When Chickens Come Home to Roost

Kelly Mays McDonald
Jul 9, 2016 · 3 min read
“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven’t even begun to pull the knife out. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” — Malcolm X, on the assassination of John F. Kennedy

Every night, whenever the sun is setting, no matter what chickens are doing or what the weather is, they walk back into their coop and roost for the night. Even in the wake of a natural disaster or a coop in disrepair, they still slowly trudge back to it with the setting sun to roost in whatever remains, as if by magnetic force.

There is a reason why animals are embedded in our symbolism, our vernacular and our dreams. The signifying monkey (not to be confused with the projections of white, animal over Black human supremacy that comprise the ghost of Harambe) serves as one of the most prescient symbols of Black solidarity. Even domestic animals, in their varying degrees of docility, offer us lessons in how to tell time, how to connect with climate, how to break free of gender, how to arm ourselves. They are the harbingers of eugenics and genocide, as the illegality of pit bulls in public housing and affordable apartments have hastened gentrification in the cities we’ve fought to live in for generations.

My lifelong fascination with animal behavior is in direct opposition to the fact that the field is so limited. Experts don’t understand 99% of why animals do what they do, and can only provide best guesses based on context cues. Yet there is so much that we can learn from animals — and in reality, the mechanics of “why” they perform actions and rituals is less significant than the “when”.

Traditional Knowledge, sometimes referred to as Indigenous Knowledge, is defined as “know-how, skills and practices that are developed, sustained and passed on from generation to generation within a community, often forming part of its cultural or spiritual identity.” TK is unique in that it makes space for not only our elders, but our own senses — the instincts which we hold in our bones and our blood from generations of connectivity to our prey, our herds, our land, and our climate.

When we make space for our TK to exist alongside our scientific observation, we give ourselves the intellectual space to be mystified by natural patterns as well as to coexist alongside the data we gather without temptation to categorize. It is only when we step back to observe — to feel the sticks break under our feet, to smell the incoming rain, and to pluck the tender stem of a dandelion blossoming in the pavement to watch the white bitter sap ooze out into the bleary city sun — that we can begin to understand our purpose and intentions as people who were kidnapped here to harness this genius to inflict the violence of Eurocentric monocultures that uphold capitalist trade.

Photos from a hiking trip led by Rue Mapp of Outdoor Afro. Hiker Dara Udoh steps down a rock slope at Mary Jane Falls on Saturday, June 25, 2016 in Mount Charleston. Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal

To embrace TK as a Black person in this country has been a radical act since Amerika’s inception. And so we see sparks of TK in our oral traditions, whispers of West African landscapes and secret histories of our own rebellion in escape (coded transmissions of self-defense strategies to defeat the slave-tracking hounds that trampled across swamps and thickets to tear us down from trees).

Denying our connection to intuitive knowledge is crippling us.
It cements our reliance on capitalism.
If we don’t see the coyote wandering the foothills, the growth of a flower towards the sun, we don’t see ourselves.

To cut ourselves off from the earth is to allow capitalists to rape it with impunity, to embolden soybean and corn plantation owners who enslave unhoused, undocumented people to tend their untenable monocultures. And to erase our connection to these rhythms allows enemies masquerading as allies to “conserve it” as unnatural capitalist simulacrums.

Black Cowboy in Oakland, California. Photo by Katrina Davis Photography

What do we do?

We prepare for battle.
We love our friends.
We build community.
We connect to our world — and through it, our ancestors.

And what of the chickens?

The chickens will always come home to roost.


To learn more about the power of Traditional Knowledge existing alongside scientific analysis and our understanding of the natural world, look to the work of Candis Callison: https://www.dukeupress.edu/How-Climate-Change-Comes-to-Matter

Kelly Mays McDonald

Written by

Writing on animals and society: bylines at @Motherboard, @TheAwl, @TheToast. kellyknowsdogs[at]gmail ☭

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