Un-naming the Enslaved: Names, Identity, & Speciesism

Names are more than personal identifiers. They are also symbolic representations of personhood. Withholding names from individuals has been an important ideological tool of oppression. The American slave trade has important history lessons for the contemporary animal liberation project.

In a Huffington Post piece, Tukufu Zuberi discusses the sociological importance of naming as exemplified in an 18th-century slaveholder’s ledger. Persons listed in the ledger were simply referred to as “Negro male” or “Negro female.”  

Zuberi explains that, while many enslaved persons were given a first name by their owners, they were largely erased from history after death without family names to link them to later generations. Being nameless has important social implications. Without an identity, persons become objects. The lives of unnamed persons are socially invisibilized.

Vegan sociologists have observed the deindividualizing effect of unnaming with nonhuman persons as well.  Many animals kept as pets are generally given only a simple first name as a matter of easy identification, which is promptly forgotten to history after their passing. Free-living animals remain largely anonymous, primarily abstracted as species. They are rarely individualized and even more rarely named. Cows, pigs, and other large “livestock” are identified by numbers, if identified at all.

When naming happens, there is a direct challenge to the object-status. Names create an identity and encourage empathy. Creating personality profiles for dogs and cats increases adoptions, for instance. Naming farmed animal rescues increases donations. Free-living animals that are identified with names are often specially protected from “hunters” or other human harms.

Even so, the use of pet names for other animals continues to reflect the relationship of dominance between human and nonhuman animals. The same was true in the American slave system. Enslaved humans were sometimes named by owners, but usually only with first names. Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, most freed persons simply adopted the surname of their previous owners.  Having a full name offered a more meaningful individualization and higher social status. Many Black American families have since taken further ownership over their names, choosing African or uniquely Black American names to detach from the legacy of slavery. 

Could Nonhuman Animals ever be granted full names? Perhaps not, yet the continued use of pet names like Skippy or Snowball surely only reinforces anthroparchal social relations.

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about vegan sociology in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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