Native Americans consider kya (the Turtle) to be wisdom. For Europeans, bears are an important element of their history. What animals are most important to you? Why do they have such significance? Cultural leaders around the world have developed strong relationships with wild animals. Knowing these animals can help you to feel more connected to geography, spirituality, and pride.
Our connection to nature and cultural significance of mammals is a result of traditions that were passed down from the slavery era. These traditions continue into modern-day pop culture. As we commemorate the nation’s newest federal holiday on June 19, Juneteenth (observed this year on Monday, June 20) provides an opportunity for both celebration and reflection. We celebrate the notice of emancipation finally reaching Texas to end slavery in the last Confederate state in 1865. We also reflect on the oppressive legacy that still permeates our society, and reinforces white privilege. We celebrate the fact that Black Americans in the U.S. often reflect the ultimate rags to riches narrative.
As an Black ecologist who studies large mammals ,, I believe Juneteenth should be a time for the country to reflect on wild mammals that have played a part in the epic tale of a people’s evolution. These are the mammals that have, over time, influenced and encapsulated Black people’s ascension. Take this journey with me.
We share Earth with nearly 6,000 mammal species. Most Black people, like most people, think they know a lot about mammals from animation and pop music. But, please remember that Disney and rap music do not have the same subject matter expertise as Black people. So unfortunately, when it comes to our relationship with the wildlife around us, the problem historian Carter Goodwin Woodson wrote about in his seminal 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro continues.
Cinematic depictions in the U.S. of enslaved persons omit key aspects of their life. For example, enslaved people did not rely solely on their enslavers for rations, but supplemented their diets with wild meat such as Virginia opossums. By applying hunting skills for self-reward, those enslaved built psychological independence. Plantation owners may have believed this would save them money on food. Hunting opossums was a way for enslaved people (since opossums can be nocturnal) to explore the woods at night, which may have helped navigation and strategy for future escapes.
As they fought for freedom, transatlantic slave traders fugitives did more than hide from bounty hunters and captors. They also contributed to the nation’s economic growth. In the 1800s, Black seamen built cities through work in the whaling industry. One such city was New Bedford, Mass., where the renowned Frederick Douglass found his first home after escaping slavery. Deplorably, the contributions of former and fugitive enslaved people were marginalized, despite direct advancements like inventor Lewis Temple improved harpoon design, for which he never received credit. A common species hunted by freemen and fugitives was the sperm whale, which was most famously represented as Moby Dick.
Unfortunately, dogs have played a long role in Black trauma. White people trained dogs to track down so-called runaways to aid lynching efforts, and to terrify protestors during civil rights demonstrations. In later years, we were able to reap the rewards bestowed by “man’s best friend”. We use dogs to support agriculture activities by protecting, protecting and chasing away pests. We even draw inspiration from them for art–as evident from the painting Part Wolf by the brilliant neo-Expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. We reclaim language with “that’s my dog”–slang for a trusted friend; and the iconic growl of recently deceased rapper DMX successfully evokes the kind of intimidation that embodies the “top dog” found in the social structure of gray wolves.
Our deep connection to the land is what gives Black people a sense of pride. Many African mammals are able to help us develop empathy and respect for wildlife. For example, African elephants‘ acumen remind us that humans are not so different. They remember events and particular places with a type of mental map, and they even mourn the loss of relatives. “When Great Trees Fall,” a mourning poem by Maya Angelou, is one of many literary works by Black artists that feature elephants.
Through the years, Black people have emerged from a dark and difficult past to become fashion icons. Wearing and designing clothes with camouflage became a statement of resistance during rebellions. Fur is an emblem of wealth. Musicians including Lil Wayne, Future and Jermaine Dupri all have referenced chinchillas in their songs. They are one of the most expensive furs in the world because an extremely high fur density (hair per follicle) provides much insulation and warmth. Perhaps the most famous ode to this mammal comes from Beyonce’s 2006 hit “Ring the Alarm,” with the opening lyric saying “she gon’ be rockin’ chinchilla coats” as a symbol of confidence and independence.
Spirituality, folklore and often Christianity have served to stabilize, embolden and preserve Black Americans through the ages. Putting a famous Bible verse, Ephesians 6: 11, into practice, many of us have had to “armor up” when facing either general society or known enemies. We are proud to honor mammals that have weaponry to help them survive, such as the spines and quills of hedgehogs, porcupines, and walruses. But animals like the white-bellied pangolin, found throughout Africa, remind us that armor is often not enough. This mammal is covered with scales, but on the brink global extinction. Like the bodies of Black folks that were even more horrifically bought, sold, and traded for exploitation, pangolins are one of the most illegally trafficked animals in the world. But unlike the descendants of the formerly enslaved, who refused to be extinguished, the fate of pangolins remains unknown.
Colorism has plagued the Black community with some affording fairer-toned people better treatment, as they can often pass as non-Black. The distinction between the animal kingdom and human society is that the darkness commands respect. But now with more inclusive views of beauty, we celebrate Blackness of all shades including the classic Tupac homage “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” We are particularly drawn to the power conjured by black cats; recall Janet Jackson’s 1989 hit “Black Cat.” More recently, Marvel’s sensation Black Panther, which grossed over $1.3 billion, evoked universal pride among the Black community. Finally, we were shown with intelligence, status, and strength in a Hollywood that often portrays Black people as villains and subordinates. Of the 40 cat species worldwide, nearly half have melanistic or black color morphs. So, the term “panther” does not refer to one species, but Panthera is the genus of big cats. The black jaguar is particularly fierce, a skilled predator found throughout in the Americas. It can even kill crocodiles.
All cultures rely upon mammals for food and companionship. We revere their beauty and power. We incorporate them into our culture and customs. We even imitate their behavior, such as showing physical and material possession to attract mates and earn respect.
Recognizing the past means understanding the evolution of our relationship to and with nature over time. Juneteenth is a symbol of the rise and transformation of a nation, and that transformation has revolutionized our world. The Black American story is one of social ascension. Despite persistent inequalities, our culture has permeated all aspects of society. Our creativity, skills, and innovations are creating one the most powerful global economies. While we are aware of the importance of the past, our future will be rich and full of wealth and will that is uncoupled from wildlife.
This is an opinion and analysis a