A horse is in your house: Reconfiguring our discussions in Animal Studies

Part of PAN Works’ Placing Animals Series


by Sharon P. Holland

Sharon P. Holland is the Townsend Ludington Distinguished Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She is the author of an other: a black feminist consideration of animal life (Duke University Press, 2023). She may be reached via her website here.

“There’s a horse . . . in your house.” Concrete Cowboy (2020), dir. Ricky Staub

I am a life-long lover of horses and dogs and non-human animal life. I am also a teacher of Animal Studies and I find that the best way to understand how the next generation sees the world is to work with them in a classroom. My course, “Introduction to Animal Studies: On the Question of the Animal,” takes students through the origins of work in Animal Studies — which begin, at least in the field of philosophy, with a group of graduate students questioning the moral reasoning behind the separation of (the distinction between) humans and non-human animals. I start with this work, Animals, Men, and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans (1971), created by graduate students in the 1970s so close in age to my undergraduates, in order to encourage students that revolutionary ideas don’t often come from above, but below — that they as students can dramatically reshape the world as we know it. For those graduate students in England some fifty years ago, their questions were simple ones and many of them rested upon whether it was morally okay to kill a non-human animal? They wanted to know if the answer to that question was indeed “yes,” then what was the particular moral and ethical scaffolding upon which we could hang our understanding of the difference between humans and non-humans — intelligence, sentience, or language — and how would we realize such absolute difference enough to abide by it? Out of simple questions came a revolution in philosophical thought regarding the lives of animals, human and otherwise. It is in this space that my course begins its inquiry.

Because my work is interdisciplinary and the course is housed in my home department of American Studies, our secondary and primary materials range widely from philosophy to history, to contemporary politics, to novels and newscasts. I spend a fair amount of time helping them to reorient their own idea of Animal Studies as a predominantly white discipline. For example, while many of my students have heard of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), few of my students have encountered the work of MOVE. In Philadelphia, MOVE organized themselves in Black-led, but multi-cultural spaces. Their first activist work in Philadelphia concerned protests at zoos, puppy mills and circuses in the early 1970s, thus putting their work for animal liberation almost a decade before PETA, which began in my hometown of Rockville, Maryland in 1980. I teach my students that by changing our perspectives on Black people’s involvement with non-human animal lives, we also change our perspective on how we approach the histories of human/animal interactions.

Members of MOVE in front of their house in 1978. Image Source

I also teach my students about the rich tradition of Black equestrian lives — how one of the first horse races in this country was conducted in North Carolina (where I teach) by enslaved Black men on the backs of a few fast quarter horses — that was some time in the mid-1800s. I help them trace that history through two centuries of Black riders, enslaved and freed, until Jimmy Winkfield is the last Black rider to leave the racetrack, having won the Kentucky Derby twice in his storied career. Our work with horses extends to the Continent, where Malinke people were captured and sold into slavery for their expertise in horsemanship, like their counterparts in other parts of the Continent were seized because of their skilled engineering of irrigation networks, such that their craftsmanship endures to this day in South Carolina in particular. Training, grooming, and riding horses takes a skillset, and Black equestrians shaped the sport of racing and even its hunt seat, now the preferred seat for riders across the globe. They also have left a huge imprint upon the how and why of our relationships with horses.

Jimmy Winkfield riding Alan-a-Dale in 1902. Image Source

Two-thirds of the way into my Animal Studies course, I have them watch Ricky Staub’s 2020 film, Concrete Cowboy, starring Edris Elba (Harp) and Caleb McLaughlin (Cole). The film depicts the strained relationship between father (Elba) and son (McLaughlin) as Cole is sent to stay with his father for a summer. Introduced to his father’s love of horses by encountering the horse in his father’s house, Cole slowly begins to catch on to the fact that riding is not just for show, but it is a culture among the African descended that has strong roots in Philadelphia. The film is loosely based on the “Black Cowboys” of Fletcher Street, who have had a presence in that city for over a century. I cannot help but make a connection between the work of the cowboys of Fletcher Street and the members of MOVE, whose activist life in the city made national news when the city of Philadelphia bombed the group’s headquarters on Osage Avenue on mother’s day, May 13, 1985, killing 11 people, 5 of them children. The country was recently reminded of the bombing when the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Princeton University (my alma mater), were widely criticized for both having the remains of children from the bombing and using the bones for instructional purposes in their laboratories.

