1. On Public Mourning
In January, a white man in Shelburne who ran down two young Black men with his car was acquitted of all charges.
He claimed he mistook the men for “deer running on the highway.”
[Community member Tom] Jacklyn disagrees with the verdict and the idea that race played no role.
“The whole community here thought it was an open-and-shut case. This man ran the two boys over,” he said. “When he was found not guilty of all charges, everybody was angry. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked.”
He said the men were compared to deer running on the highway in court, but he finds it implausible that they ran in front of Williams’s car, causing the accident and visible damage to the car.
“He hit them with a car. It’s too much of a coincidence that all this would happen,” Jacklyn said….
…”The police didn’t do their job. The police knew who [Davis and Benham] were because of their race and their last names — their last name being tied to race,” he said.
“It’s always been this way down here. If these two young men would have had the right colour skin and the right last name, charges would have been laid. It would have been handled a lot more quickly. That’s all that it has to do with — the colour of their skin and who they are.”
Outside of the Black community in Shelburne, a white driver mowing down two Black men was met with little outrage, and barely any coverage.
The Black men were compared to animals, an analogy that both drew on the old racist joke about Black people not being visible at night – and that therefore mistaking them for creatures is plausible – and that also acquitted the white man of guilt, as though Black men were just more roadkill who themselves are at fault for being in the way of a car.
This week, two of the Sullivan’s pond geese were killed by a driver, and a third goose was injured.
A memorial is planned:
I had a film professor who used to lecture us that audiences would not accept killing an animal in movies. You can show any kind of horrific violence — and certainly you can show women’s bodies and the bodies of Black and brown people being brutalized — but show a dog getting hurt and people will not go with you.
In the aftermath of the geese being run over, social media in Halifax was overcome by an outpouring of rage and grief for the geese.
This emotion was in its turn countered by observations that the deaths of women in Halifax are met with relative silence, and that while the geese were being mourned, Black men in the city who die violently are treated as criminals, and the community is blamed.
This suggests two opposite poles: you either elevate animals over human beings, particularly Black and Indigenous humans who are seen as dispensable, or in caring about justice for humans, you criticize the outsize reaction towards animals.
But, as the rhetoric around the animality of Black people suggests, the relationship between animal rights and the liberation of Africans has always been complex.
The image of Black people as animals is deeply rooted in narratives of Black savagery and criminality. Rhetoric that justified slavery portrayed Black people as being like beasts, who could be worked to death without any need for compassion. Black women’s children could be taken from them, and it was said she felt no more pain that a bitch having her pups taken. Black bodies must be whipped and brutalized just as one exerted force on stubborn oxen. As beasts, Africans lacked rationality, didn’t feel pain or the heat, had no purpose beyond labour, although they could show loyalty like a good hound dog to a kind master, showing their natural position as slaves.
Darren Wilson explained his shooting of Mike Brown by describing Brown in animalistic terms. Brown’s body was portrayed as monstrous, full of a savage strength that only a gunshot could control. Young Black men are frequently spoken of as being like animals, which in turn is used to suggest that only a cage (prison) can control and discipline them.
Black women’s bodies are also dehumanized. Memes compare Michelle Obama to an ape, or Leslie Jones to Harambe. Black women’s sexuality is read as animalistic, justifying the widespread rape of enslaved Black women by white men, and the sexual exploitation of the bodies of Black women and girls today.
Black bodies are seen as existing outside civilization, as part of the primitive world that must be tamed by white order and good government.
Because of this rhetoric around Black animality, the animal rights movement and the abolition movement were closely intertwined. Black Beauty, for example, uses the language of the slave narrative to expose brutality towards animals. The horse, in other words, is Black for a reason. Abolitionist William Wilberforce was also a founding member of the RSPCA, the oldest animal welfare organization in the world. More importantly, slaves themselves recognized that they were seen and treated as animals, and that this dehumanization was at the heart of white justification and perpetuation of enslavement.
Which is all to say that while concern for animal rights is frequently seen as evidence of white hypocrisy — white people will build a dog park on top of a forcibly destroyed Black community like Africville — many Black liberationists also recognize that animal rights and justice for Black people both spring from a common root.
