how to compare black people and gorillas: a guide for white people, brought to you by autism

Of the autism memoirs I’ve read so far, Songs of the Gorilla Nation is the one I relate to the most. There’s a really good synopsis of it on another blog called Autist’s Corner. For the purpose of this blog, the book stands out for being written by a white working-class woman and also making honestly respectful comparisons of apes and black people. I was moved to veganism partly by comparing my Holocaust-surviving great aunt to the rats I was torturing. It’s not the analogies themselves that are offensive. I think veganism is an appropriate moral lesson to draw from the Holocaust, facilitated by a comparison that takes rats’ suffering seriously.

I’m probably the canonical example of politically correct language police (autistic pedantry for great justice), so I loved the way she made it a point to always call apes men and women:

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh introduced me to Kanzi, a bonobo man whose attempt to communicate with me moved me to tears. When I first met him, he asked me to play chase, and so we ran up and down along the fence, back and forth, him with a big bonobo smile and me slipping into my natural gorilla ways. Suddenly he stopped, grabbed the lexigram board containing the symbols he uses to communicate with, made a series of gestures, and then pointed to the lexigram board. I had to explain apologetically that I didn’t understand what he was saying. Sue and I discovered that he had realized I was a “gorilla,” had remembered seeing videos of Koko the signing gorilla, formulated the hypothesis that gorillas use signs to communicate, and then employed accurate ASL signs to ask, “You…gorilla…question?” pointing to the lexigram for “gorilla” for emphasis. No one, not even Sue, knew he had retained signs from watching the Koko video. He had gone through all of these cognitive and emotional steps to try to bridge the communication gap between us.

The argument itself:

There is a growing movement to equate the current approach to primate (and other animal) management with the human slavery practiced by the United States a century and a half ago. I agree that this is a valid comparison. The parallels are extremely compelling. Many times I have been reading a book on the justifications given for human slavery in the antebellum South or one on our current justifications for having apes in captivity, and I have had to flip to the book jacket to remember which I was reading about. The common justifications–that the beings in question are a different species, that human people benefit financially (or even medically) from their enslavement, that they are incapable of self-management, that they are far inferior on an intellectual level, that they lack souls or the capacity for spiritual understanding and enlightenment, that they are inherently dangerous and shouldn’t be allowed to live freely among us, that they are clearly physically different, repugnant, and debased–currently underpin as heated a political climate and as strident a set of opinions as they did 150 years ago.

Illustrating her own point a bit later:

My own position, and that of some of my researcher friends, is that we have created bicultural beings, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to take them all back to Africa and pretend we didn’t take them out in the first place. Beyond the philosophical problems that repatriation might prove to have, there is the pragmatic reality that no habitat exists to which we could repatriate them even if we wanted to. The habitat that does exist is overrun by the bushmeat trade, where apes are slaughtered and sold for meat–one can buy a smoked gorilla for twenty dollars in the Congo. I agree that ape families should have the right environment to raise their children, but it is up to us to provide that in a context that does not spell sure doom for them.

She doesn’t comment on the similar controversy about whether black people should all go back to Africa. Niggas was like, “Liberia? WTF is Liberia? Aw hell no! We been here longer than half these crackers.”