My friend Ina looked at me as if she was in a state of complete disbelief. I didn’t think what I said was coded or subliminal, but she had never heard the term. If you are Black and been to “the country” to see Big Mama n’em more than thrice, you’ve heard that old adage “it must be a dead cat on the line.”
Ina, a bona fide “city girl,” doesn’t know many old people, and I would bet that she rarely ventures down the road to visit Black folks in rural communities.
Let me give you the example I gave her. It’s one that I heard after 11:00 worship while sitting next to my Grandmother Figures at a three o” clock Church Tea. Even at age six, curiosity was a staple for me.
“Chile, she and that boy just got married last June if my mind is serving me right. So, here it is in the middle of January and she done had a healthy 10-pound baby boy.
Ain’t nobody no fool. There must be a dead cat on the line.”
There are plenty of books and literary forensic specialists, and they tie several different things to the origination of dead cat on the line. All of them agree that the adage infers that something is suspicious or something is not quite right.
There are several speculations about the origin, and each seems to have its level of believability. Here are just a couple.
It was common in Louisiana to fish for catfish by leaving a rod with several lines and hooks in the water. This “trotline” was checked by fishermen daily. If your neighbor found a dead catfish on the line, they assumed that you were slacking. So naturally, this led to further suspicion that something was wrong with the person who owned the line.
Another posits that unwanted litters of kittens were often tied into a bag and drowned in the days before PETA. In hopes of snagging the “big one,” Anglers were crestfallen after learning that all they caught was a bag filled with dead kittens.
A 1982 New York Times article by famed editorialist William Safire delved deeper into the subject. Safire produced a repeating feature called “On Language” where he discussed popular etymology, new or unusual usages, and other language-related topics.
“Ronald Foreman Jr., director of the Afro-American Studies Pro- gram at the University of Florida, has unearthed a series of recorded sermons made between 1926 and 1942 by the Rev. J.M. Gates. A 1929 sermon has this to say:
”I want to preach from this subject: If a child is no way like his father, there’s a dead cat on the line. They tell me that once upon a time, they had some trouble trying to get a message over the telegram wire. The company sent a man out to inspect the line. In making his report, he said that a cat had gone up the telegraph post and died on the line. That was the reason why they couldn’t get the message over the line.
Now, if a child doesn’t fa- vor his father in no way, there’s a dead cat on the line.”
Professor Foreman concludes that ”in practice, the expression is extended to outcomes, behaviors, products and so on which are not what they should be.”
Let me give you my last-ditch attempt to explain dead cat on the line to Ina. She caught it early on, but I wanted to pour some more cement in the frame.
Five rights and freedoms are protected by the original U. S Constitution, covering speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government. In addition, it gave Americans the right to bear arms, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, protection from self-incrimination, due process of law, the right to a trial by jury for criminal charges, and equal protection.
Do you know what line got left out when those White cats wrote the Constitution? The right to vote. “Curiosity killed the cat, but ask yourself why these same cats still try to limit your voting rights.
Think about that the next time Election Day rolls around and you sit on your “Blessed Asssurance.” Don’t be a dead cat, voter suppression is real!
Vincent L. Hall is an author, activist, and an award-winning columnist.