White colonial ideologies see nature, people, land, animals, and resources all as white entitlements; there to be used up, to be profited from, to be traded, to be civilized. So it is that white big game hunters stripped Africa of its wildlife at the same time as Europeans enslaved and then colonized its people: the white violence of hunting for sport matched the cruelty towards African bodies.
Seen through this lens, struggles for animals to be treated with dignity are connected to the struggle for African people to be seen as human. The movie Blackfish, for example, watched in the company of Black people, evokes the same kidnapping and exploitation of both Africans and whales, and the ideologies that convince the captor that the whale/slave is happy with their condition of oppression, and feels affectionate towards their oppressor.
In his book Fear of the Animal Planet, which tells histories of animal liberation and takes as its central premise that animals both understand freedom, and take opportunities to resist their captivity and rise against their oppressors, Jason Hribal calls Tilikum the “Nat Turner” of whales, explicitly making the connection between Tilikum’s rebellion against captivity and slave uprisings.
Mourning geese in this sense can be a resistant act towards an ideology that treats all bodies that are not the bodies of white, able bodied, straight, middle class males, as disposable. It is too simplistic to say that caring about the geese marks someone as excessive, privileged, or indifferent to the suffering of oppressed communities.
At the same time, however, Black people have frequently observed that white people often extend a compassion to animals that is withheld from Africans. The death of Harambe is met with outrage while the killing of Black people by police is met with victim blaming and evasion. Michael Vick is jailed for dog fighting while police who kill Black children get off, and while the NFL covers up widespread brain injury without penalty. Stores will follow Black people around but provide treats for dogs brought in by white dog owners.
As Growling Tiger says, “if you haven’t money, dog is better than you.”
Calls are made for the driver who killed two geese to be exposed and jailed, yet people continue to eat chicken from mass factories. As another person pointed out on Facebook, “Canada Goose jackets are really going to be popping this year.” Individual animals are singled out for compassion while systemic abuses of millions of animals are normalized — one might in fact argue that it is precisely these abuses that actually motivate these periodic outpourings towards the Cecils or Harambes or geese, as if to convince ourselves that we are compassionate and caring towards animals while denying the reality of how animals are treated.
The geese are afforded qualities that are denied to African people. While the geese are seen as a “Dartmouth institution” and are granted a place in the community and belonging, Black bodies — even bodies that have been here for hundreds of years — are seen as interlopers who are imposed upon white communities.
While the geese can be seen as a vital part of Dartmouth culture, North Preston is disowned. Black institutions and contributions — such as wide Black participation in the Natal Day parade which was a historical tradition until the route was changed — are erased and ignored. The geese are seen as contributing to Dartmouth, while the Black human beings who live in Dartmouth North are abandoned, denied adequate housing, and treated as pathological criminals. While the geese are respected in their home, slowed down for, and made room for, Black bodies are not allowed to walk on streets or in stores without being surveilled, profiled, stopped, harassed and brutalized. Geese are granted more rights to use our roads in peace than Black people facing street checks.
Outrage over the geese also frequently invokes the innocence of the geese, that the geese who harm no one and delight many were innocently crossing the road and were cruelly and indifferently mowed down. Again, this formulation of innocence is denied to Black children, who are read as years older by their teachers and police, who are imprisoned in our youth jails more than youth of any other race, who are pushed out of our schools, whose teenage girl bodies “look so mature these days.” Thus while the geese, granted innocence, can be mourned, a Black body met with violence is accusedt, criminalized, and the death is justified. Why were they even running along the highway if they didn’t want to be hit.
In fact, animals are granted more humanity that animalized Black people — the very thing granted the geese because they are animals (public grief, calls for justice) is denied Black men hit by a car who are transposed into deer.
It is also possible that mourning the geese marks an opportunity for catharsis, a way of mourning other, less expressible things. The geese represent a way of life seen as uniquely Nova Scotian and embedded in a communal way of relating to each other — people still slow down for the geese. In an age of austerity where jobs, housing, economic security, etc. are under attack, perhaps the geese come to stand in for the stability and simpler things that people long for and that they see slipping away. Perhaps in this sense we can see the memorial for the geese as a cry out for political organizing, as a sign that people feel helpless, and at the mercy of being driven over as resources are increasingly stripped from our communities.
