Friday, September 19, 2014

Un-naming the Enslaved: Names, Identity, & Speciesism

Trigger Warning: Discussion of African slavery in the United States.

In a Huffington Post piece published today, Dr. Tukufu Zuberi (professor of Sociology and host of one of my favorite shows, History Detectives) pointed to a notebook dating to the 1700's as an excellent example of the deindividualization of enslaved persons.  The book documented its owner's business dealings and daily activities, including the trading of slaves.  Persons listed in the ledger were simply referred as "Negro male" or "Negro female."  In fact, a variety of objectifying identifiers were used during this period of history.  I have seen other ledgers where women and men are listed as "wenches" or "bucks."


Dr. Zuberi explains that, while many enslaved persons were given a first name by their owners, they were largely erased from history after death, with pitiful few records remaining (this problem turns up on History Detectives quite often when investigations into the genealogy of African American guests invariably reach a dead end).

Being nameless has important social implications. It means that a person has no identity--they are objects and resources.  They are expendable. Their lives are seen as so unimportant, that identification and record aren't worth the effort (we see a similar trend continuing today with women who are encouraged to drop their "maiden" name and have their identity subsumed under the name of her "husband").

Animal advocates see these same processes occurring with nonhuman persons as well.  Many animals kept as pets are generally given only a simple first name as a matter of easy identification, which is promptly forgotten to history after their passing.  Free-living animals remain largely anonymous, primarily conceptualized as a species, rarely individualized and even more rarely named. Cows, pigs, and other large "livestock" are identified by numbers, if identified at all.   Families raising other animals for labor or food often discourage children from naming enslaved animals for fear of anthropomorphizing them, which would disrupt their object-status.

When naming happens, there is a direct challenge to the object-status.  Names create an identity and encourage empathy.  Simpsons fans may remember the episode where Mr. Burns had plans to make a fur coat out of Santa's Little Helper's puppies.  However, he had bonded with and intended to spare "Little Monty," the only puppy to get a name.  It is harder to callously harm another being who has a name, and it's easier to want to help them.  Creating personality profiles for dogs and cats increases adoptions, for instance, and naming farm animal rescues increases donations.  Free-living animals that are identified with names are often specially protected from "hunters" or other human harms.


While it is not likely that we will ever grant full, proper names to other animals (though some animal genealogy is occasionally recorded), I think that the use of pet names for other animals continues to reflect our relationship of dominance.  Enslaved humans were sometimes named by owners, but only with first names.  Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, most freed persons simply adopted the surname of their previous owners.  Having a full and proper name meant a more serious level of individualization and a higher social status.  This is something that other animals will likely never achieve.  We will probably continue to name them "Skippy" or "Snowball" in the service of anthroparchy.

With no name or serious identification, individuals come and go and are omitted from our society's history.  Millions of nameless enslaved humans, women, impoverished persons, and other animals played pivotal roles in the progress of society, but without identity, they go without record.  A history that is socially constructed to remember only the achievements and legacy of the privileged, of course, tends to work in the service of naturalizing or normalizing social stratification.  A history without the names of the enslaved preserves inequality and will continue to disempower oppressed groups.