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Healing Fraught History of African Americans and Dogs

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.

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