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Being Property Once Myself

Being Property Once Myself

Blackness and the End of Man

Joshua Bennett

ISBN 9780674980303

Publication date: 05/12/2020

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Winner of the William Sanders Scarborough Prize

A prizewinning poet argues that Blackness acts as the caesura between human and nonhuman, man and animal.

Throughout US history, Black people have been configured as sociolegal nonpersons, a subgenre of the human. Being Property Once Myself delves into the literary imagination and ethical concerns that have emerged from this experience. Each chapter tracks a specific animal figure—the rat, the cock, the mule, the dog, and the shark—in the works of Black authors such as Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesmyn Ward, and Robert Hayden. The plantation, the wilderness, the kitchenette overrun with pests, the simultaneous valuation and sale of animals and enslaved people—all are sites made unforgettable by literature in which we find Black and animal life in fraught proximity.

Joshua Bennett argues that animal figures are deployed in these texts to assert a theory of Black sociality and to combat dominant claims about the limits of personhood. Bennett also turns to the Black radical tradition to challenge the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness in discourses surrounding the environment and animals. Being Property Once Myself is an incisive work of literary criticism and a close reading of undertheorized notions of dehumanization and the Anthropocene.


  • This trenchant work of literary criticism examines the complex ways 20th- and 21st-century African American authors have written about animals. In Bennett’s analysis, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, and others subvert the racist comparisons that have ‘been used against them as a tool of derision and denigration.’…An intense and illuminating reevaluation of black literature and Western thought.

    —Ron Charles, Washington Post


  • 2020, Winner of the William Sanders Scarborough Prize


  • Joshua Bennett is Professor of Literature and Distinguished Chair of the Humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Spoken Word: A Cultural History, which was named one of The New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2023,The Study of Human Life, which is currently being adapted for television in partnership with Warner Brothers Television, Owed and The Sobbing School, winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. His writing has been published in The Best American Poetry, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Paris Review.

Book Details

  • 224 pages
  • 0-3/4 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press