The Dreaded Comparison

Article excerpt

Ancient Egyptians, some African tribes, and other ancient and aboriginal cultures the world over have worshipped animals as gods and messengers to the gods. Native Americans adopted the names of admired animals and had spirit guides -- in animal form -- who would serve as teachers and escorts into the realm of the spirit world.

And yet in our culture, we view animals very differently. Are they mere automatons, insensible instinct machines going through the moves of life like wind-up toys? Are they soul-less inferior beings, put here to use? Both of these views have been staunchly advocated as certainties.

The experiences of nonhuman animals -- enslaved in innumerable ways by human beings -- can be compellingly linked to the experiences of black people in the pre-Civil War United States. The parallels between the enslavement of animals and humans are innumerable and exist on many levels; they are built around the same basic relationship between oppressor and oppressed, master and slave.

Such a structure required both philosophical and scientific underpinnings. The author of a racist 19th century theological tract declared, "All Scientific Investigation of the Subject Proves the Negro to Be An Ape." Other authors set up "black" and "beastly" as exact synonyms. Thomas Dixon, whose books are showpieces of Klan-derived fiction, titled some of his chapters, "The Black Peril," "A Thousand-Legged Beast" and "the Hunt for the Animal." The stock black man in his books "springs like a tiger," has the "black claws of a beast" and cuts a "bestial figure."

Blacks have been called by the names of various animals, including buck, fox, monkey, ape and coon. A modern lexicographer writes, under the heading of "raccoon," that, "In the South, hunting coons on moonlit nights has long been a favorite sport, their meat being roasted and eaten." She then notes that "coon" became a disparaging word for black people in the 19th century, even inspiring a song by Ernest Hogan: "All Coons Look Alike to Me." Runaway slaves were in fact hunted down with packs of dogs trained for that purpose.

The intentional, or sometimes simply thoughtless, destruction of relationships and families during the antebellum period were rationalized by the view held by most of the white slave-owners that black people were "just animals" who would quickly get over separation from a child or other loved one. In fact, antebellum racist thinkers denied that love among black slaves existed at all. They maintained that "animal lust" and "animal attraction" were responsible for intimate bonding between two slaves. When slaves were brought to auction, children were sold away from their mothers and husband from their wives. Women were bribed or punished into breeding often injuriously vast numbers of children, and permitted no semblance of family structure.

Similarly, in countless ways every day, humans destroy or deny emotional bonds in other animals. In the wild, we randomly shoot the mates of waterfowls, some of which pair for life. Often the surviving mate dies of starvation while mourning. We shoot mother primates in order to capture their infants for displays in zoos or for use in laboratories. We annually produce millions of animals, placed in isolated cages, to provide scientists with "sterile" animals who have never been allowed contact with another of their kind. …