Sunday, September 28, 2008

the difference between sarah palin and michael vick

It seems cruel to pile on Sarah Palin now, post-Couric interview and what not. But Chris Rock does a good bit here (about 3:16 into the clip) on Sarah Palin's moose-killing vs. and Michael Vick's dog-killing:

He doesn't bring up the pit bull with lipstick line, but it's pretty clearly in the subtext/context. He does a similar bit in his interview with Larry King (1:46 in), in which he plays off King's racial cluelessness to pretty hilarious effects.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

cuteness relief

Custom wool "portraitures" from AmeliaMakesArt. More where this came from on the blog Cute Overload! [Original exclamation!]

Sunday, September 21, 2008

slaves as animals, animals as animals

It might seem counter-intuitive to ask how African Americans related to non-human animals in slavery times. To some this question might sound trivial, perversely obtuse even, given everything else slaves, as well as free people of color, had to contend with. Then there's the pervasive, persistent animalization of blacks in Western racial discourse and practice. The literary and cultural critic Jennifer Mason, who has written a really interesting book on the cultural and literary effects of the US animal welfare movement, sums up the problem this way:
... arguments about blacks’ affinities with or status as animals were used to justify their enslavement before the Civil War as well as the denial of their civil and political rights after it. Consequently nineteenth- century black writers necessarily took up the task of opposing Western civilization’s long history of categorizing people of African descent as subhuman animals – a task that would seem... to entail distancing African Americans from the animal world in order to establish their status as full members of the human race.
The ideological deck does seem to be stacked that way in antebellum anti-slavery literature, by black and white writers alike. Mason quotes a famous example from Frederick Douglass's 1845 autobiography:
We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination.
Mason rightly points out that the language and logic of this passage are steeped through and through in the ideology of "Great Chain of Being." It derives its moral force from the belief that human beings are superior to mere "brute creation." The post-humanist in me twinges a bit when I read a passage like this: not so much because it assumes human superiority, actually, but because the animals here are so... clean. So disembodied. Following Donna Haraway's dictum that animals are "not here just to think with," but "here to live with" - you would have to say that Douglass's horses, sheep, and swine are decidedly of the first, "just to think with" species.

One thing I've started to notice in my recent readings are the rhetorical animals that have clearly consorted with creatures who were "there to live with." Consider these examples:
From Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man (1837), after an escape attempt by Ball was foiled by slave-catchers: "They then bound me with cords, and dragged me by the feet back to the house, and threw me into the kitchen, like a dead dog."

From an 1840 account of the experience of James Curry, born a slave in North Carolina, published in the Liberator, describing the vicious and fatal whipping of a slave on a neighboring plantation: "His flesh, at length, would draw and quiver all over his body, like newly killed beef, and finally it appeared as though it was dead. The poor creature was all the time shrieking, and begging, and pleading for mercy; but it had no more effect upon them than would the squealing of a hog they had been killing."

From an 1852 interview with the escaped slave James Smith in the Voice of the Fugitive, conducted by the well-known fugitive-turned-abolitionist Henry Bibb, again after Smith had been beaten after an unsuccessful attempt to run away: “The next morning about 9 o'clock when he awoke from this half dead state, bathed in blood, he found himself bound with strong cords, lying in a horse cart (like a slaughtered hog)”**
Like a dead dog, like a slaughtered hog, like newly killed beef: these are raw, pungent figures that don't point to some rarefied universal order or neatly graduated "scales" of being. Rather they give us glimpses into a world in which slaves lived alongside - and died with - animals under the most unsentimental circumstances possible. What's striking, too, is that these analogies don't just show us how humans are treated as animals in slavery, but also how animals are themselves treated like animals. How they are made killable, disposable, their carcasses thrown with impunity into the death pits of history. (Hat tips, as they say in blogospherese, to Haraway again, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben.)

** I first learned of Ball and Smith's narratives from the historian John Campbell, whom I've cited a couple times in this blog and whose two articles (that I know of) on dogs and slavery have been indispensable sources. Both Ball and Smith had dogs who figured prominently in their life under and away from slavery, which I hope to blog about soon. Smith's story has apparently been turned into a children's book.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

two cat skins and a whipping

For the last few months, I have been working on and off on a new research project on humans and non-humans in the social world of antebellum American slavery. Specifically, I'm interested in how enslaved people lived with, thought of, felt about animals. Now as in slavery times, it's common sense that slaves were treated like animals. But I'm interested in pushing that common sense a bit, and asking how such a thing happened in a world filled with actual non-human animals - cows and sheep that the enslaved tended as part of their daily labor, hogs and chickens that their masters sometimes let them raise, horses and oxen they drove, dogs they hunted with, dogs that hunted them.

