Joshua Bennett


On his book Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man

Cover Interview of July 29, 2020

In a nutshell

Being Property Once Myself is centrally concerned with how black authors have described their relationship to nonhuman forms of life, and to nonhuman animal life-worlds in particular, as a means of articulating the lived experience of blackness. The book is divided into five chapters, each of which homes in on the canonical works of a twentieth or twenty-first century black writer: Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesmyn Ward, and Robert Hayden, among others. Each of these sections also focuses on a distinct animal figure: the rat, the cock, the mule, the dog, and the shark, respectively, are all featured. The book offers more than a historical account of the ways that animalization has been deployed as a discrete feature of anti-black racism. Though it is certainly my sense that work committed primarily to this aim is useful, timely, and worth undertaking, Being Property Once Myself is an account of black feeling in the afterlife of slavery. It is my attempt to bear witness to what various forms of forced proximity between black people and nonhuman animals has produced at the level of literary imagination, and ethical inquiry.

What distinct ways of thinking about black life, black death, black gathering, refusal, and recalcitrance, have been forged in a context where black people are made to live in what I call a kind of caesura: a zone betwixt Man and animal, made necessary, mandatory, in order for those categories to maintain their integrity? How have black authors imagined a vision of human life that is not predicated upon the dominion or destruction of nonhuman life-worlds, but rather one that operates with the understanding that the very world the black expressive tradition strains against, i.e., the anti-black world masquerading as the earth in toto, is one that has likewise marked them as sociolegal nonpersons possessing no interior life, no spirit, nothing worthy of study or attention, cherishment or care?

With this frame in mind, it is my hope that we can rethink the task of black literary studies as a collective endeavoring toward a renewed vision of a beloved community. One which necessarily accounts for the flourishment of nonhuman life, and the varied forms of interspecies collaboration and conviviality which are an integral part of our intellectual inheritance. Blackness is the stewardship of the Earth. I hope readers approach the text with this sense of scale in mind, and with an eye toward abolitionist theory and practice. To think with the animals and the plants and the dark soil beneath us is to honor the spirit of our field, and to pursue the heart of its truest aims. Nothing less than the end of the world. Nothing less than the abolition of a symbolic order sustained by cages and chains.