When Cole arrives at his father’s home and encounters his father’s life with horses, he begins to understand Harp’s statement toward the middle of the film, “The only home I’ve ever known was on the back of a horse.” The film does so much more than just depict the lives of Black people and their relationship with horses, it challenges the very idea of the human/animal distinction. Harp’s “home” is with horses, and he also lives with one. Cole comes to realize that if he wants to truly know his father, he will have to forego the father/son relationship of Disney movies and mainstream culture and settle for the fact that his father’s first love is a horse, and his idea of “family” not only stretches beyond the human, but also might not include human beings as its center. I soon learned that like Cole, my students also needed to break free of some of their own stereotypes of Black people and the proper place for animal life and human life.

Still from Concrete Cowboy. Image Source

Each week in my course, I have students form groups of five or six and give 1–2-minute presentations about what they have learned from that day’s assignment. I also have them craft one or two questions as a take-away from their brief venture into our work for the week. I was surprised when all but one of the six students focused their questions on whether or not it was humane to keep the horses in an urban setting, with one student particularly focusing upon whether or not the horses had enough grazing area. This last question was particularly disturbing, given that Concrete Cowboy opens with a large grassy pasture the size of about one to two city blocks where the riding club horses graze. What could make students literally not see what’s before them? Moreover, students also questioned Harp’s fitness as a father, given the stilted way in which he approached his relationship with his son.

I learned a lot from this classroom experience. In particular, I witnessed that no amount of educational material or intentional recasting of prevailing histories will change sedimented ways in which primarily white students see Black people in this world. But I used this as a teaching moment for them and it was the most valuable of all. At our next meeting, I focused on the student’s forum posts (from which they drew their presentations) — I replayed the opening of the film and the urban horizon in which the horses were out standing. I also questioned their concept of “family” by asking if it were possible for them to understand Harp, as a father, but also a possibly neurodivergent person, interested in other things besides the solidification of a human family to the exclusion of all other beings/species. While we know and have come to respect what persons with non-normative or typical neuropathways and sexualities bring to our culture — my students when introducing themselves always give their pronouns, voluntarily without prompting — how do we come to see intersectional differences and not solely racial or gender-oriented ones?

I asked these questions and opened up the space for my 90 or more students to talk about how we can change what we see and how we see it. It was one of our most amazing classroom moments. Students came out about a number of likes and loves; and they challenged one another on how they saw themselves as students, as persons in our classroom, as beings on this planet. Animal Studies pushes us to think about race, sex, sexuality, gender, and species in bold ways — it allows us to think at the intersection, to imagine a world, other worlds, where the lives of non-human animals have real world-shaping capacities for how we live and love. Most importantly for me, as a person with an intersectional identity and especially as an African-descended being, the contributions of Black people to animal liberation and our national horse culture are irrefutable and so important to understand.

My work in Animal Studies and on the ways in which Black people have shaped the field continue to point out how necessary it is to unlearn histories that yield power and control to only one kind of body in the world. Recasting those histories, reimagining how we got here is what John Lewis once called, a kind of “necessary trouble.” I am glad that there is a horse in Harp’s house, as his living with animal life — he keeps the horse hoping that a former club member and friend of Cole’s will one day want to ride again — produces the occasion for us to reflect upon our own lives and the lives of the numerous marginalized “others” we attempt to regulate, control and demean, every day. Black philosophies of living — those that embrace what is outside the human — build capacity in us to love differently and often, to approach the possibility of reconfiguring our collective house, to entertain with joy the prospect of there being a horse in our house.

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