’t work out well for Spiegel because the judge said that she didn’t have the copyright on that comparison and others had done it before her. But what I found interesting is that the whole issue - the whole debate - was around copyrights, there was nothing about the validity of that comparison and how ethical – how valid – was it to compare both. And this is how I started working on that book, this is how I started writing my book Afro-Dog thinking about what does that mean to compare, what kind of analogy is acceptable or is not – are any analogies acceptable?

So it’s a long journey and I won’t have time to address it today but all I want to say is that there are different ways to think about the question of animals and blacks today, and ways that are not demeaning for the black community. One of those ways that we’ve seen very recently in America is actually veganism – what we call black veganism. This is actually the fastest growing vegan demographic in America – African Americans are the fastest growing vegan demographic according to an article from the Washington Post from January 2020. And why is it the fastest growing demographic? Not only because of this idea of overlapping of oppressions in America, whether it’s human or non-human, but also I think it has to do with social justice and inequalities in the black community, having to do with black health, black diet, food deserts and veganism - black veganism – and the ethics of a plant-based diet is seen as a form of resistance. So of course it raises a lot of issues of who has this kind of accessibility to a plant-based diet, and I will not go there because I am not really interested in black veganism per se; what my new project is doing actually is looking at what I call ‘black freeganism’. So it has nothing to do necessarily with just the aspect of meat and meat ingestion or animal-derived products, but freeganism comes from the idea of staying away from the logic of mass production, mass consumption, accumulation and profit.

A freegan is someone who will feed off left-overs, someone who will dumpster dive to find food, someone who will look at neglected products – thrown away products – and see worth in them. I felt that freeganism - this is also the way I was raised as a freegan; this is also why I am interested in that topic – but I am more interested in the intersection of freeganism and black identity. I started working on it through a classic of African American literature which is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The protagonist of Ralph Ellison tells the story from underground and he is living off the grid, he is not paying any rent, and he is also not paying any electricity bills – he is just using the power, literally the power and the electricity from the company without them knowing. And I found that prospect very interesting; what was the connection between living economically and socially off the grid as a black subject – a racialised subject. And this is, I feel like, what Ralph Ellison introduced to us, is another form of resistance – another form of anti-hegemonic, anti-colonial, but also anti-Anthropocene way of looking at the world and living in this world. So I have an article coming out on black freeganism very soon in Transition Magazine from the Harvard Hutchins Centre, and this is my next step in my exploration of the intersection of, not only this time blackness and the animal question, but more generally race, issues of race, blackness and how we live in this world - how we want to live in this world. It is even more prominent to me, even more important today, as we think of how the pandemic – the Covid-19 pandemic – is affecting the African American community in America because of social injustice, pre-existing social injustice, but also pre-existing conditions in the African American community having to do with food, having to do with accessibility to healthcare and so many other issues that make one rethink what the future holds for the African American community, and how to live beyond this culture of mass exploitation, mass consumption and mass incarceration, and overall social and racial injustice; so this is more to come on that topic.