BY DR. GLENN ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
“Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man’’ by Joshua Bennett. Harvard University Press. 224 pages, $35
Set in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, “Salvage the Bones,’’ a novel by Jesmyn Ward, features China, a White pit bull who is both the family pet of Esch and Skeetah, two young African Americans, and their primary breadwinner.
At once a dire threat and a cherished companion, the dog (whose name also connotes precious and delicate objects), Joshua Bennett points out, is “blackened” by connection to his owners and his savage behavior in the ring.
But, according to Bennett, the rapport in evidence across the boundary of species throughout the novel, which ends with the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, highlights “signs of joy and vitality, where some might only see blight.”
In “Being Property Once Myself,’’ Bennett, a professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth, and the author of “The Sobbing School,’’ a collection of poetry, draws on literary criticism, theory and history; animality studies; and eco-criticism to analyze ways in which African American novelists and poets use animals to identify a “black ecology” that is predicated not only on exploitation (in places where Blacks are envisioned as “not quite non-human forms of life”) but on sociality, depth of feeling, flight from forces of subjugation, mulish persistence, and even “delight” in a precarious existence.
In addition to “Salvage the Bones,’’ Bennett provides close readings of “Native Son’’ by Richard Wright; “Song of Solomon’’ by Toni Morrison; Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God’’; and poems by Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson and Xandria Phillips that deploy sharks to illuminate Black persistence and fugitive possibilities.
Insights into classics
“Being Property Once Myself ‘’is an academic monograph, with some jargon and ample references to Lacan, Foucault, Heidegger and other theorists. That said, the book is accessible, beautifully written, and filled to overthrowing with arresting insights about four classics of African American literature, African American (often gender specific) feelings about wildness, pride, responsibly and uplift, narratives of propriety, flight, brotherhood, and alternative this worldly and other worldly possibilities.
Bennett reminds us, for example, that as “Native Son’’ opens, Bigger Thomas kills a black rat, who shares his family’s kitchenette, in a ghetto tenement unfit for human habitation, and taunts his little sister with the body.
In some ways, Bigger fits the stereotype of the sullen, savage Black male; like the rat, he is trapped. Bennett emphasizes, however, that Bigger is not pure rage and hunger. He is (also like rats) smart, adaptable, and a survivor.
Most important, Bennett writes, Bigger chooses a “hell naw” insurgent life, spurning limitations forced on him, even as he is branded “a humanoid pest in flight, who creeps and crawls at the nadir of the social ladder, leeching resources from those above.”
Birds and a mule
“In Song of Solomon,’’ we learn, Toni Morrison uses birds to convey and complicate how Black men feel about the responsibilities that ground them and their desire to be free, to take flight. A white peacock commands the attention of Milkman Dead and Guitar. A validating source for their dreams of riches and social access, the bird, they realize, is also hampered by vanity.
“Too much tail. All that jewelry,” Guitar says. “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” Morrison, Bennett notes, is a critic of material possessions as markers of value. But she has also indicated that the search of proud – and delinquent – young Blacks for another life should also be viewed as “a positive, majestic thing.”
“Their Eyes Were Watching God,’’ Bennett reveals, turns on the liberation of a mule (an animal created for labor), who is anointed a citizen in the town. A condition of possibility in a world of exploitation is embraced. When the mule dies, he is wept over and laughed at a funeral.
Ironically, Hurston’s novel ends in a moment of misplaced trust, when the inhabitants ignore signals sent by annuals that a hurricane is headed their way, with Tea Cake sealing his own fate by opining, “De white folks ain’t gone nowhere. Dey oughta know if it’s dangerous.”
You can understand why he would draw that conclusion. And why Bennett wants to avoid “totalizing pessimism” and declare, with a mix of facts and faith, that there’s “a world beneath the world. And it shimmers.”
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.