Black to the bone my home is your home
So welcome to the Terrordome
- Chuck D
There is a particular kind of cold that possesses southwest Virginia in January. It’s not the blustery ague of the Midwest, or the gnawing chill of New England. Instead, it’s marked by quiet unobtrusiveness—damp, seeping, and stealthy in the way that winter often is—already upon you long before you realize it’s come to stay.
The start of that calendar year, marking the midway point of my final phase of graduate school, moved in like a dark glacier. I’d returned to the southwest portion of the state shortly after New Year’s, in hopes of scraping together some weeks to write and think in solitude before having to contend, formally, with my thesis in the spring. At that point, I’d come to accept that the smooth stone of dispiritedness that lived in my stomach had all but become a permanent fixture in Roanoke: though I lived, taught, and wrote there, I knew I did not belong. This knowledge had become as familiar to me as the sound of my own name.
Literature is full of hysterical females—children, the elderly, young women of marrying age—who see ghosts, spirits, the inexplicable and the horrific, while those around them remain unconvinced (or sometimes, convinced but lacking hard proof or personal witness) of what these women claim to see. The responses vary: sometimes they are met with dismissal or outright reproof, while other times they’re met with pity or pity’s slightly more sophisticated cousin, sympathy. And occasionally, there’s vindication or confirmation of some kind by the story’s conclusion. But often, as is the case with any “good” ghost story worth retelling, the incidents in question are usually abandoned to ambiguity. Maybe she was just seeing things, or maybe she wasn’t. We’ll never know.
It is a near-impossible feat, attempting to accurately convey what it’s like to feel displaced because of the color of one’s skin. Some days, the best one can rely on is the precarious tilt of comparison, definition in terms of something else:
such displacement is like slow, precise dismembering
such displacement is like slow, precise disembodiment
it is knowing that displacement is an anemic euphemism, because there is no noun precise enough to define what it’s like to exist with undiagnosable pain
it is knowing that displacement suggests that there is some “correct” or proper place in which one ought to exist to begin with
it is the impossibility of naming a precise locus of distress, and the expectation to account for it still
it is losing a sense of being fully present in your own body, though your own body is all you’re permitted to think about
I first encountered Public Enemy on a freezing night, that interminable winter. It was my first time venturing outside since a heavy snowstorm had buried most of the streets in layers upon layers of pristine sheets of ice, the ridged mounds of snow along the main roads like the arched spine of an enormous, white, sleeping creature. Other than in very brief interludes with my landlords next door (longtime residents of Roanoke who would faithfully extend kindness by bringing me food to ensure I was eating), it had been several days since I’d interacted with anyone. I’d locked myself in my apartment with the storm as my excuse, avoiding the ache of conversation for as long as I could. But for some reason, though the daylight hours were short, I found that on this particular evening in January I could manage to go out and be among people, as long as I wasn’t expected to say anything.
We sometimes speak of music being transportive. We praise its power to move us, however momentarily, out of time and out of whatever location we happen to find ourselves in. But some music works to the opposite effect: not serving as a quick means of escape, but as a grounding presence that renders specific times and places all the more acute in their immediacy.
After a failed night of trying to write in one of the few coffee shops nearby, I decided to call it quits for the day. I pulled up my music library and scrolled through my album selections, having downloaded Fear of a Black Planet earlier that afternoon. I loved the cover artwork immediately, almost irrationally, without even taking much time to scrutinize why the mere sight of it made me sit up a little straighter in my chair. Earphones in place, I clicked on “Contract On the World Love Jam,” its first hymn-like chords clanging out against the record scratch. The album followed me all the way into the night, back out into the dark lit only by a few streetlights and the unyielding drift.
In the weeks and months afterward, I listened to this album over and over—a little resentful that no one had told me about it before, and fixating, as I often do, on the handful of tracks that clung to me the hardest. “911 Is a Joke,” “Burn Hollywood Burn,” and “Power to the People,” played on repeat as I shuffled through the drill of routine tasks: making my bed, washing my hair, drinking coffee without tasting it. I played “Welcome to the Terrordome” often as I drove through the cobalt glow of the Blue Ridge—there was something apocalyptic about that word, terrordome. I could see it plainly in my head: Earth’s vaulted ceiling, chaos and panic rampant on the ground, with miles of nothing in the firmament in between. Nothing, that is, but the echoes of clear-eyed protest:
When I get mad, I put it down on a pad
Give ya something that ya never had
Controlling, fear of high rolling
God bless your soul and keep living
The richness of the plurality of voices in each track followed me, too. Not only through Public Enemy as a collective, but in the wide array of artists, media, and musicians they culled from to sample throughout—all of this creating an album that continues to be great not only for the sum of its parts, but for its ability to assemble everything into something wholly other, and enduring.
The more I listened to Fear of a Black Planet, the more it transformed into my own private tonic against despondency. I found that if I shook the quiet of my solitude with something—anything with teeth and a measurable, almost mathematical structure (not unlike classical music, I might add)—it brought something not entirely unlike repose, which I found I needed increasingly more of in my jaunts around Roanoke and its neighboring towns.
Although I had no desire to make sense of a city that, on a large scale, nodded at prejudice, default segregation, and the selective erasure of entire populations, I found that in this album, injustice no longer felt quite so isolating and unseen. Someone understood; someone was listening. Someone, it seemed, had been crying out for me—over twenty-five years ago, and long before I ever knew I wouldn’t have the strength to do it myself. It was as though the album had become a companion, who somehow, as I drove from town to town, daily passing half-buried vestiges of Jim Crow, daily passing by, for instance, the 80-foot-tall Confederate battle flag on I-81, run up by a local man as a public warning to ward off “black people and Democrats”—it was as though this companion knew how to manage to get me back home relatively intact, with these lines pulsing through my speakers:
They say the Black don’t know how to act
‘cause we’re waitin’ for the big payback
But we know it’ll never come
that’s why I say come and get some
Nearing the end of this partial account—or as I think of it, a small witness of what I owe this music—I realize that I have no tidy, clever, or even vaguely enlightened conclusion to offer. Having since moved from Roanoke, and having long shed the winter, bracing myself for another, I have found, as I should have allowed myself to expect, that these burdens have not diminished in size due to geography. They have only adjusted to accommodate new grief: the painful awakening of coming back into my own body, while waking up most days to news of more rounds of death, body counts tearing through the year like buckshot.
I have spent more time trying to understand fear than probably any human being should—how it governs our internal workings, how it deforms us, both individually and as collective bodies. And I continue to pray, poorly (if such a thing as poor prayer exists), that my own grief and anger and exhaustion and defeat and ardor may be refined in the service of bringing about unyielding peace, however small.
I keep returning to the artwork: the unapologetic block font, the deep indigo of space surrounding planet Earth, moments away from collision with a celestial black body—a literal black planet. Light, in precise quadrants, glows in an X from its center, while the dark surface cracks into blood-hued red. And Earth hangs still, unmoved, though we know this cannot be for much longer.