feature: beasts of brown nations: how imperialism changed the way black people relate to animals

October 3, 2014

It’s 2014 and the United States of America has never had a black host on a show about animals. The visibility of cultural diversity in any given field greatly affects a child’s propensity towards said field. Even greats like Neil DeGrasse Tyson struggled with committing to a discipline that lacked role models from his community. This lack of diversity can be traced back to the colonial era and the birth of western science. A time when white Europeans began labeling all non-white people as animals in order to justify countless horrendous acts. These stigmas still haunt black and brown communities today.

By Lydia Hicks, AFROPUNK Contributor

My father was a pastor and a carpenter. When I was small he would read from my favorite book, Animals of the Bible. It was my bedtime story of choice; basically a big encyclopedia with colorful illustrations of animals. He would take me and my brother camping ;we would go fishing and trapping. He taught us to swim and build the things that we dreamt about. He is black.

My mother was a student and a handywoman. When I was small we would play a lot of board games like ‘Save the Whales’ and watch movies like Fern Gully, Watership Down, The Secret of NIMH, and The Last Unicorn. She would take me and my brother into the woods around my grandparents’ house and to the beaches of lake Ontario where we would reminisce about her life as a farm girl. She would only go into the water up to her shins. She was afraid of most animals, but she would let us keep the pets we found if we wrote up a report about them first. She is white.

I benefit from light privilege, but I was still singled out racially growing up in the very conservative town of Oswego, New York, as well as in the black suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. One of the superpowers that multicultural kids often develop is the ability to code switch. Intimately moving between cultures at a young age feeds your perspectives.

Early on, people tried to put me into boxes, so I decided that I’d rather stick with animals. For one, animals made me feel completely connected to myself; they didn’t say ignorant things to me, and it was something that no one expected me to be into, and I liked that. People expected me to be into rap, so I steered clear (I’m catching up now). They expected me to play sports, but not to swim, so I became a swimmer. It wasn’t until much later that I realized this affinity for doing the ‘unexpected’ was my way of combating stereotype threat. This was one of the few good sides of that battle that I’m still untangling to this day..

As an adult, I have managed to live out my dreams and become a multi-media artist, scientist, and filmmaker. I use each different medium to explore identity politics and often incorporate animals as allegory– a process that not only fulfils me personally, but also seeks to nourish the symbiotic relationship we should have with our environment.
Here is a piece that I made about black people and sharks:

Black identity is fettered with crippling catch-22s. As a people, we have to navigate between maintaining our sense of self and survival. As a kid that loved animals and nature documentaries, I often wondered why all the black people were guides for Discovery Channel hosts or the voices of animals (rather than humans, if they were there at all) in my favorite animated movies.

As I grew older and began peeling back the veil, I learned that our relationship with animals as a people is particularly dicey, beginning with the birth of Western science. Western science sprung forth from the loins of colonialism. Regardless of its claims of purity, it has always been marred by the motives of the capitalist, imperialist states that fostered it.

During the European ‘Dark Ages,’ Europe was ruled by the Moors of Northern Africa. They were black. They not only brought their own rich cultural history to Europe, they also brought the collective histories of all the cultures they interacted with– my favorite cultural norm being a relationship with the domestic cat.

Domesticated cats originally came to Europe via Egypt, during a time when Greece and Rome were essentially colonies of Egypt. Felines were regarded as sacred animals to many in Egypt, especially in Bubastis, where there are shrines to Bast. The goddess ‘Bast’ or ‘Bastet,’ is the goddess of cats, protection, joy, dance, music, and love, and is depicted as half feline and half woman. While the Moors did not worship cats, they held them in high regard because cats would ‘domesticate’ themselves in order to eat rodents that were attracted to grain reserves.

As white Europeans tried to dispel their occupiers, they began to associate cats with paganism, femininity, exoticism, and, I hypothesize, blackness– though I haven’t found any surviving direct correlations yet. What is documented is a war against cats (I’m not kidding) that mirrored the witch trials. Cats were herded and burned at the stake as representations of evil. What happened next? Without a reliable pest-control system, disease (namely the bubonic plague) spread across Europe.

In ancient times, being part animal was to approach god-status. Through the lens of Christianity and Western science, this same invocation became a mark of evil and exotic primitive-ness. Social Darwinists reframed the theory of evolution to legitimize imperialism and slavery. The brilliance of the ‘white man’s burden’ was that it worked (and still works) by appropriating the innovations of ‘other’ cultures into something ugly, demeaning, and profitable. Consider sports, entertainment, medicine and education today. It’s the same pattern of bastardizing beautiful traditions.

Western civilization used science to begin the tradition of oppression by claiming that Caucasians were the most advanced beings on the planet–that anyone ‘other’ was closer to an animal, and that that made them inferior. The tradition of exotifiying and oversexualizing women (especially women of color) was also popularized during the era of imperialism and still persists today.

While I have found a few brothers and sisters on my journey that geek out about animals, there is no question that our numbers remain too few. I think it is completely plausible to hypothesize that historical trauma has promoted this aversion to animals on a community level. It makes sense that we would not want to have them close to us, as we are derogatorily called animals so often, and treated worse.

While I would love to see more black people within communities that celebrate animals, nature, and the environment, my real intention is not to win anyone over. It is to ask the question: how do we build our identities? I am pretty sure I would still love animals if some white people weren’t so stupid, but the fact is that the toxic environment of a white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative, patriarchal society also pushed me into myself. I don’t want reactions to horrible situations to be what defines us. We are constantly trying to redefine blackness when we should be working toward releasing it from the confines of definitions. How do we do this and maintain our cultural identity? How can we do it if we don’t?