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(Black) (Queer) Love

Sharon P. Holland

Callaloo, Volume 36, Number 3, Summer 2013, pp. 658-668 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University PressDOI: 10.1353/cal.2013.0151

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Sharon P. Holland



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659Callaloo 36.3 (2013) 659–668


by Sharon P. Holland

I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it”—Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

When an animal gets sick here, they plug it into the wall.—Hushpuppy, from Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Kill Shot

It makes me sad to admit it, but I missed the particular planetary conversion that caused Buffy fever. Just like in high school, I was tuned into another vibe altogether when dinner conversations moved into Buffy-lore; I felt embarrassed by my own ignorance. But, like any twenty-first century multiple-episode watching machine, I have been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes on and off since the beginning of the summer. In one particular moment, Spike, a knock off of Sid Vicious only with real fangs, tries to school Buffy on her “friendship” with rival vampire “Angel”: “You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love til it kills you both. You’ll fight and you’ll shag and you’ll hate each other til it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains children it’s blood screaming inside you to work its will.” I love Spike. Leave it to the undead to get the hu-man right. Among the definitions of love, his rings truer for me than others because he does have a point about a certain kind of love—the one that straddles the line of hate so fiercely that it shocks you with its appetite for more of the same, please. In more ways than I can count this thing called black love has been packaged for us and on more than one occasion by us as a harsh and cruel thing. It is the forest that grows up between Sethe and Paul D in Beloved (“you got two feet Sethe, not four”), or the ships at a distance in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes; it is the kind of love contoured by the demands of the state in John Berry’s Claudine or fractured by misogyny’s consistent allure in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. “Screaming inside you to work its will” indeed. What cable dramas like Buffy or even True Blood open up for us is the possibility of l’amour fou—a kind of love beyond our control and marked by the presence of the undead, thus taking on the ques-tion of relation, of love outside the boundary of the human. Having placed the category


Scene from The Horse


of the human in a rather uncomfortable predicament vis-à-vis love, I would like to travel through this rather thorny terrain.

In Charles Burnett’s 1973 short film (13:50), The Horse, the first long shot is of two human figures and a horse in a very dry field next to a rapidly dilapidating two-story clapboard house.1 Music from Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (for voice and orchestra) plays in the background. Despite the idyllic and hopeful notes in the piece, despite the trace of James Agee’s now famous quote about his boyhood in Tennessee as a period of his life where he was “so successfully disguised to myself, as a child,” the scene is menac-ing in its stillness. The second shot is of a pair of wingtips worn by one of the three white men gathered on the still-standing porch; two talk to one another while the other paces back and forth. Elevated above the parched scene, the men converse and the scene moves to a yet another white man William (Gordon Houston) in a field rubbing his head. The next shot is of the back of a black boy (Maury Wright) rubbing the belly and shoulder of a beautiful, but undernourished dark bay horse.

The scene is one of slow deprivation and hardship, with the fancy shoes and socks and the shiny coat of the horse the only measure of opulence in the film. In the midst of the boy’s tender care of the horse’s bites, the scene cuts to Walter of the fancy shoes shouting to William, the white man in the first scene and the obvious owner of the horse:



Walter: “William, I ain’t got all shitting day. West? Lee? How long are you gonna stay out here. You gettin’ way in the hell out here to see a damn old horse get put away. . . Where did that boy come from?”

Lee: “That’s Ray’s boy.” Walter: “Why in the hell do we have to wait for some damn

nigger? Anyone of us could do it?” West to Walter: “Will is getting sick and tired of hearing your voice!”

The creaking of an empty silo is the only background sound in this scene, attesting to Burnett’s commitment to using direct sound. The black boy leads the horse (this one is a chestnut, so not sure what happened to the bay, except that more than one animal is usu-ally used in the course of any given film) back to what looks like a barn. In the next shot it is dusk and before the barn we see a cross and behind it a car driving down the road. A black man gets out— it is “Ray,” (Larry Clark, also the Assistant Cameraman) the “damn nigger” mentioned earlier and the boy’s father. The boy runs to him and they embrace. William retrieves the gun from the back of the car, loads it, and hands it to Ray. All four: horse, men, and boy walk out of the shot. The boy stands with his hands over his ears, waiting for the gunshot. Just when he lifts his head to look, Ray fires. When it comes, the sound is loud, final, and concludes the scene. The boy flinches as we flinch.

