The January 6th insurrection gave me a better understanding of Calvin’s terror. That day, crushing fear pervaded both my brain and my Black skin.
My orange tabby, Calvin, is afraid of everything. If the wind blows, he runs. If I spray Windex, he jumps. If I touch him, he moves. To calm him down, I say, “It’s okay, Calvin, don’t worry.” My ex adopted him from the Animal Rescue League when he was about four years old, and when the relationship ended, Calvin came with me; we’ve lived together for over 12 years now. In my struggle to understand why so much frightens him, I’ve wondered if he was abused. He has no physical scars, and the vet looked him over, but his fearfulness has persisted. He finds plastic bags especially alarming, which made us think that someone might have trapped him inside one. Whenever we brought home groceries, we’d take him into the bedroom and close the door; otherwise, if he saw the bags he would become frantic, scream, and run into the basement, not to come out until the middle of the night.
The January 6th insurrection gave me a better understanding of Calvin’s terror. That day, crushing fear pervaded both my brain and my Black skin. Sure, I’d experienced prejudice and had racist epithets hurled at me before. In the first grade, a classmate told me that his parents said he wasn’t allowed to play with niggers. But this was different. Watching white supremacist insurgents break into the heart of American democracy, and Black custodians cleaning up their blood, piss, and feces, left me with a petrifaction that continued to plague me while grocery shopping or sitting in my car at a red light.
On the morning Trump supporters believed he would be inaugurated, March 4th, I was as tethered as I was January 6th. I got up at 5:30, fed Calvin, and gave him his insulin shot as usual, but I was jumpy. He rubbed against my leg, startling me. Over the years he had brushed up against me a million times, but that morning I reeled and Calvin booked it down the stairs to the basement. I felt horrible. I walked downstairs to calm Calvin, but as I took a step towards him, he took a step back. We did this until he was hiding behind the washing machine. Then I baby-talked him, which usually gets him purring, but his purr was nonexistent. He just sat there staring at me, his big gold eyes glowing. I grew frustrated with his distrust. He knew me, had been cosseted by me.
I couldn’t convince Calvin to come out so I went up to the kitchen, got a can of his diabetic food, and opened it. He scurried up the stairs, meowing. The sound of the opener always got his attention. He sat on my slippered feet and gazed up at me with those golden eyes, his nose twitching, sniffing the air till I smiled in a mixture of pity, affection, and sympathy. As he ate, I was overcome with ire that had been simmering below the surface for decades. Angry because I had scared Calvin, because I was letting white supremacists scare me, and because I had spent so much of my life living in fear. In high school when I made white friends, my mother said, “Boy, don’t you ever trust a white person. I watched them take out Martin and Malcolm right on TV like they were bowling pins.” She terrified me so much that I would catch flashes of myself getting pulled over by the police: My hands shackled. My head underneath the boot-heel of the officer, my body disposed of in some underbrush.
When Calvin finished, I put him on the couch where he prefers to sleep and sat myself down, exhausted, infuriated with waiting, wondering if something was going to happen. MSNBC was on, reporting that the House of Representatives had passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act overnight for fear the day would be a repeat of January 6th. The vote was 220 to 212, with Democrats Jared Golden and Ron Kind joining all Republicans in voting against the bill. Clips of Trump’s “very special” people, with their you’re-not-stealing-nothing-from-me faces, flashed on the screen, while Jim Clyburn and other Black and brown representatives, wearing gas masks, hid in their chamber as shots sounded in the Capitol. I peered over at Calvin sprawled atop of the couch, looking at me, purring. He put his head down, closed his eyes, and exhaled. I turned from the news to the PBS documentary, Looking for Lincoln, which I had started watching the night before.
Lincoln never used the term Confederacy. He called them insurgents. And what do you do with an insurgency, what do you do with an insurrection? You don’t negotiate with it, you don’t come to terms with it, you don’t recognize its legitimacy. You put it down.
In this episode, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. visits Gettysburg National Military Park with Princeton University research scholar Allen Guelzo. Sitting on a wooden bench just outside the cemetery, Gates asked Guelzo, “When the war started, did Lincoln have any idea how long it would last?”
“Not a clue,” Guelzo replied. “At any moment, he could have thrown in the towel. The Confederates would have said, ‘Thank you very much,’ gone to the negotiating table, and that would have been it. He could have stopped the bloodshed right there, but he insisted on pushing this war. As far as he was concerned the Confederate States did not exist. There was no such thing as the Confederate States. He never used the term Confederacy. He called them insurgents. And what do you do with an insurgency, what do you do with an insurrection? You don’t negotiate with it, you don’t come to terms with it, you don’t recognize its legitimacy. You put it down.”
I paused the documentary, shocked that Lincoln had called the Confederacy insurgents, shocked by how much their behavior mirrored the current insurrectionists’. “It’s just like today,” I blurted. The white supremacist insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol were no different from the white supremacist insurrectionist John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln because of the president’s goal of a raceless nation. I turned to see if I had woken Calvin, but he was asleep on his back with his paws curled up.
I leaned back against the couch, took a deep breath, and exhaled. The fear pushed out of my body as though it could no longer find a place to settle. This tripped my brain’s power cord and rebooted my system and made me realize how deep and strangling had been my fear, and how I can no longer be afraid of my Blackness or how I expend my energy. Corralling my anger means helping usher in an era of anti-racist reforms. Anger risen to biblical proportions, like Lincoln’s, can ignite the right spark to permanently, eternally obliterate racism from American life. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is as relevant in 2021 as it was in 1863:
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.
I have a new buoyancy, a revolutionary fervor. I don’t know how long it will last or when the fear might revisit me, but what I do know is the racists involved in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, in blocking the Emmett Till Antilynching Bill, and in the January 6th insurrection are trying to depict Negroes and democratic forces for equality as “trying to take over the country.” They never learned from the past, and they don’t understand the future. The future, Lincoln’s future, has no place for them.
In memory of Calvin June 8, 2021
Allen M. Price’s fiction and nonfiction work appears or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Zone 3, Hobart, Transition, River Teeth, The Fourth River (chosen by guest editor Ira Sukrungruang), The Saturday Evening Post, and other places. His essay, “Running From Blackness,” published in The Masters Review, is a 2020 nonfiction finalist for the 50th New Millennium Writings Award. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College.
Header photo by Tom Hillmeyer, courtesy Shutterstock.