Personal Ornithology: The Critical Convergence of Bird and Human Identity
John James Audubon was a genius; an übertalented artist and hyperobservant naturalist who would shape the way we see birds, nature, and wildness far beyond the mid-nineteenth-century apex of his woods-wandering ways. The name is synonymous with feathers. His Birds of America is a holy ornithological tome that has no equal. A treasure rare as a dodo, a double-elephant folio, John James’s massive Great Pyrenees–sized magnum opus portraying most birds as life-size will fetch extravagant sums at auction. But there’s more to our hero.
John James Audubon was also a despicable braggart racist bird killer. A true man of his time who sought fame at the expense of others, especially those not white or male. He fabricated, exaggerated, enslaved Black people, and robbed Indigenous gravesites. Though dead more than two centuries before cell phones, John James would have posted selfies constantly and tweeted obsessively, touting his own birder greatness—even as he laid waste to what he loved.
Some questions to consider: Does an ability to identify birds excuse an abhorrent personality? Should talent and fame whitewash racism and hate? What do we owe the birds that bear hateful human names? Perhaps let them be who and what they are—known by habitat, behavior, appearance, or place. John James Audubon was one man, talented and terrible, a flesh-and-bone monument for many nature enthusiasts. A man beyond reproach for some, today his remains molder in Harlem, surrounded by many of the people he believed less than human but with whom he may have shared some genome. Justice is served, J.J., crow-style. Tweet that.
J. Drew Lanham