The opening scene of the men on the porch is composed as if the viewer were at an auction, one staged for the selling of black and animal bodies—a conflagration of parts and beings that is purposely juxtaposed in the film. It is a staging reminiscent of Alice Walker’s attempt to see human experience through the psychic life of a horse pastured in a field next to her home in the short story, “Am I Blue?” The “white” horse, “Blue” is, at first, alone. After a few months, he is put with a mare to mate. The lonely Blue, or so Walker imagines, tastes companionship and then faces loneliness again when the mare is removed, his purpose having been accomplished through her conception. Walker ob-serves, “If I had been born into slavery, and my partner had been sold or killed, my eyes would have looked like that” (Walker 7). For Walker, the horse is imagined as a symbol in an essay that is a meditation about freedom and American cultural practices. Instead of marking the horse’s eye, the animal’s life is evacuated for her own affective turn: “my eyes would have looked like that.” In Burnett’s film, the horse provides the occasion for whiteness and blackness to communicate. It mediates the scene of capital’s transmuta-tion—from horseflesh to horse meat, from human life to bare life. In Burnett’s spare narrative, the relationship between human and animal fails to be limited by the solely representational. For Burnett, the affective life between human and animal—even in the midst of the taking of life—outstrips the claims of the market with its raised platform and its wing-tipped dandy.

As many of us know, his most noted feature is Killer of Sheep, shot in 1973, but not released until 1977. What is it about Burnett and the killing of animals? Killer of Sheep is a spare black and white film about a black worker (Stan, played by Henry Gayle Sand-ers) in one of south central Los Angeles’s many slaughter houses (Solano Meats) in the 1970s. Many critics have engaged the meaning of Burnett’s choice of labor for the film. It is obvious that the kind of work that the main character Stan performs has contributed to his depression, manifested primarily through his sexual alienation from his wife (Kaycee


Scene from Killer of Sheep


Moore) and from his family, more generally. Interestingly enough, despite the number of stray dogs we hear throughout the film (always off camera for the most part), the only other direct connection to an animal (besides the sheep, of course) portrayed in the film is when Stan’s daughter (played by Burnett’s own daughter, Angela Burnett) dons an animal mask. The brief scene of her looking at him, his looking at her, her looking at us, is riveting and disturbing, and mediated by the gaze-less gaze of the bizarre dogface.

Moreover, her stare, the dogface, and the hand in her mouth confuse the boundary between human/animal, adolescence and childhood. It is clear that Burnett wants us to understand the fraught connection between blackness and the animal, as the animal gaze is a literal mask, a literal silent film through which father and daughter speak, or at least catch sight of one another. It is also a very heavy-handed way of pointing out just how much the animal means to one father and his family. In the end, the scene speaks volumes to the principle emotional action of the film: Stan is being slowly demoralized by his work on the killing floor of the abattoir.2 But while scenes of a depressed domestic life are cut with scenes of animal slaughter, we do not know about Stan’s killing presence until the last frames of the film. What we do know is that Stan (potential killer of sheep), is preparing sheep, not lambs, for slaughter and consumption, so that he is not taking babies less than twelve months old to slaughter, but adults for their wool (not lambswool, so therefore not as marketable) and their meat (mutton not lamb, good for dog food, but not human



consumption). In other words, even the market toward which his labor is directed is a second-tier market for both products: material and meat.

