Bénédicte Boisseron, Associate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, Featured in BAR Book Forum
Racialization in this country often goes through a disguised process of animalization.
“Canine weaponry against racialized subjects is a long-standing tradition in the Americas.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Bénédicte Boisseron. Boisseronis Associate Professor of Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her book is Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Bénédicte Boisseron: Afro-Dog looks at the relation between blackness and the animal question in the Americas and the black Atlantic from the Middle Passage to the Black Lives Matter era. It is a wide-ranging historical scope with modern relevance. I was writing the book in the midst of the 2015 Ferguson riots and 2016 Standing Rock demonstrations, two events where the respective use of police dogs against rioters echoed previous instances in American history where dogs had been used against those deemed the recalcitrant Other. It is important to understand that canine weaponry against racialized subjects is a long-standing tradition in the Americas. In the sixteenth century, Bartolomé de Las Casas documented in horrendous detail Spanish conquistadors training their dogs to chase and devour natives in the West Indies. During the slavery era, slave owners were also known to launch their bloodhounds against runaway slaves in the Caribbean and the American South. In the 1960s, you see a similar use of police dogs against black civil rights rioters in Alabama (Birmingham and Selma). So, when in the 2015, the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department uncovered an excessive use of canine force on blacks (even black children) by the police, my manuscript took on a whole sense of urgency. As the DOJ report revealed, “in every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the subject was African American.” Racialization in this country often goes through a disguised process of animalization. Think for example of Barack Obama who was compared to Curious George the Monkey during the 2008 presidential election, or more recently President Trump calling Omarosa “that dog” (2018), which I see as a dog whistling call for conjoined racialization and animalization against the recalcitrant black former White House advisor.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
My book brings attention to the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression and seeks to make activists more aware of the danger of privileging one form of discrimination at the expense of another. In France, for example, Brigitte Bardot, the French sex symbol of the 1950s and 1960s, is today a vocal animal rights activist. She is also a far-right sympathizer of the Front National political party. The former actress has been repeatedly fined by the French government for using racist hate speech in her animal rights activist rhetoric. Recently (March 2019), Bardot called the inhabitants of the island of Reunion (a former French colony off the African Coast) “degenerate” with “savage genes” because of their tradition of sacrificing goats. Bardot does not see that her French ‘civilized’ superiority is a colonial vestige that takes part in a logic that applies not only to humans but also to non-humans. Supremacy is not only white, it is also human. Anti-anthropocentrism and anti-speciesism cannot hold the course without an anticolonial and anti-racist approach to matters of power, domination, and oppression. Everything is interconnected. Likewise, for Jim Gorant, the author of a book on the rehabilitation of Michael Vick’s pit bulls after the NFL quarterback was convicted for his illegal dog fighting ring. As Afro-Dog shows, in his book Gorant criminalizes Vick through a subtle animalization of this black man. This conjoined racialization and animalization is not new but it is particularly striking when used in a humanitarian context desensitized to other forms of discrimination.