Of barbecue & lynchings

“Animals and humans suffer and die alike ... the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel, and brutal taking of life. We don’t have to be a part of it.”

   —Dick Gregory


I’ve loved animals ever since I was a little kid. Perhaps the most accurate measure of my parents’ incredible patience during my childhood is the number of pets they allowed under their roof at any one time. I owned two iguanas, numerous chameleons, numerous small green turtles, two box turtles, several horny toads, a few other lizards (species forgotten), somewhere between five and 10 snakes, one or more hamsters, a gerbil (or two or three), a parakeet, several finches, an alligator, a giant bullfrog, several smaller frogs, a whole bunch of goldfish and tropical fish, an albino catfish and a dog. More than half of these critters I owned at once, and, believe it or not, our house wasn’t really that big. I’m pretty sure I helped the owner of our neighborhood pet store put his kids through college. Well, maybe the credit should actually go to my parents since I didn’t have a job at the time.

These days I’m traveling light, so to speak. My wife and I own two large dogs, one of which we got from the Humane Society, the other of which squeezed under the backyard fence when he was just a puppy and conned the first dog into convincing us to let him stay.

In short, I love animals. Admittedly, there are some that I’m not wild about, but, all in all, I’d consider myself an animal fan. However, after a recent trip to a particular online exhibit (www.peta.org/AnimalLiberation/display.asp) recommended by a friend who was curious what I’d think of it, maybe I don’t love animals enough. I don’t think I ever will. The Dick Gregory quote above was taken from that Web site, which is sponsored by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

Here’s another quote from the exhibit:


“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”

   —Alice Walker


Gregory, a well-known activist and comedian, is also well-known as a vegetarian. Walker, a highly respected writer, is also a vegetarian. Both are also high-profile figures in the African-American community. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most well-known and respected black leaders in modern history, is also quoted on the Web site, although I’m quite sure King wasn’t even vaguely vegetarian. Anyway, the more I scrolled through the exhibit, as a mournful sound track pleaded to my conscience from the background, the more I saw sickly disturbing comparisons being made between the inhumane treatment of animals and the inhumane treatment of African-Americans. I started to wonder about the twisted fucker who came up with the idea to compare the horrors of slavery to the “horrors” of slaughtering chickens for Colonel Sanders, or pigs for bacon bits. Honestly, I didn’t know whether to throw up or laugh out loud. These folks can’t be serious, I thought.

But they’re very serious. Throughout the exhibit are photos of tortured animals side by side with photos of black people being lynched and otherwise abused. A chicken on fire, a black man on fire surrounded by a lynch mob. A chained elephant foot, a chained slave’s foot. An overflowing slave ship, an overflowing holding pen full of shorn sheep. A man beating a seal over the head with a blunt object, a white man kicking and beating a black man surrounded by an amused crowd of fellow white males.


“Animals and humans suffer and die alike ...”


Oh, really?

I recently received a 9-minute video along with a small press release from PETA claiming that the nation’s only black-owned Universoul Circus, which I have gone to see several times since it has come to Detroit, severely mistreats many of its trained animals. The release asked that I watch the video and then consider using the information they provided to go along with any coverage I might be planning to give the circus. I haven’t yet watched the video, and I have no way of knowing whether the accusations are correct. If PETA is right, then I agree that immediate action should be taken to rectify the situation — so long as this crusade isn’t restricted to Universoul Circus and includes any and every other similar organization throughout the country.

If it’s not clear already, let me say that I can’t stand the mistreatment of animals, and I think that how we treat them is an important issue. But I sincerely hope that PETA isn’t taking special aim at the Universoul Circus simply because it is owned and operated by the descendants of slaves who were treated like animals. The difference, quite obviously, is that when a human being is treated like an animal, it doesn’t mean that he or she is an animal. In their perversely misguided attempt to elicit sympathy for abused animals from the black community by reminding us that we too were once considered property and had no rights, PETA is — perhaps unwittingly — equating the two groups. Speaking as a black person, I can honestly say that telling me my life is worth no more than that of a pig, and to say that the struggles of my ancestors were of no more consequence than the ancestors of those ribs I had for lunch, is not the best way to make me want to give that little porker a hug and a kiss.

My question is this; if PETA believes our history of slavery and oppression is a proper weapon of guilt to be used to convince more black people to become vegetarians and leave those evil ribs alone, then what is the weapon of choice for wealthy white folks? Are we going to see a Web site with angry poodles wearing diamond collars with their well-manicured paws clenched and raised demanding to be liberated to roam the wild with their brethren?

Feel free to call me guilty of discrimination, but I happen to believe that human beings are simply more important than animals. I may prefer my dogs to a whole lot of idiot human beings I could name but won’t. Yet, forced to choose between rescuing a newborn baby and either of my dogs from an oncoming car, well, I’m sorry, pups, the kid lives. Sure, that kid might grow up to join the Aryan Nation, and his parents might sooner set themselves on fire than thank a black man for saving junior, whereas my dogs love me no matter what, but that kid is a human being. I’ll let God worry about who the kid turns out to be and who his parents have the misfortune of being.

Which brings me back to comparing lynchings to barbecues. Look, some of my best friends are vegetarians. I don’t care what you eat or don’t eat, so long as you don’t get between me and my plate full of ribs, steak, lamb chops, sausage and hamburger. You mess with my meat, and the animals may live to see tomorrow, but your days on this earth are numbered, buddy.

Just one more thing: I have no way of knowing, but my guess is that the majority of PETA’s members are well-meaning white folks who want to save the animals. OK, fine. Here’s a tip, guys: You might want to do some market research before your next campaign to educate and uplift us black folk. In the meantime, you might want to leave your PETA T-shirt at home to visit Belle Isle when black folks have their grills fired up.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]