In her explication of the film, critic Paula Massood remarks that “Stan’s dehumanizing and bloody job” is a result of “literal capitalist violence” (37). In many ways, the relation-ship between blackness and the animal is figurative, as in Walker’s discussion of the lonely “Blue.” The violence of killing animals has its motive force in the demands of capital, rather than human endeavor. In a 1993-1994 interview with Burnett, Aida A. Hozic notes that Stan’s “existence is as bounded by invisible threads of hopelessness as that of the sheep that he is forced to kill each day” (471). Again, the affective relationship between black being and the animal is rendered in terms of “force,” indicating that if Stan had a choice he would not be the killer of sheep. The animal here is a symbolic stand-in whose parallel helplessness is doubly precarious as it relies on the helplessness of the other. Interestingly enough, Massood sees the slaughterhouse scenes as filled with ease of movement apart from the rather static domestic ones. Does Massood mean to suggest that Stan is happier at work, that he likes killing sheep? My point here is not to answer this question so much as point to the fact that the jury is still out as to how critics can make the animal matter in discussions of the film.

But there is another way in which capitalist violence is marked in the Hozic interview when Burnett talks about his childhood in Los Angeles:

When I was growing up in LA . . . People had the prospect of own-ing their own homes. It was not a dream, it was possible. All that now seems just impossible, particularly for Blacks. There was this exposé about banks not lending money to black people who certainly qualify for the loans; these institutions help create these all-white areas, these Black islands, and then they wonder “Why? What’s the problem with these people?” . . . There are all of these underlying ownership and housing laws which prevent inter-racial contacts. For instance, if you look at deeds on a lot of homes in Los Angeles, you will find that they stipulate that the houses cannot be sold to non-whites, and that is what makes the racial situation in this city so volatile and so precarious—the problem is there, but people do not want to confront it, they want to maintain the illusion of the melting pot. (473)3

Burnett pinpoints the consistent economic disenfranchisement of black peoples, a fact realized, almost off-handedly, through the language of an “exposé.” The “literal capital-ist violence” that Massood alludes to is not just present in Stan’s current occupation, but an historical constant. This indicates that what Stan struggles against literally cannot be depicted in the film. As Massood argues, “Stan labors but he will never get ahead” (38). His line of work is not just a mirror of the affective life of capital. I would argue that his affective life is bound to the animal, as a being to be reckoned with, to be managed. The killing of sheep in the film is interminable; the scenes of sheep going to slaughter appear never-ending. Thinking through the animal in Killer of Sheep might provide the occasion to rethink the human, as the idea of getting-ahead, of overcoming in some way is central to the distinction between human and animal, at least philosophically speaking.



Massood’s comment that Stan’s labor is unfruitful is mirrored in Elizabeth Povinelli’s evocation of the film’s narrative of persistence. She asks:

And how do we explain why some people keep on getting on while others do not? Why, in Killer of Sheep, does Stan persist beyond the point of exhaustion for other people in his neighborhood? Muscle and will, effort and endurance: what do we imagine are the social origins of these practical concepts? How are they a part of the technology of power and the ethics of substance that should interest us? (110)

In fact, at an earlier point in her argument, Povinelli argues that the film arises during the same period in which “PETA, Earth First!, the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front” came into being. Interestingly enough, we see that the film is coterminous with a discourse about the earth’s potentiality (in ruin), but are we allowed to see the film as part of that discourse on the animal and its liberation? Could we see Killer of Sheep as contribut-ing if not defining this discourse? One has to wonder again, why this type of labor (animal slaughter) in the film? There is little room in criticism to make the point that it is the killing of animals that bothers Stan in Killer of Sheep, rather than solely the lack of overcoming, of an ability to get ahead. Our failure to see the relationship to the animal as key to the relationship to the human creates an interesting blindside in theoretical work on blackness and the category of the human. Povinelli defines the action of the scenes in the abattoir: “the slaughterhouse is Fordist in its mode of production, racist in its stratification of skills” (102). As I noted earlier, in Killer of Sheep Burnett withholds the kill shot to the very end of the movie; it is there that we finally see Stan actually point the gun and deliver death to the expectant animal. Povinelli seems to interpret his job in the abattoir from earlier scenes of Stan sweeping and cleaning buckets of offal, but in reality he has the cleanest job in the factory: he hangs and shoots/stuns the animal, preparing it for the throat slitting, skinning, and dismemberment that is arguably the worst part of the Fordist machine.4 It is at the point of closure that the film acquires its title. In addition, this naming comes on the heels of a somewhat cheerful domestic scene where Stan appears to be able to relax with his family. The tension seeps out of the film, once the animal is literally put down.

