In the twentieth century, when Hurston theorized the Pet Negro as a way to articulate the conditions of Black life and death in the southern United States, she was building upon the very archive Johnson takes up, one in which discourses of Black (in)humanity and animality in the Americas reveal how Black captivity begets interspecies fugitivity and counter-insurgency. Together, Johnson and Hurston’s respective works tend to the interspecies, interracial, and intramural conditions of pet-making by critically engaging the structures and methods that facilitate ownership and training. In doing so, they call us to contend with the regimes of power that overwrite this dynamic model of pethood. Pets are made by relation—purchase, caging, leashing, training—long before they are bred into biological distinction. Discipline, hierarchy, and subjugation undergird the pet’s very existence. These preconditions are what secure the pet’s status as an object of care, casualty and, co-conspiratory potential.10
Where, then, does this leave Hurston’s Pet Negro? If the social valuation of one’s death and the perception of one’s interchangeability are the bedrock of Tuan’s distinction between the human-pet and the animal-pet, the Pet Negro makes its home in the “position of the unthought.” Blackness ensures that the Pet Negro, for all its alleged and actualized comfort and allowance, remains caught up in the storm of violence caused by fungibility. For, if anti-Blackness is, in the words of Christina Sharpe, “the weather” that determines the social, political, and material climate of Black life, there can be no true shelter for the Pet Negro—even the domesticated will face the downpour.11
Writing about how animals feature in human domestic imaginaries in his 1980 essay “Why Look at Animals?,” art critic John Berger articulates the shifts in power relations that have reconstituted human-animal interaction across time, particularly within Western cultures. Zeroing in on the eighteenth-century advent of the European zoo—a site to which displaced and alienated animals are caged and spectacled for public consumption—Berger uses the story of a British citizen who wished to “cuddle a lion” to outline the complex social dynamics between humans and animals that produced the request and its aftermath. As the account goes, a London homemaker named Barbara Carter “won a ‘grant a wish’ charity contest, and said she wanted to kiss and cuddle a lion.” Carter was later invited to the zoo to realize her wish and was subsequently mauled—her advances rejected by the encaged animal, who put Carter “in the hospital in shock and with throat wounds.”12
Berger’s citation of this incident offers a valuable intervention into traditional readings of the imperial domestic sphere and the position of the zoo animal as a kind of public pet. In granting Carter’s (absurd) wish, the British zoo attempted to expand the “geographies of power” accorded to the white homemaker, as a raced, classed, and gendered subject of empire, to the lion’s dwellings. Not unlike the southern US plantation household, which was “the principal site for the construction of southern white womanhood,” the British zoo here functions according to a project of domestication that relies upon the logics of dominance and affection. This sequence of events, which begins with an initial disregard for the lion’s own impulses or temperament, leads to Carter’s mutilation. Here, the public pet’s violent rebuff clashes with a white fantasy of domestication. In bridging the pet-making promise of the national zoo with the project of British domesticity, we arrive at a discourse where the histories of the zoo and the plantation meet.13
To realize her wish to “kiss and cuddle a lion,” Carter first had to disregard what is known about lions—particularly, their ferocity, strength, and capacity for autonomy. For the purposes of realizing her dream of forced interspecies intimacy, Carter sublimated a desire for power into the socially accepted form of a “wish.” The perversity of the request, and her disregard for what is considered common knowledge about lions, is reconstituted as an innocent desire for affection that makes little consideration for the creature’s own receptiveness to human interference. An analysis of fantasy clarifies why both the wish-granting charity and the zoo accept Carter’s request. Carter was not the only one fantasizing about animals. A history of exploitation shaped the culture of human–animal relations in which she cultivated her desires.14
As Berger points out, Carter’s wish to pet the lion is a direct byproduct of a cultural belief in the absolute authority of humans within human–animal relations. The lion’s status as a zoo animal and as a public pet enabled Carter’s wish and its fulfillment. The zoo as an institution is crucial to the production of species identity as well as narratives of interspecies engagement. Just as the zoo teaches humans about animals, it also teaches humans about themselves. Through coercion, marketing, and architectural enclosures, the zoo remakes the human–animal distinction to suggest that, though all animals are not pets, any animal can be haphazardly confined to the role of a pet in service of an institutionalized fantasy. The zoo is but a theater for this dominant interspecies script.
The lion’s rebuff thus shows how this Western animal–human/pet–owner relation is defined by the delusion that a given animal or pet’s capacity for resistance to this order is either tamable or unimaginable. The zoo animal’s attack on Carter upends the fantasy that pets of all kinds, whether they’re private domestic property or confined animals arranged for public viewing, do not recall or desire any existence other than pethood. In Carter’s case, the lion was expected to behave as a public pet, based on a very particular culture of training and dependency that defines zoo life. Yet, even as the animal was primed and coerced to participate in Carter’s wish-fulfillment process, neither Carter nor the zoo staff fully anticipated how the lion’s animal desires would square with their human ones. This inability to fathom the refusal of their domestication fantasy proved to be an especially dangerous oversight.
Through Hurston’s Pet Negro and Berger’s lion, we arrive at an understanding of dominance that defines the pet as a class without the capacity for consent but with a definitive propensity for both counter-revolutionary violence and violent resistance. The pet does not choose but is chosen. The pet cannot consent to giving or receiving affection but is bound to these relations. Of the Black slave’s encounter with consent, Hartman writes, “the simulation of consent in the context of extreme domination was an orchestration intent upon making the captive body speak the master’s truth as well as disproving the suffering of the enslaved.” Paradoxically, consent here is coercive. The slave is offered consent only as means of cosigning their own bondage. To paraphrase Anthony Farley, unfreedom is, in fact, the condition of consent for the slave. In this way, by “bow[ing] down before its master,” the slave is made to sign their own death certificate. Thus, the slave’s efforts at resistance against their master must be, first and foremost, non-consensual.15