Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Excerpt from “Notes from a Bête Noire” January 7, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Royce @ 3:06 am
This is an excerpt from an essay I’m working on that I turned in for a critical theory course last semester. The title of the essay is “Notes from a Bête Noire.” The essay in it’s entirety is part of a larger project of mine of bridging critical race studies and critical animal studies. There have been formatting changes in transcribing this on the blog (for the sake of making it more readable, aesthetically), and I’ve taken the liberty of linking works from the footnotes to virtual editions. I was working with different translations however, and so there may be differences in word choice/usage. -R

•••

I

“Willie B has passed away,” they said. Atlanta enters the Twenty-First Century through mourning. A gorilla, more than twenty-nine years my senior, has died. My first conscious interaction with the death of a person, and he is a beast. His cremated remains split— eighty percent in Atlanta, and the other twenty carried by plane to Cameroon, his birthplace. The zoo bursts with people (human) who come to pay their respects, to commemorate his life, a public wake for a public animal.
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I spent the night, in the same place, the very same building, that Willie B. lived in. I was five years old; a sleep-over field trip for kindergartners. In the dark we are told to draw an ape, one direction given at a time. Draw two eyes. Draw a head. Draw two ears. Draw an ape-like snout, two arms, a chest, a belly, legs. When the light comes on, I see, in all the detail of a crayon sketch, a person.
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II
A child, blonde and white, presses her fingers against the glass. The ape raises his hand in response. They gaze at each other, until, frightened, she pulls away and hides behind a parent. There is too much soul in his eyes, and she is afraid. Her father simply points— “Look, a gorilla.” I think of Fanon. I think of my Blackness.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

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I walk through a store, any store for it has happened often enough, and a parent (white) hides their child instinctively. The burden already long since familiar, I smile sadly. They see a snarl, a grimace, fangs bared: jungles, Africa, darkness, drums, voodoo, violence, ape. The child is frightened because the parent is frightened.
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I am too short to see into the bathroom mirror, and so I do not know myself.1 I remain fragmented. Piecing together a body slowly over time: two eyes, a head, two ears, a nose, arms, chest, belly, legs— judging from the reflections of others: my mother’s attentive gaze, my father’s wrinkled brow, a stranger’s stare. I am slowly put together, my being cemented by my fellow man.
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I assume fellowship: we speak the same, move the same, occupy the same society, and share customs. The parent makes me doubt. The child makes me doubt. The difference between the girl and I, as far as I can surmise, is her reaction to me. I become ape. The difference between the ape and I is the pane of glass that separates us. If either of us were to walk through the streets, the reaction would be the same.
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“My body was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recoloured, clad in mourning in that white winter day. The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, The Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly; look, a nigger, it’s cold, the nigger is shivering, the nigger is shivering because he is cold, the little boy is trembling because he is afraid of the nigger… the little white boy throws himself into his mother’s arms: Mama, the nigger’s going to eat me up.”2
Fanon came into the world a subject, and then found himself to be made an object: in Martinique a man, in France a Negro.I discovered myself objected with my first tottering steps outside of my home, even while first piecing myself together.

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By the time I can see the mirror I do not recognize myself. The image before me is of a man, even though the reflection in white eyes has made me beast: a black beast, bête noire. I am avoided. I avoid myself. I have learned to perform humanness, to perform whiteness. Like Red Peter I have learned through observation.3 I too can drink, smoke a pipe, speak. “Listen, he is talking,” they say of Red Peter. Listen, how well he speaks, they say of me.
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I have grown up. Able to look in the mirror I find the tail that I attempted to hide has no reflection. I am a man. Finally, I make myself a subject. I push away my childishness, my animality. I embrace my humanity. I look into the exhibit, and I find the ape looking at me. I look away repulsed, and see a child looking at me, looking at the gorilla. The child is frightened, because they expect another pane of glass between us. “I burst apart,” says Fanon. I am abjected.
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•••
3. Franz Kafka. A Report to An Academy. 281-293. The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Short Stories.
 

6 Responses to “Excerpt from “Notes from a Bête Noire””

  1. Anon2 Says:

    Moderators, If you choose not to print this I understand, but I am curious of a quote in the article.

    Royce, when you say in reference to a white parent and child “I walk through a store, any store for it has happened often enough, and a parent (white) hides their child instinctively. …They see a snarl, a grimace, fangs bared: jungles, Africa, darkness, drums, voodoo, violence, ape. …”

    What makes you believe that they are associating you with an animal as opposed to associating you by race with criminal behaviour based on their prejudices or experiences?

    • Royce Says:

      At this point of the essay it doesn’t matter what they associate me with in their minds, but rather that I see their reactions to me are like their reactions to an ape.

      However, one of the main threads in the essay is the idea that views of Black people (and other abjected humans) are intimately connected to the views of animals.

      • Anon2 Says:

        Royce, In the sentence “They see a snarl, a grimace, fangs bared: jungles, Africa, darkness, drums, voodoo, violence, ape.”, I’m surprised by the words ‘drums’ and ‘voodoo’ as those two words can be completely removed and the association would be more akin to animals. Could you please elaborate on the word choice in this sentence?

        • Royce Says:

          a bit delayed, but: my own poetic/rhetorical device to reinforce the permeability between blackness and animality in the collective white consciousness.

  2. arimoore Says:

    This really spoke to me. Thanks for writing it, and posting it.

  3. adam Says:

    Beautiful, just beautiful…
    I haven’t been moved by a critical animals studies piece like this before… I would love the opportunity to read your essay when it is complete.


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