Given these observations, I would like to open up another possibility here—one that includes the capacity for another kind of black love, a queer love, if you will. I read the constant reiteration of the animal/human in Burnett and in black life as a call to think through both our attachment to the human in our explications of blackness and the historical understanding of our relationship to the animal, and perhaps, the vicissitudes of capital.


The animal is that from which the human tentatively and precari-ously emerges; the animal is that inhuman destination to which the human always tends. The animal surrounds the human at both ends: it is the origin and the end of humanity.

—Elizabeth Grosz, Becoming Animal



I sit down next to the fire and discover my livery for the first time. It is in fact ugly. I won’t go on because who can tell me what beauty is?

—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

In the last decades of the twentieth century, several black critics invoked the very con-cept of love as a cure-all for what ailed black community. This section takes a very brief look at that rhetoric and its grounding in aesthetics to understand how love is categorized as a universal ideal in the making of “political agent[s].” bell hooks and Cornel West in-voke beauty in the service of the political with his pronouncement that “Aesthetics have substantial political consequences. How one views oneself as beautiful or not beautiful or desirable or not desirable has deep consequences in terms of one’s feelings of self-worth and one’s capacity to be a political agent” (hooks and West 117).

Beginning with hooks and West’s idea of redemptive love in the face of overwhelming state control, I briefly ground my observations of the concept of “love” in an understand-ing of aesthetics. If blackness is considered the non-redemptive partner in the two-sided coin that determines what is procreative relation and what is not, then how to approach an idea of love that can be considered transformative or generative for black being? In many ways, the very idea of black love is outside the transformative power of love itself. In their assessment, (black) love cannot be achieved without attention to the self. Self-love therefore produces the kind of political efficacy necessary to black community survival. It is an old and odd rhetoric to be sure, but a necessary one in West’s vision of black political life. In theory, blackness, in all of its aesthetic might, has the power to mark, to make injury (to itself, to others), but it does not have the power to sustain, to create, or to participate in the world-making possibility that is love itself.5 This love, in hooks and West’s formulation, is first and foremost, self-generating, rather than acquired through connection with another. For blackness, the very foundation of generative love proceeds from a sense that something in the self is broken and needs repair; such could be said for female gender for it proceeds from the position of injury and brokenness—from a sense of something having been lost.

For the purposes of this presentation I want to move to a brief moment in French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s work The Animal that Therefore I Am. Derrida notes—and this response is generated after a cursory reading of Descartes: “There is therefore neither socialization, political constitution, nor politics itself without the principle of domestication of the wild animal. The idea of an animal that claimed to break with this power to command beasts, to order the becoming-livestock of the beast, would be absurd and contradictory. Politics supposes livestock” (Derrida 96, emphasis added). What an interesting way to get to politics. What does Derrida mean here? That politics is totally dependent upon our abil-ity to domesticate the wild animal because this demonstrates a person who is in control, composed, ready for the world, right? Furthermore, the necessity of the wild animal’s domestication to the very idea of the political can be seen most clearly, for example, in the New York Central Park rape case where black and Latino youths were convicted and incarcerated for a crime they did not commit while politicians staked their re-elections on the fact that they could govern this thing called “wilding” that the kids supposedly were



engaged in. Subduing and/or mastering (black/brown) beasts in the wild is evidence of one’s ability to enter into that thing called “the political.”

