Raccoons are woodland creatures that have become acclimated to urban areas, so you may have seen a few in Houston. Author Daniel Heath Justice delves into this mysterious creature’s history (and its various reputations over the centuries) in Raccoon, the 100th book in Reaktion Books’ Animal series that’s being released on June 14.
Justice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who identifies as “Indigiqueer,” researched and wrote Raccoon over a five-year period. It’s his second book for the series, the first one being Badger. A professor of First Nations and Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, his academic training is in literary history and criticism, but his publishing history includes the sprawling fantasy novel The Way of Thorn and Thunder. For that project, Justice created a fictional matriarchal society loosely based on Cherokee culture, instead of relying on the usual Medieval Europe fantasy tropes. The breadth of his published works can be appreciated by searching in most any online bookstore.
The Way to Raccoon
Justice first became aware of the Reaktion Animal series when he picked up their volume Fox. He found it fun and quirky, and also deeply interesting and informative. As he explored other volumes in the series, he began to imagine writing a volume of his own.
“I’ve always enjoyed cultural histories where you can do a deep dive into a single topic,” he says. “I’m a literary historian, so there are those connections.” Justice’s first book was on Cherokee literature, and he brought that experience of exploring a narrow topic to his proposal for Badger.
Justice laughs as he recalls becoming obsessed with badgers while working on that book. After it was published, he hinted to his husband that he might like to do another volume for Reaktion’s Animal series. His otherwise supportive husband responded by asking Justice to “not ruin another animal” for him. But after Justice attended a symposium for all the authors in the Animal series, his husband saw the joy that it brought him and expressed support for Justice to author another book. Justice responded, “I’m so glad you said so because I’ve already finished my proposal for Raccoon!”
Justice notes, “The animals that often appeal to me are the ones that are on the margins, who inhabit an anomalous position in the world.” He sees a connection between this interest and his interest in Indigenous and queer rights. “I’m not saying it’s the same thing, by any means,” he says, “but the kinds of questions I asked about the animals are the kinds of questions I ask about lot of human communities, in terms of their relationships to structures of power.”
Racial Epithets and Rocket Ships
The book provides some fascinating background on early encounters between European settlers and raccoons, which are only native to the North American continent. Justice also uncovered a few Indigenous references to raccoons from the pre-colonization era.
Two chapters, in particular, are of special interest in the current cultural moment. One chapter explores the term coon (a shortened slang version of raccoon) that is used as a racial epithet for Black people. Justice admits some hesitancy in delving into that topic. “I went back and forth, and in the end I just thought that I couldn’t justify doing an entire cultural history of raccoons [without including] this part of the conversation. It’s really easy for people who aren’t Black to do violence [with their] research in this area. My one hope is that, at the very least, I don’t do harm with that chapter.”
To his surprise, Justice discovered that the term coon had an even earlier usage as a term for wily rural white people, and particularly the ones who went into politics. Some politicians (most famously Davy Crockett) co-opted the term as a positive trait. The shift to its use as a racially loaded term didn’t occur until the rise of American minstrelsy and blackface performers. From there, the “rural white” connotation disappeared as it was replaced with its current ugly and violent connotation.
“It’s not as easy as saying raccoon became a racial epithet,” Justice explains. “It didn’t happen organically. It happened because of white supremacists choosing to do that.”
The other books in the Animal series are heavily illustrated, but Justice made a decision (which his editor agreed with) to not use the most violent images he came across in his research. He describes some of those violent images in the book, but he didn’t want to traumatize readers by including the visuals. “That was the hardest chapter to work on, both intellectually and emotionally,” he says, recalling his need to put those disturbing images behind him. “I actually put the book aside for a few months.”
The other chapter of note deals with the representation of raccoons in various media, and particularly in movies. They have appeared in many animated and live-action films, but in recent years the popularity of the Marvel Universe movies has made a star of Rocket Raccoon. Justice delves into this popular character, noting that his original portrayal in the comics was less roguish and more chivalrous. It wasn’t until the movies appeared that Rocket Raccoon became a more stereotypical “outlaw.”
“In the comics, you can have a character who becomes very different under [various] artists and writers, but it’s still seen as the same character,” Justice observes. Referring to the origin of the Rocket Raccoon character in the comics, he admits that it was a befuddling sequence of events. “Trying to write about it in any way that made sense was quite challenging. It’s a trip!”
Raccoons, Humans, and the Future
In summation, Justice noted that raccoons, unlike some species, have a future. “Another thing that has come up in the research is just how much they have managed to thrive in spite of (and maybe, in part, because of) us,” Justice concludes. “The racoon population is increasing rather than decreasing.”
Referring back to his earlier animal subject, he says, “Badgers are not thriving because of humans. But raccoons? They’re doing okay.”
For more information on Daniel Heath Justice, visit danielheathjustice.com.