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.)