So I've been collecting bits and pieces of this vast but largely overlooked realm of historical experience. The first ever post on this blog - which has since strayed off in various directions - was actually about a South Carolina slave and his dog, a mysterious and poignant episode unearthed by the historian John Campbell.

Last week I tried my unpracticed hand at some archival research, and turned up this odd fragment from the papers of a Georgia tannery owner named Elbert Baynes. Some context first: it seems that Baynes's customers generally procured their own animal skins and sent them to him for tanning and shoe-making. His papers included a number of paper scraps from customers, detailing what types of hides they sent, how many, what was to be done with them. This one was dated October 3, 1863,* from a certain Mr. William Roby:
All well, I send you by the boy Reuben one beef hide and 4 goat skins and 2 cat skins. Send Reuben back rite away whip him if dont start Tell Mr. Cofer to be sure to mark and book thes hids to recollect I have lost 2 hid by carelessness. (One big sic for original spelling errors)
Here we have a glimpse of a cat-skinning slave-owner who also appeared to have been a dickering, if not bullying, customer (Baynes's records showed that he owed Roby money). But then there is the faint but strangely luminous figure of "the boy" Reuben: skins in hand, himself threatened with whipping, likely by cowhide. How was he like or not like the "2 hid lost by carelessness" to his master - in this claustrophobic economy of hides, human and non-human?

What were these skins to him - and the animals they were before? Perhaps he also tended this cow and these goats. Perhaps there was no love lost between him and the cats. My very modest point here is that, whatever his feelings, they were a meaningful part of his existence, of his experience of being human on the edge of humanity.

* Quick follow-up (9/25/09): The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. By law, Reuben should have been free at this point - though in practice, this clearly was not the case.

when pigs and pit bulls write political speeches

In his preface to Frederick Douglass's watershed 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips famously begins:

You remember the old fable of "The Man and the Lion," where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented "when the lions wrote history."

I am glad the time has come when the "lions write history."
Let's give Phillips's animal metaphor a literal twist, and apply it to our own historical moment: what might pigs and pitbulls say about lipsticked humans who use animals as political trophies if they made campaign speeches?

Friday, September 5, 2008

the difference between sarah palin and pit bulls

What is it with Sarah Palin and animals?

For the sake of my blood pressure, I skipped Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention Wednesday night (yeah, I know, so "me first, country second"). When I came across a reference the following morning to that line about hockey moms, pit bulls, and lipstick, I thought for sure that it was something out of the Colbert Report. It had to be... right???

My incredulity was partly a reaction to the odious gender posturing (I guess she's both more butch and more femme than the rest of us). But part of it was plain cognitive dissonance. The last time I checked the American cultural imagination, the pit bull is the quintessential "gangsta" dog - i.e. violent, criminal, underclass, hypermasculine, and, above all, black. When the story of former NFL star Michael Vick's dog-fighting arrest broke in 2007, the media was awash in breathless insta-reports on pit bulls and black subcultures, as well as lots of poorly framed, zero-sum discussions of racism "versus" animal cruelty, civil rights "versus" animal rights. The feminist and animal ethics scholar Kathy Rudy has a good op-ed piece that addresses the problems with these facile dichotomies.

The dogs in the Vick case were very lucky in that they were seen as traumatized victims from the outset and ultimately granted a reprieve from group execution. (Coincidentally, Palin's pit bull quip comes just as Michael Vick's dogs are on national TV again, in not one but two specials about their rescue and rehabilitation.) But this efflorescence of public sympathy happened against a backdrop of persistent pit-phobia which imagines the breed as congenital killing machines unfit for human society. Pit bulls (and sometimes other bully and mastiff type dogs) are subject to breed-specific bans and disproportionate rates of euthanasia in public shelters. Sometimes the cyno-eugenics cavorts openly with human racism and classism, as this story about a recent breed ban in a Colorado suburb shows.

So how is it that, all of a sudden, we have a conservative white politician - the GOP's newly coronated spokesperson of "small town America" no less - claiming this hated urban beast as a mascot for "hockey moms"? In this Daily Show clip (about 3:10 in), Jon Stewart cuts to the quick: "one is unfairly maligned in spite of evidence that it is no worse than any other dog, and one is an artificial demographic that is no better or worse than any other mom." (Stewart, I just learned, is a pit bull person.)

I know this is just one soundbite, one small thing in a big election. But it does seem fitting that Palin would jokingly identify herself with an animal that's popularly imagined to be killers of other animals - and be more or less tone deaf to the reality of its systematic persecution by humans. After all, here's someone whose "executive experience" in human-canid relations includes support for aerial wolf gunning.