- Black Lives, Sacred Humanity, and the Racialization of Nature, or Why America Needs Religious Naturalism Today1
"Life must be something more than dilettante speculation. And religion (ought to be if it isn't) a great deal more than mere gratification of the instinct for worship linked with the straight-teaching of irreproachable credos. Religion must be life made true, and life is action, growth, development—begun now and ending never."—Anna Julia Cooper
I. Antiblack Rhetoric and the Animal Other
In September 2016, a first-year student at East Tennessee State University interrupted a Black Lives Matter protest on campus, parading in a gorilla mask. Clad in overalls and barefoot, the young man offered bananas to the protesting students, heckling them.2 When set within a wider historical context, this student's actions evoke a legacy of intimidation in which perceived differences attributed to certain humans are symbolized in terms of animal otherness. This mechanism of targeting certain groups as different and designating them as the Other has often included linking them to animals or objects that require managing, cleansing, or elimination.3 Early examples include Nazi propaganda during the 1920s and '30s, portraying Jewish citizens as rats or vermin that deserved to be exterminated.4 Elsewhere, [End Page 109] during WWII, political cartoons in the U.S. featured Japanese people as mice and rats, suggesting they should be defeated.5 Amid anti-Irish fervor in both Great Britain and the U.S., Irish immigrants were viewed as apes, or as wild creatures that were to be controlled.6
Simian images, in particular, can be traced back in Western thought as an effective strategy to demarcate a certain notion of normative humanity. In an early Platonic Dialogue, Hippias Major, possibly authored by Plato himself, Heraclitus is quoted as saying that the most beautiful of apes is hideous in comparison to humans and that the wisest of humans are apish in relation to gods.7 In Christian contexts, representations of the monkey as "an image of the devil" (figura diabolic) and the sinner circulated widely; these images also symbolized humanity in a state of degeneracy. During the Patristic period in Christianity, certain theologians also used monkey icons to symbolize pagans, heretics, and other enemies of Christ.8
Centuries later in the U.S., simian imagery has become an effective strategy of antiblack rhetoric, with ontological implications. Projected images of African Americans as apes, monkeys, or gorillas justified the institution of slavery and miscegenation laws in the U.S.; they also reinforced still widespread stereotypes of black men as beasts with unmanageable sexuality.9 Sadly, this form of animalization to portray blacks as subhuman has not been confined to this nation. In 2016, Penny Sparrow, a white South African estate agent, commented on black New Year revelers "littering" the beach in Durban with these words: "From now [on] I shall address the blacks of South Africa as monkeys as I see [End Page 110] the cute little wild monkeys do the same, pick and drop litter."10 Additionally, a liberal Belgian newspaper attempted to evoke satirical humor in simianising Barak and Michelle Obama in 2014.11
This persistent theme of representing people of African descent as inferior beings, indeed, subpar humans, invites further examination. As a religious naturalist, I am particularly concerned that the symbolic value of these gestures is deeply embedded in problematic notions of animality, race, and nature in our country. In short, they offer us a lethal combination of intimately conjoined white supremacy and species supremacy. With the former, processes of racialization have been influential in an exclusionary category of the human, designating who is properly so and who is not. With the latter, a trajectory of liberal humanism has consistently overestimated the autonomy of human animals, positioning us outside of complex, myriad nature and rendering invisible our inextricable connection to other life forms and material processes. Both of these impulses—white supremacy and species supremacy—evoke a hierarchical model of nature built on the "great chain of being" concept, and they have produced violent and harmful consequences. In this essay, I argue that one effective way of challenging them is through the lens of...