Joshua Bennett


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

Cover Interview of July 29, 2020

A close-up

I would hope that “just browsing” readers in a bookstore would encounter the introductory section, “Horse,” or the penultimate chapter, “Dog” first. “Horse” for the simple fact that I try therein to not only lay out the arguments for the book itself, but to make a certain set of claims about ecological criticism broadly construed—and the work of giants like Lucille Clifton and Sylvia Wynter in particular—that I hope will eventually reach a much wider audience of people even outside of those who might feel inclined to pick up the book. What I’m also trying to offer in that introductory passage is an explicitly eco-critical approach to reading the oeuvre of Frederick Douglass; one that is becoming a more and more important part of my larger research project, even beyond Being Property Once Myself.

The “Dog” chapter comes to mind for similar reasons. Therein, I’m offering a reading of Jesmyn Ward’s fantastic sophomore novel, Salvage The Bones, that gets us a bit further, I think, than the traditional concerns of something like animal studies—though I’m clear in the beginning of the book that my contribution is more of a piece with what Michael Lundblad has elsewhere termed animality studies—and closer to the core of my concern throughout the text. That is, the way that a certain lived proximity to animals opens up room for the writers I am interested in to make all sorts of compelling claims about black social life, especially within the context of environmental (and otherwise) catastrophe.

In the Ward chapter, this takes the form of a close reading of a scene in the book which transpires directly after Hurricane Katrina hits the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. But this concern is also present in the third chapter’s reading of the hurricane that hits “The Muck” in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In these moments where the world—i.e., the province of human dominion, the ostensibly owned earth—falls apart, what modes of black assembly come to the fore? And how might this thematic echo help us think differently about the relationship between black freedom struggle and ecological criticism, black poetics and the black earth, abolition and interspecies collaboration? Many of my favorite lines from the book are also in these sections, so there is admittedly, for me, a craft element at play here as well. As I sit here now, thinking at the dining room table about this question, it’s clear. The moments of composition where I felt most free, most in tune with the music that makes a project like this possible, took place while writing those sections.