I’m an animal lover. I had cats (yes, plural – four in fact) from when I was about 12 and a dog, a bull terrier-cross named Zeus, at 14. I now have Marcello, an adorable maltese/yorkie cross (a morkie, when I feel like being obnoxious). There’s something about animals that elicits inexplicable and at times overwhelming empathy from me. Yes, #whitetendencies. So it gave me pause when I heard The Nation blogger and Princeton associate professor, Melissa Harris-Perry say, in reference to responses to Michael Vick and his animal cruelty conviction, “many African Americans feel that the suffering of animals evokes more empathy and concern among whites than does the suffering of black people“. She sites examples to back up her argument and lays out the politics of race and animal rights.
My Marcello is, to say the least, spoiled. It’s not as bad as you’d imagine. No I don’t carry him around in a Louis Vuitton bag. No, his water bowl is not filled with Perrier and no, despite the picture, he does not sleep in my bed (well, not any more). But he does get Rainbow chicken viennas with his breakfast and supper, he’s got a fancy overpriced bed (especially considering that his favourite sleeping place is the floor under my bed), and (I can’t believe I’m confessing this to the Interwebs) has his bum wiped after he does a number two. That’s a far cry from the experiences of dogs I grew up seeing in Temba, the township I spent the first decade of my life.
This affection and adoration I shower on my dog, which some may consider misplaced, is mostly (until my shrink tells me otherwise) from a sense of duty to protect the living organisms I have chosen to surround myself with. It’s not a foreign concept to my kind – African males, I mean. One of my uncles named his cows and, if you had the pleasure of catching in him the right mood, he’d talk your ear off about each of them and their distinct personalities. For another uncle, it was the same sort of thing for his pair of windhond (greyhounds) that accompanied him when he went hunting pheasant. Sure they didn’t get their bums wiped and pap was considered a luxury for them, but I’ll be damned before someone tells me that my uncle did not love his dogs, or dogs in general for that matter.
It was not too markedly different in South Africa. Black people here too were treated as beasts of burden. Sure, it wasn’t slavery per se, but the dog heard the same “foetsek” as blacks did. And dogs during the bad old days were used as weapons against black people. It even got to the point that wolf-dog hybrids were used as experimental attack dogs against guerillas (as they were called back then – now they’re called freedom fighters).
Sure, Ms Harris-Perry isn’t saying that African-Americans are incapable of loving or being empathetic to animals and I don’t believe for one second that she is suggesting that in a world of seemingly finite empathy, African-Americans see animals, dogs specifically, as their competition, but I fear that once we head down the path of saying black people do this, or white people do that, or Asians are like this, we inadvertently enforce the generalisations which all too quickly become our truths. This in turn clouds the answers to the questions posed such as those in the case of Michael Vick: does he deserve another chance at an NFL career and should he be allowed to own another dog?
For me the answers are pretty clear. He served 23 months in federal prison for running the dogfighting ring and has not only expressed remourse for his actions, he has worked with groups aimed at steering young people away from dogfighting. For these reasons, I humbly submit, that he be allowed a chance at earning his livelihood and at discovering how truly amazing man’s best friend is. This answer, simplistic as it may be, does not come under the yoke of the greater historical narrative on race and animal rights. It doesn’t even come from the perspective of an animal lover or a black man. It comes from having looked at the situation presented and suggesting a solution that seems best for man and his furry companion.
The final question posed in the case of Michael Vick is thus. Why are there such starkly different reactions, ranging from President Obama calling the Philadelphia Eagles owner to congratulate him for giving Vick another shot at an NFL career to cable news host Tucker Carlson saying (and subsequently retracting, siting having “overspoken”) that Michael Vick should be executed for running the dogfighting ring? Well Ms Harris-Perry suggests and, many agree, that the demonisation of Michael Vick seems motivated by something more pernicious than a concern for animal welfare. She says it seems to be about race. That, I’m afraid, I will be relegating to a post for another day and should the whim strike me so.