But this also suggests the ways in which Black bodies are not similarly embraced or projected upon by the white public — a goose can be identified with and even anthropomorphized, while Black bodies remain other. So while geese can be objects of collective mourning, Black grief for murdered bodies is also denied, and Black protest is seen not as an expression of pain or of the need to memorialize bodies, but as disruption, pulling the race card, aggression, disorder, and threat. Black expressions of grief are policed, surveilled, shut down, and condemned in newspapers (Why did they not let white people in the meeting? Why do they have to stop the parade? Why are they so hateful and angry?) and thus Black mourning in public spaces is read as a confrontation.
If only we were mourned like geese; if only we could mourn like people are granted the space to mourn geese.
The question, then, is not, “why are the geese the objects of public mourning,” but rather “why is it that Black bodies are not similarly the objects of public mourning?” It is not that sadness or rage over the geese is illegitimate, but that Black bodies are rarely granted the same public space or the same legitimacy. So it is that we will hold memorials for dead geese, but bury dead Black women a day later and in private.
Echoing comments after the shooting of Cecil the Lion that “maybe Black people in American should dress like lions,” maybe Black people in Nova Scotia should dress like geese. Or maybe Mi’kmaq people should propose the Cornwallis statue be replaced with a statue of the dead geese — perhaps that would finally prompt its removal.
2. Situation Normal, All Fucked Up
The military’s swift action against the Proud Boys showed that our armed forces have no place for racism or white supremacy and it’s completely unacceptable and racism will not be tolerated A Nova Scotia army corporal who rolled up on a Black co-worker talking about “a video that he’d viewed where a black woman was sponging her hair due to it being ‘nappy’” was acquitted.
Every El Jones column causes me to read the material a second or even third time and results in reflection and acknowledgement of my own predjudices. It’s very thought provoking and important work. Thanks El, and thanks Tim.
Drivers should be held at fault whenever they hit anything, unless the thing that they hit actually hit them (i.e. someone jumping off a curb into your car). If you are driving and can’t avoid a waddling swan or a couple of men (who would have been trying to get out of the way of your car), then you were going too fast for the conditions or weren’t paying enough attention. Either way, licenses should be revoked in both cases, and the Shelburne driver should be charged with manslaughter.
Indeed, many of us have it all wrong.
wasn’t someone ticked for letting baby ducks cross? More respect for pedestrians, Foul or Fair!
Thank you, El.
Thanks for these insights. Any ideas how we can collectively act to make things better?
Sad that these analogizes need to be made at all.
The uncontroverted evidence is that the driver was neither cruel nor indifferent. He was intensely distraught—to the point of throwing up at the scene of the accident. He immediately stopped, waited for the police, and cooperated fully with police, who interviewed witnesses and concluded he had not been speeding and had not violated any laws.
The fact so many are eager to spread false rumours about this guy, and demand vicious punishment up to and including his violent drowning, says far more about Nova Scotia culture than it does about geese or the driver.
The people who allowed themselves to be caught up in this mob are the very people who would have joined in a real lynch mob in 1040s Alabama.
I disagree that there is nothing wrong with the over-the-top outpouring of extreme grief over the geese. Anthropomorphism is an ugly, narcissistic mindset. Respect animals as animals, not as little faux people, or as children.
“Oh look at the cute geese, crossing single file in the crosswalk, just like little people. If only we could dress them up with little bowler hats and canes!” Geese are not little people. They are sentient animals with their own traits and habits and needs. Valuing them only as little faux people ill-serves them, and leads to crosswalks that amuse people and end predictably in the death of geese.
Walt Whitman said it pretty damed well:
I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
The geese were clearly visible at 5.50 pm and run over during daylight in clear weather. I cannot understand how the driver could not see white geese on a clear sunny day.
In Shelburne the defence lawyer told CBC “There was no lighting in that section of the highway. It was very dark that night, it was foggy and misty and started to rain shortly after the accident.”
The answer to why the geese are being publicly mourned is that the geese were made part of the moral community. The answer to why ‘Black bodies’ aren’t afforded the same respect, you’ve already answered. Exclusionary discourse in order to maintain boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. I personally think the question should be ‘WTF?’
Neumann, R. P. (2004). Moral and discursive geographies in the war for biodiversity in Africa. Political Geography, 23(7), 813-837.