A prize-winning poet argues that blackness acts as the caesura between human and nonhuman, man and animal.
Throughout U.S. history, black people have been configured as sociolegal nonpersons, a subgenre of the human. Being Property Once Myself delves into the literary imagination and ethical concerns that have emerged from this experience. Each chapter tracks a specific animal figure—the rat, the cock, the mule, the dog, and the shark—in the works of black authors such as Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesmyn Ward, and Robert Hayden. The plantation, the wilderness, the kitchenette overrun with pests, the simultaneous valuation and sale of animals and enslaved people—all are sites made unforgettable by literature in which we find black and animal life in fraught proximity.
Joshua Bennett argues that animal figures are deployed in these texts to assert a theory of black sociality and to combat dominant claims about the limits of personhood. Bennett also turns to the black radical tradition to challenge the pervasiveness of antiblackness in discourses surrounding the environment and animals. Being Property Once Myself is an incisive work of literary criticism and a close reading of undertheorized notions of dehumanization and the Anthropocene.
Joshua Bennett is the author of The Sobbing School, winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. He has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, and MIT and was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. He is the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.
Jesse McCarthy is assistant professor jointly appointed in the Department of English and the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. His research is concerned with the intersection between politics and aesthetics in African American literature, postwar or post-45 literary history, and Black Studies. His dissertation The Blue Period: Black Writing in the Early Cold War, 1945 – 1965 argues for a reinterpretation of black literary aesthetics in the early Cold War and for the value of a discrete periodization of that era. He is also interested in modernism, film, poetics and translation. While a graduate student at Princeton he founded a Digital Humanities project based on the Sylvia Beach archives held at Princeton’s Firestone Library called Mapping Expatriate Paris. His writing on culture, politics, and literature has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, Dissent, The New Republic and n+1. I also serve as an editor at The Point.
Simone White is the author of Dear Angel of Death, Of Being Dispersed, and House Envy of All the World and of the poetry chapbooks Unrest and, with Kim Thomas, Dolly. Her writing has appeared in publications including Arttforum, BOMB, e-flux
Critical Praise for Being Property Once Myself
“This trenchant work of literary criticism examines the complex ways 20th- and 21st-century African American authors have written about animals. In Bennett’s analysis, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward and others subvert the racist comparisons that have ‘been used against them as a tool of derision and denigration.’… An intense and illuminating reevaluation of black literature and Western thought.“—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Bennett writes so beautifully that it hurts. Imagine a world of animals—rats, cocks, mules, and dogs—that prompt renewed ways of seeing, thinking, and living beyond cages or chains. These absorbing, deeply moving pages bring to life a newly reclaimed ethics, and black feeling beyond the claims of property or propriety.“—Colin Dayan, author of With Dogs at the Edge of Life and The Law Is a White Dog
“Being Property Once Myself is destined to be an event. Exhilarating and original, it is as much a work of literary history as it is of literary theory, as much a poetic invocation as it is critical intervention, and as much about animals as it is about people, elegantly uniting the many singularities that constitute, collectively, black literary culture.”—Akira Mizuta Lippit, author of Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife
“A tremendously illuminating study of how black writers wrestle with black precarity. Bennett’s refreshing and field-defining approach shows how both classic and contemporary African American authors undo long-held assumptions of the animal–human divide.”—Salamishah Tillet, author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination