The cat became a member of my household five months ago. He is totally black, and has yellow-greenish eyes. He is also very needy, and restless, and has a memory that's full of holes. I'm certain the cat is daft, slow, fickle, lives almost entirely in the present. At first, I attributed these failings to his young age, but I have not noticed in the past few months, as he's grown older, an inch of improvement in his behavior. Aging is having no effect on his bad habits. The black cat continues to jump on the kitchen counter, despite it being made clear that he shouldn't. If you spray water on him to discourage this impulse (jumping on the kitchen counter), he just stares at you with completely blank eyes. He has no idea that he is supposed to not like water. My other cat—which is not black, and so I call her the not-black cat (I do not believe in giving pets names)—hates water. She gets it. No water squirt if I do not jump on the kitchen counter. But my black cat. What's his problem?
There are even times when his restlessness (I'm running here, I'm tearing apart that, I'm knocking down this) is so distracting, I have to place him in the laundry room for a break, for a moment of peace. The black cat also knows I like the not-black cat much more than him. The not-black cat also dislikes the black cat. She hisses at him whenever he tries to get close to her. My interpretation of these hisses: "Stay away from me, you dumb black cat! And stop trying to touch my tail! And why don't you just die, already!"
Lately, however, I have been concerned about my favoritism. Is it racially motivated? Do I side with the not-black cat because it is not black?
Do my negative feelings toward the new cat represent a form of self-hate? Living in a society that treats blacks as the criminal class, as inherently poor, as culturally and intellectually inferior, means that whether you are white or black, you code the blackness in this way? Why do I hate my black cat?
Danny Lewis of the Smithsonian writes:
The idea that black cats bring bad luck is a total myth, but that doesn’t mean these solid-colored kitties have an easy time getting adopted. All the superstitions surrounding black cats have a real effect on finding them a home, giving these kitties some of the lowest adoption rates and the highest euthanasia rates out of all furry felines. However, if you’re looking to give a lonely black cat a forever home, you might have to wait until after Halloween is over. That's for their own protection, though.The writer says two things that are worth considering. One, no one knows where the superstition surrounding black cats came from. And two, "many animal shelters have refused to adopt out black cats on or right before Halloween out of fear they will be tortured or sacrificed." The second thing is for another post altogether. One that considers the persistence of rituals in a society that is, ultimately, disenchanted.
But much about the origins of black-cat superstition can be clarified in this post. It's not such a mystery at all, nor can it be easily attributed to some deep pre-European encounter with black Africa. The superstition is modern. Or, put another way, if there was a superstition, it was certainly aggravated/exaggerated by the West's raw exploitation of black labor in the modern period. (The "modern" is another way of saying the age of capitalism, which began with the Dutch in the early years of the 17th century.)
To justify the exploitation of black African labor, the West had to code human blackness as inferior and inherently evil (something to be hated despite all of the benefits it was providing). Blacks, therefore (according to this coding), deserved to be exploited. But as we all well know, hate cannot be contained so easily. It must spread and consume more and more of the social world in which it is planted and nourished. As a consequence, what ever was black could not escape this racial coding. This is the black cat now in my house.
He looks at me. He sees a black man. But he does not know the meaning of human blackness. He does not know we are coded as the same in the society he has found himself in. He does not know about Harriet Tubman, about Kunta Kinte, about Mbuya Nehanda—the bloody and brutal history of being black in a capitalist (modern) society. He just wants to jump on the kitchen counter and move around on it.
Humans as a whole disapprove of this kitchen counter business. The black man's black cat is punished with a jet of water. But the cat does nothing. He may even like it. In the face of this difference, the black man raised in a racist society gets angry, gets frustrated, gets all worked up. Now, would the black man be more tolerant if it was the non-black cat acting up in his house? Where is this great anger coming from? The black man shoves the black cat off the counter not without anger. But is it really the black man's own feeling (is it really just him feeling this way?), or has he, without his knowing, fully adopted the racial hierarchy of the society he was raised in? In short, does hating a black cat expose an inculcated hate of one's own blackness? What a world, what a world.