That last phrase from Derrida—”politics supposes livestock”—turns upon his idea of management, as now the wild animal is a living thing kept for sale. Is anyone thinking chattel here? Think of our current “farmer’s market” where food as livestock is being managed but badly: as management now is more politically correct when it cannot be seen, when the storefront looks tidy and all the bad things—the kill shot, the offal sold in bulk, the hooves off to be boiled into gelatin—are out of the way of the consumer and replaced by styrofoam and cellophane. In Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Stan is part of that food chain, managing livestock at its death and beyond. But let’s reflect upon Burnett’s short in the context of Derrida’s statement that the “idea of an animal that claimed to break with this power to command beast, to order the becoming-livestock of the beast, would be absurd and contradictory” (96). Human being that refuses mastery over the animal is an absurdity, yes, but what becomes of black bodies in this web of management and mastery? Is the animal a symbol of Stan’s ability to master, or is his presence at the end of the film as the killer of sheep, rather than the factory floor sweep—a role which when juxtaposed with the final scene of his family’s return from a ruined outing to the race track, of all places, elicits a smile from him—a symbol of his lack of humanity, in the ethical sense? I am sug-gesting here that his relationship with the animal troubles the critical outcomes for both questions asked here.

At another moment in his lecture on the human/animal distinction and its philosophical trajectory through Levinas, Lacan, and Foucault, Derrida notes: “I am saying ‘they,’ ‘what they call an animal,’ in order to mark clearly the fact that I have always secretly exempted myself from that world, and my whole history in truth everything I am, seems to me to be born from that exceptionalism and incited by that sentiment of election” (62). For Derrida, to even think “the animal” is to remove oneself from the possibility of being an animal; that removal is both the insult and the impediment, right? It is the problem—the gesture at the heart of approaching the ethical commitment of blackness to the animal. My point here is simple: if to even think the animal is to do so at a pleasant remove, in a discourse that compounds the predicament of proximity being laid before us, then it is time to seriously rethink our engagement with categories of the “human.” Blackness provides a unique opportunity to think through this problem of proximity and removal, as “it” is both on par with the animal and paired with it, taxonomically speaking.

Horse and Race

Politics supposes livestock. The questions asked but not necessarily answered in the previous section have always been personal to me because of my running love affair with the horse—a species of animal both magnificent and awe-inspiring, both livestock and treasured pet. As a black woman loving horses, I began to return to those earlier ques-tions I posed about blackness, ethics, and colonialism to think through the black presence in the life of both the equestrian barn and high stakes racetrack. It was then that I began to think about Eddie Sweat, groomer and friend to the great race horse Secretariat who



won the Belmont stakes by over 20 lengths—a feat never repeated by another horse in triple crown history; or the first jockey to win the inaugural Kentucky Derby (May 17, 1875), Oliver Lewis, a black Kentucky native.6 In times where black commitment to the animal is drawn with the face of Michael Vick and his fighting dogs, it is hard to conceive of relations between blackness and the animal in not-so-static ways.

I begin my ruminations on racing, horses, and blackness with the Disney vehicle, Sec-retariat. Andrew O’Hehir sparked an international controversy when the Salon reporter dared to observe that the film was: “a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propa-ganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl . . . [about how] all right-thinking Americans are united in their adoration of a Nietzschean Überhorse.” After a vociferous rebuttal from none other than the late Roger Ebert, who defends the movie and the horse, O’Hehir still maintained his suggestion that Secretariat’s “idealised vision of normal life” represents a “fantasia of American whiteness and power.” Not many critics noticed the character of Eddie Sweat, Secretariat’s groomsman, brilliantly cast with Nelson Ellis of HBO’s True-blood.7 In the movie version, Sweat, originally from South Carolina—the “low country” among Eastern shore riders—was described as someone who never wanted to and rarely did leave his side during the period in which Secretariat became one of the world’s best horses. Ask on any track who knows the horse, and everyone will tell you: the grooms. In many ways, that connection is captured in the national book award winner, Lord of Misrule (Jaimy Gordon, 2010). What is there to say here about blackness’s enduring love for/management of the horse? Can Sweat’s relationship to the now famous chestnut tell us anything about the problem of thingness and brokenness that comprises the ethical for blackness? Can Gordon’s haunting use of poetic race-track diction and the voice of yet another black groomsman / trainer tell us anything about how blackness and the horse script one another, rely upon one another in some small corner of the planet where hu-man meets animal again and again? This question is perhaps at the heart of my project.

