Joshunda Sanders

Joshunda Sanders is based in Washington, D.C. and has contributed to Kirkus Reviews, Salon and The Week. She tweets @jvic and blogs at joshunda.com.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Healing Fraught History of African Americans and Dogs
Becoming a dog owner helped me dispel internalized myths about black people and dogs.

Until I met Cleo, I was a recovering cat lady who didn’t believe I could be a proper dog owner. In the communities where I grew up in Philadelphia and the Bronx, dogs were not sweet, lovable companions or surrogate children, but rather, terrifying or utilitarian animals. They required more work and money and energy than cats, and I never believed I had any of those to spare.

Until I moved to New York City, I had never encountered anything like the yapping Chihuahuas I saw in the homes of my black and Latino friends, or the sleek Afghan Hounds with stylish owners who appeared to float through Central Park.

I was, however, an animal lover from a young age, probably because I was abused as a child. Rescuing animals, particularly stray cats, empowered me; I hoped it showed the universe that I was invested not just in saving myself but also, in saving other creatures.

But dogs were different. The popular-culture connection between blacks and dogs is long and violent, punctuated by indelible images of police dogs (usually German Shepherds) lunging, teeth bared, or attacking Civil Rights protesters. Added to that history, the news reported by the blog ThinkProgress.org—that in the first half of 2013, blacks and Latinos were the only ones bitten by police dogs—makes that attitude easier to understand. According to the ThinkProgress story, in the 1980s, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department reportedly referred to young blacks as “dog biscuits”—a sad legacy.

Whether or not we think dogs can be racist (a persistent Internet question), or believe that the majority of black people are inclined to repeat Michael Vick’s sins, the historical memory of and relationship between African Americans and dogs still seems fraught.

Historically, dogs have been classified as man’s best friend. But in America, manhood did not equally apply to white and black. If we were property, we could not own anything, not even an animal. The cultural adhesive that bound dogs to white people did not extend to African Americans, in part because some of us were not considered fully human enough to make best friends of beasts. There is, too, the financial responsibility of adding a pet in a context in which families historically had less disposable income to expend on the needs of a dog; it made dogs a luxury not easily afforded.

There have also been better narratives of African Americans and canine companions, especially in recent memory. As we have benefited from some of the economic effects of integration and assimilation, so, too, has our relationship with dogs.

When George Foreman went to Zaire to fight Muhammad Ali in 1974, he took his German Shepherd with him. Foreman has almost a dozen dogs, and while he was training, he told the Wall Street Journal that he enjoyed having a friend accompany him during his runs, among other things. In 2007, ESPN panelist Kevin Blackistone offered a commentary on black men and dogs for NPR, noting that Bill Cosby was a co-owner of a Dandie Dinmont named Harry who was favored to win the Westminster dog show. “And how can we forget the most-heartwarming stories from the tragedy of Katrina? They were of dog owners, mostly the working-class poor in heavily black neighborhoods like the now-famous Ninth Ward, who refused to evacuate without their four-legged loved ones,” Blackistone said.

I knew this kind of sentimental attachment. I have had it for kittens and maps, for letters and perfume gift-set boxes. I have witnessed, too, some black men in love with their dogs. As a young and serious hip hop fan, I took note of DMX (Earl Simmons), the first rapper I knew to boast about his love for dogs, and even incorporate barking as part of his rapping style, which sounds ridiculous now but was successful for him and the Ruff Ryders record label. He had a portrait of his beloved dog, Boomer, who was killed by a motorist, tattooed on his back. When I was a teenager, this relationship with dogs struck me as unusual for African Americans. (Lest I make Simmons sound like a good role model, I later learned that he had engaged in dog fighting and had both mental health and drug problems. In 2008, he was charged with cruelty to animals when Arizona officials seized a dozen underfed Pit Bulls and Pit mixes from his home.)

Thankfully, examples of black people with dogs are not all narratives of pathology and violence. As Blackistone said on NPR, “Most black folks are like me—I’ll do anything for my adopted Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Mocha.” Oprah Winfrey, probably the most famous person on the planet, is also a clear-cut dog champion. Visit Oprah.com and you’ll meet all of Winfrey’s furry companions, past and present: Cocker Spaniels Solomon, a 1994 Christmas present from Stedman Graham, and Sophie (both died in 2008). Luke, Layla and Gracie, Golden Retrievers adopted in 2006. Another Cocker, Sadie, whom Oprah adopted in 2009 from PAWS Chicago and who overcame parvovirus. For her 56th birthday, Oprah went back to PAWS and adopted Springer Spaniels Sunny and Lauren.

