Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Obama’s mutt

Posted by lisagbrown on December 12, 2008

obama_dog_pictureEveryone took notice when Barack Obama uttered his now famous words,

“Shelter dogs tend to be mutts, like me…”

It was a startling moment for many reasons. Had we ever heard a president-elect speak so self-deprecatingly? Had someone with such power ever spoken about companion animal issues to such a rapt audience? And finally, what did it mean for a person of mixed heritage — the president-elect, no less — to compare his own lineage to a dog’s? These were questions that felt too big to answer in a single blog entry, too daunting to address without serious rumination. Where would I even begin?

Thankfully, Frances Bartkowski has begun to peel back the layers of meaning behind Obama’s 8 small words. In her recent post on the Columbia University Press blog, Bartkowski suggests that to understand the power of this statement, one must recognize a new form of kinship that is emerging:

Aren’t we all, if we look closely or far enough back in our genealogies, mutts? …This is our object lesson, among others, whether to follow our curiosity and desire—to kiss, or to be led by our lesser selves toward animosity, what we sometimes like to cordon off as animality. Only by letting our human-animal borders become more porous can we let the future materialize out of our mixed pasts.

In Bartkowski’s view, Obama has revealed a way of bringing animals into the fold of family, and not just as individual companions. He has introduced a kind of shared ancestry among humans and nonhumans, one that integrates our history, if not our biology.

I believe Obama’s statement is one that people will turn to time and again for guidance, inspiration and contemplation, particularly those of us who work with or for animals. His 8 words are an endless meditation on race, individuality, animality, responsibility, history, welfare, and power.

To read Bartkowski’s full blog post, visit the Columbia University Press blog by clicking here. Bartkowski’s new book, entitled Kissing Cousins: A New Kinship Bestiary, is available on the site. Look for a review of the book on Animal Inventory in the coming weeks.

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