exalt to the position of a God
deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God.
a belief that rejects the orthodox tenets of a religion
But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s
heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune.
the human face
And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and
physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.
high status importance owing to marked superiority
But the belief in the
preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
surpassing what is common or usual or expected
America believes itself
exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.
a right reserved exclusively by a person or group
And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose
prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.
relating to or affecting the internal organs
But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a
visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.
And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a
immune to attack; incapable of being tampered with
The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their
inviolable power would never be punished.
a phenomenon that is caused by some previous phenomenon
The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable
upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.
a source of danger
He had already learned the lesson he would teach me that day: that his body was in constant
There the boy stood, with the gun
brandished, which he slowly untucked, tucked, then untucked once more, and in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could, in an instant, erase my body.
I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a
tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not.
call forth, as an emotion, feeling, or response
She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that
elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself.
characteristic of an absolute ruler or absolute rule
The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with
despotic police, in its primary language—violence.
working or spreading in a hidden and usually injurious way
You do not give your precious body to the billy clubs of Birmingham sheriffs nor to the
insidious gravity of the streets.
understandable only by an enlightened inner circle
I loved him because he made it plain, never mystical or
esoteric, because his science was not rooted in the actions of spooks and mystery gods but in the work of the physical world.
an adherent of a theory of observable practical consequences
Malcolm was the first political
pragmatist I knew, the first honest man I’d ever heard.
Malcolm spoke like a man who was free, like a black man above the laws that
proscribed our imagination.
rescuing from error and returning to a rightful course
reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.
the range of interest or activity that can be anticipated
I had been reading and writing beyond the
purview of the schools all my life.
selecting what seems best of various styles or ideas
My only Mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University. I have tried to explain this to you many times. You say that you hear me, that you understand, but I am not so sure that the force of my Mecca—The Mecca—can be translated into your new and
the region close around a person or thing
And whereas most other historically black schools were scattered like forts in the great wilderness of the old Confederacy, Howard was in Washington, D.C.—Chocolate City—and thus in
proximity to both federal power and black power.
the dispersion of something that was originally localized
The history, the location, the alumni combined to create The Mecca— the crossroads of the black
marked by tender, romantic, or nostalgic emotion
They were rebelling against the history books that spoke of black people only as
sentimental “firsts”—first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor—always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit.
a miniature whirlpool or whirlwind
I felt myself at the bridge of a great ship that I could not control because C.L.R. James was a great wave and Basil Davidson was a swirling
eddy, tossing me about. Things I believed merely a week earlier, ideas I had taken from one book, could be smashed to splinters by another.
a defense mechanism explaining actions non-threateningly
I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my own
a broad range of related objects, values, or qualities
These truths carried the black body beyond slogans and gave it color and texture and thus reflected the
spectrum I saw out on the Yard more than all of my alliterative talk of guns or revolutions or paeans to the lost dynasties of African antiquity.
an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct
Back then, I knew, for instance, that just outside of Washington, D.C., there was a great
enclave of black people who seemed, as much as anyone, to have seized control of their bodies.
free somebody from an erroneous belief
My history professors thought nothing of telling me that my search for myth was doomed, that the stories I wanted to tell myself could not be matched to truths. Indeed, they felt it their duty to
disabuse me of my weaponized history.
political propaganda communicated via art and literature
My professor, Linda Heywood, was slight and bespectacled, spoke with a high Trinidadian lilt that she employed like a hammer against young students like me who confused
agitprop with hard study.
relating to or resembling an ape
In my survey course of America, I’d seen portraits of the Irish drawn in the same ravenous, lustful, and
simian way. Perhaps there had been other bodies, mocked, terrorized, and insecure.
a person who is rejected from society or home
Perhaps being named “black” had nothing to do with any of this; perhaps being named “black” was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to
existing as an essential constituent or characteristic
There was nothing holy or particular in my skin; I was black because of history and heritage. There was no nobility in falling, in being bound, in living oppressed, and there was no
inherent meaning in black blood.
unrestrained by convention or morality
On the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so
profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed.
a legally binding command or decision
I think now of the old rule that held that should a boy be set upon in someone else's chancy hood, his friends must stand with him, and they must all take their beating together. I now know that within this
edict lay the key to all living.
a short moral story
For this woman, enslavement is not a
parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history.
a subtle difference in meaning or opinion or attitude
You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its
nuance, error, and humanity.
worthy of or requiring trust; held accountable
Indeed, you must be
responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.
secret and sly or sordid
And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your