While a lot has been made of our first black president along symbolic, political and historical lines, the First Family has also provides us with another healing and sweet example. Not long after moving into the White House, the Obamas added Bo to their family. Then, in 2013, they gave him a little sister and playmate, Sunny. Both are Portuguese Water Dogs. Before they got Sunny, First Lady Michelle Obama told reporters that she hosted a “doggie play date” because “Bo [didn’t] have enough dog interaction,” according to the White House Blog.

In cities I’ve lived in around the country, I’ve also noted more black dog owners. This was especially evident when I moved to Austin in 2005 to work at the daily newspaper and attend graduate school. During the first few years I lived in Austin, I was far too busy for a pet. I was also incredibly lonely, confused by the liberal veneer of the place but seduced by the delicious food and the kindness and hospitality of my friends and colleagues. With about 300 sunny days a year, it was a perfect town for a runner, which I was becoming. Maybe if I had a dog to run with, I wouldn’t feel so out of place, I thought. Peer pressure also played a part.

My friends noted that I was a single woman living on my own in a less-than-pristine part of town. A photo editor at the newspaper heard that I was thinking about getting a dog, and mentioned that her friend was looking for someone to care for his dog Cleo. He had a brain tumor and was going into hospice, so he needed to find her a home quickly. I drove out to his trailer in Bastrop, wondering how my life might change if I got a dog, thinking of all the reasons I was still very much a cat lady. Then I spotted Cleo, affectionately tapping that long tail of hers. A Mastiff/Shepherd, she was the answer to my unspoken prayer.

She came to live with me and promptly took over the sturdiest couch in my home. She had a beautiful brindle coat and serious amber eyes, and was in love with the neighborhood cats; she wagged her tail in admiration whenever one strolled past us. She ran happily unless the heat was too much, and then she would stubbornly drop her 70-pound frame to the ground in the middle of the trail at Lady Bird Lake until I got the hint.

At the dog park, I noticed one other black woman who regularly brought her Boxer. My friend, Brock, also had a gigantic brown Labrador named Brixton. Spotting other black dog owners at the park was affirming; it demonstrated that not all black dog owners were as wealthy as the Obamas or Oprah, or up to anything sinister like Vick or DMX. It was a bonus to know that, whenever dogs barked at me and Cleo, it was because she was as tall as a mini-pony, not because the dogs were reactive or their owners were racist.

Cleo and I did, however, have to contend with some confused stares from people when we went places in Austin. “Only white people go everywhere with their dogs,” one of my best friends said. I carry a Moleskine planner and am a poster girl for everything listed in the book Stuff White People Like, so that was fine with me. What was weird, especially when Vick was in the news, was that I often got confused stares from people who weren’t used to seeing a black woman with a large dog. On the other hand, I might have been projecting my own self-consciousness as one of the 8 percent of Austin’s black population.

Cleo helped make Austin feel more like home to me, in part because it’s a dog’s town and she was raised in that area. But I always felt a sense of unease—a hypervisible invisibility—that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When Cleo was with me, I was okay, though people would talk to her as if I wasn’t around. But when I ran on my own, I was stared at and generally dismissed—an aberration in a largely white environment.

Cleo was aging when I got her, and by the time I grew weary of feeling isolated in Austin, her muzzle was almost completely gray. My sweet old lady was on a steady diet of antibiotics and other medication when she died suddenly at home, about a month before I left Austin to try living for a while in Washington, D.C. After she died, I mused that she would probably have hated the idea of snow. “You’re a Texas dog, honey,” I said to her. “I understand.”

We might have gotten some strange looks in D.C., too. In 2012, D.C. had the dubious distinction of being the place with the lowest rate of pet ownership in the country (Vermont had the highest, according to the 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook). The last time the American Veterinary Medical Association took a survey in 2006, just 20.2 percent of households in D.C. had pets. Anecdotally, this appears true: I saw more black people with dogs in Austin than I’ve seen during the few months I’ve lived here.

I was grateful for the many things I learned from Cleo in the time that I got to spend with her, not the least of which was the joy of her unconditional love and sweetness at a time when I needed it the most. I have been so sad and heartbroken that I still haven’t cleaned her nose marks off the inside of the car windows, where she liked to stick her head out and smile at the wind. Despite my fears about being judged as a black woman in love with dogs, glancing at my back seat where Cleo used to ride reminds me how nice it is to be pleasantly surprised, to get beyond our prejudices and love a dog … and maybe people, too.