“A Cat’s Tale”
How would you define a cat? Is the definition of a cat even relevant to you and how you define the story of your life? In a 1956 interview with Edward R. Murrow, Louis describes his definition of cat, “a cat can be anybody from the guy in the gutta to a lawyer, doctor, the biggest man and the lowest man. But if he’s in there with a good heart, and enjoys the same music together, he’s a cat.” Ralph Ellison wrote in his 1947 novel, Invisible Man that Louis may have been “unaware that he is invisible.1” I think Louis described his change in perception as that of being a cat.
So I must reveal to you now that I am a cat. I didn’t always know I was a cat. I am though, I am. And no, I do not define my life as a cat due to only one definition; nor will I conform to a single definition of a word that is so harmonious to my entire being. I am a cat, solely because I have a tale. Much like the tail of a small domesticated mammal, my tale helps me to achieve balance. It is not just an elegant physical attribute, it is the imaginative narrative that recounts the story of my life, it is the equilibrium between me and the way I am seen — indeed, everything and anything is defined by my tale. I, like Louis Armstrong shall become my own historian, my own archivist, setting up materials for the possibility to understand fragments of my life, my perspective, my tale. The thing is, that I myself, after existing for twenty seven human years, did not become alive until I discovered my cathood.
It is an interesting moment to define one’s self as a cat, especially if you are to be considered a black cat like me. Centuries of superstitions consider one’s blackness to be unlucky, in many scenarios it has proven to even be dangerous. It can at times be advantageous though, my blackness, my cathood. For example it can be as if I don’t exist at all, folks so afraid for me to cross their path, I might as well be “simply a phantom in other people’s mind.2” My favorite has to be the whole having 9 lives gimmick, it really brings another element into what I already thought was a beautifully defined tale. Imagine that, being considered to have 9 lives because your adaptability and swiftness in moments of life threatening situations heighten, and here I was thinking it was just a way of life. In some form I guess it makes complete sense for a black cat to have 9 lives; when faced with menacing moments due to constructed meanings of it’s blackness, these agile creatures maneuver, finding balance through the tale.
It could genuinely be the stories we tell and allow to be told about our lives that determine our placement and stability in the world. In a conversation with Orson Welles, Louis Armstrong spoke of a childhood experience growing up in New Orleans, he tells about how some cats didn’t encourage him at all when it came to singing and being a musician. “But when I looked around, I had a little quartet. We used to go around Rampart Street. You know, I was twelve years old, and we’d passed the hat,” said Louis. They went on to speak about the movie script they had written recounting this tale, the movie was never made. Louis went on to say:
Louis Armstrong: They usually do that after you die.
Orson Welles: No, no. You’re- [LAUGHTER]
Louis Armstrong: And I’m fooling them all the time.
Orson Welles: I’ll say you are.
Louis Armstrong: I got a record coming out called [SINGING] This Black Cat Got Nine Lives, boys. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]
Louis Armstrong: And of all people, the guy that’s here, right along with me at the time, Lorenzo Pack, wrote it and we looked at each other, “Yeah, man. We got to do that.” And sure enough, we’re going to make a record-
I think I’d like to hear Louis singing “This Black Cat Has 9 Lives,” and for it to be blasting on every street throughout New York. That song was recorded in May of 1970, when Louis was having increasing health issues, it seemed like he sang referencing himself as the black cat. It’s September of 2020 and I listen to Louis “because he made poetry out of…4” being a cat, and not just any cat, a black one. I think that is needed now more than ever, with the current state of the world in relation to the understanding and voyeurism of blackness, there needs to be a reminder of defining your own words to tell your personal tale. Louis used his definition of cat, as a person with a good heart that could enjoy the same music with others, he metaphorically acknowledged the relationship to the other definitions. It would seem to me that Louis himself was a cat, using the symbolic tail associated with the soft furry breed, to narrate his own life’s tale. To help set a precedent for young musicians, artists, black cats like myself to recognize and embrace their cathood.
1 Ralph Ellison, 1947, Invisible Man
2 Ralph Ellison, 1947, Invisible Man
3 Reel-to-reel tape recorded by Louis Armstrong – LAHM Tape 413/Louis Tape 111 – Track 1, 9 June, 1970, Tape, Louis Armstrong Collection, Louis Armstrong, Orson Welles, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong House Museum
4 Ralph Ellison, 1947, Invisible Man