Remembering the Empire of Brutality

By Christopher Michael Blakley

Through the brutal incident described in this blog post, Christopher Michael Blakley demonstrates the indirect ways enslaved people fought back against the dehumanization they experienced at the hands of their oppressors.

Bartholomew Dandridge, A Young Girl with an Enslaved Servant and a Dog, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

When I prepared the final draft of Empire of Brutality: Enslaved People and Animals in the British Atlantic World, several sections of the narrative I had developed surrounding enslaved people’s relationships with animals ended up on the cutting room floor. One in particular comes from the Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative Collection. The WPA Slave Narratives is an extremely valuable corpus of interviews conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project between 1936 and 1938. The interviewers sought out formerly enslaved people and asked questions about their childhood and life during slavery. While their memories were undoubtedly distorted by time, the interviews remain crucial documents of Black thought and reflection on the lived experiences of the enslaved. The narratives afford insights into a Black intellectual and environmental history, revealing in particular how Black women challenged dehumanization as an intellectual concept and a material reality.

An interview recorded with Fannie Berry, a formerly enslaved woman from Petersburg, Virginia, on 26 February 1937 reveals how enslaved people attacked their enslavers indirectly by carefully choosing animal targets. In her interview, Berry spoke of slave sales, slave patrols, and runaway slaves. She remembered comets shooting across the sky a “long, long time before I was set free,” possibly referring to the 1833 Leonid meteor shower. Yet she remembered the animals she lived alongside under her slaveholder in greater detail than the stars falling over Virginia.

Berry described her plantation mistress, who owned a “dog who could do funny tricks” to “’muse her company.” While entertaining guests, the mistress instructed the dog to bite Berry’s little brother on his toes as a form of amusement. Her brother cried as the enslaver’s guests would “laugh an’ have a good time over it.” Disgusted by her brother’s torture for the pleasure of white guests, Berry resolved to kill the dog: “I cides dat I’se gwine fix dis dog.” Secretly, she took the dog into the woods near the plantation one night, tied a rope around the animal’s neck, slung the rope over a tree branch, and hoisted the dog high in the tree. Berry “went on home myself, an’ nobody knows how long dat dog got up dat tree like dat. When dey found him he was dead and had been dead for months. I ain’t said a word ’bout it myself.”

As I show in Empire of Brutality, Berry’s choice to kill her enslaver’s dog reflects a deep understanding and reckoning with the phenomenon of dehumanization under slavery. Many slaveholders kept pet lapdogs, and it’s conceivable that other enslaved people engaged in similarly violent practices with canines as a means of striking back at their oppressors. I discuss in my book how people of African descent recognized their comparison to dogs and pushed back against such dehumanization in the early eighteenth century. Rather than see Berry’s resistance here as a singularly violent form of aggression against her enslaver, I argue that students of slavery would do well to consider it as a philosophical critique against the slaveholding class and the ideology they produced through the long eighteenth century.

The linking of Fannie Berry’s recollection with the 1833 Leonid meteor shower comes from Tiya Miles, “Packed Sacks and Pieced Quilts: Sampling Slavery’s Vast Materials,” Winterthur Portfolio 54, no. 4 (2020): 205–222. Berry’s description of hanging her mistress’s dog is excerpted from Charles L. Perdue Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1976), 45–46.

Photo of Christopher Michael Blakley

Christopher Michael Blakley teaches American and global history at California State University, Northridge, and interdisciplinary writing and research seminars at Occidental College.

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Book cover image for "Empire of Brutality"

In the early modern British Atlantic world, the comparison of enslaved people to animals, particularly dogs, cattle, or horses, was a common device used by enslavers to dehumanize and otherwise reduce the existence of the enslaved. Letters, memoirs, and philosophical treatises of the enslaved and formerly enslaved bear testament to the methods used to dehumanize them. In Empire of Brutality, Christopher Michael Blakley explores how material relationships between enslaved people and animals bolstered the intellectual dehumanization of the enslaved. By reconsidering dehumanization in the light of human–animal relations, Blakley offers new insights into the horrific institution later challenged by Black intellectuals in multiple ways.

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