My ultimate hope in this series of speculative observations culled from my next book project, Perishment, and stemming from love to livestock would be to ask more specific questions indeed: if we can trace through the example of the racetrack and the horse some ethical relationship between blackness and the animal what would the contours of such a relationship look like? Does that relationship script black love, black attachment in ways that we are only now able to see? And finally, what is the nature of the boundary read as black/animal? Is there such a thing?


March 2010. I am on my way to the far field with Alyx behind me. When we arrive at the gate, the cacophony of crickets and frogs counterbalances the absolute calm of a Carolina blue sunset happening just over our shoulders. The gray mare “comes round” so that I can say goodbye and hand her over to her friends. It is some seconds before I realize that something is wrong. Alyx lurches backward with a whine; I am still puzzled, although I now realize that my body seems to be working in slow motion. Alyx catches my eye and it finally dawns on me: we are being shocked by the electric fence. I yank the metal end



of the rope from the fence and call her to me, just close enough to remove the steel chain from the three loops in her halter. She spins and just before she turns she looks at me as if to say: “What in the hell has gotten into you? What was that for?” (For several weeks after she will give me that same look each time I remove the chain around her nose and turn her out). But in that moment, I cannot respond to her; my pulse is thready and I am exhausted from the ride, the cool-out, the mucking, and yes, the electricity between us.


1. The cameraman on the film is Ian Conner. 2. My contention here is in direct contradistinction to the work of Nathan Grant who believes that “it

is not his job at the slaughterhouse that is responsible for his state of ennui” (qtd. in Massood 35). 3. Burnett might be referring to a two-part article run by the Los Angeles Times in 1992, one of which

(September 8) was written by Robert A. Rosenblatt and was entitled, “Home Loan Gap: Banks Are Behind in S&L Lending to Minorities.”

4. See Brantz, who observes,

the most important of these inventions was the two-story disassembly line. In-vented in Cincinnati but perfected in Chicago, the disassembly line gave Henry Ford his ideas for a prototype for car production. It consisted of an overhead rail system by which animals were hoisted and moved through compartmentalized workstations, where one man would slit the animal’s throat, another would tear off its hide, a third split the carcass, and on and on until the dressed carcass was hoisted into a rail car and sent on its way to consumers.

5. About aesthetic value and natural qualities, Goldberg attests: “Those critics committed to the moral irrelevance of race tend to assume that racists inevitably combine these two strains, aesthetic values and natural qualities, into a spurious casual principle” (31).

6. See Hotaling. 7. The movie was scripted from the 1975 William Neck book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. In

The Horse God Built, Lawrence Scanlan attempts to set the record straight by thinking through the importance of black groomsman Eddie Sweat to Secretariat’s successful run for the Triple Crown.


Brantz, Dorothee. “Recollecting the Slaughterhouse.” Cabinet 4 (2001). Web. 17 July 2013. .

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal that Therefore I Am. Trans. David Wills. New York: Fordham UP, 2008. hooks, bell, and Cornel West. Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life. Boston: South End Press, 1991.Hotaling, Edward. The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America’s First

National Sport. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.Hozic, Aida A. “The House I Live In: An Interview with Charles Burnett.” Callaloo 17.2 (1994): 471-87.Massood, Paula J. “An Aesthetic Appropriate to Conditions: Killer of Sheep, (Neo)Realism, and the Docu-

mentary Impulse.” Wide Angle 21.4 (1999): 20-41.O’Hehir, Andrew. “’Secretariat’: A gorgeous, creepy American myth.” 6 Oct. 2010. Web. 29 July

2013. .Povinelli, Elizabeth A. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham:

Duke UP, 2011.Walker, Alice. “Am I Blue?” Living By the Word: Selected Writings 1973-1987. New York: Mariner Books,

1989. 137-42.

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