AMEs and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds black religious denominations. AMEs refers to the African Methodist Episcopal church, founded in New York City in 1801 by Richard Allen.
anointed put oil on in a ceremony of consecration.
battlefields of Alabama The Union army captured the Tennessee Valley in 1862; Montgomery fell to Union troops in 1865.
bay or eat my own mess go mad and howl or eat excrement.
been experimented on by Dartmouth refers to the use of blacks and Indians as test animals. These unsuspecting people were infected with syphilis so that health officials could study the progress of the disease.
Bishop Allen Richard Allen, founder of the AME church.
the bit the part of a bridle that goes into a horse’s mouth, used to control the horse; in this context, it is used by plantation overseers to bridle a slave’s tongue.
a blackboy’s mouth full of money a derogatory knickknack that depicts a black youth on his knees, his mouth spread as wide as a cup to hold loose change.
bloody side of the Ohio River Kentucky. The Ohio River separated Kentucky, a slave state, and Ohio, a free state.
brine in the barrel a primitive method of preserving fish, meat, and vegetables. The salt draws out the natural juices and replaces them with brine, or water full of salt, which impedes spoilage.
bristle any short, stiff, prickly hair of an animal or plant.
Brother a favorite tree at Sweet Home.
buckeyes the seeds of any of various trees of the horse-chestnut family.
buffalo men men with wiry hair; Negroes.
butter wouldn’t come the cream failed to clot into butter.
calves of his youth Paul D, in the absence of available females, found sexual release in intercourse with calves.
camphor a volatile, crystalline ketone with a strong characteristic odor, derived from the wood of the camphor tree or synthetically from pinene: used in medicine as an irritant and stimulant.
carmine red or purplish-red; crimson.
chamomile sap juice from any plant of two genera of the composite family, with strong-smelling foliage; esp., a plant whose dried, daisylike flower heads are used as a medicine and in making tea.
chippy a prostitute.
chokecherry a North American wild cherry tree yielding an astringent fruit.
clabber thickly curdled sour milk.
cloth . . . cake of wax a method of sealing jelly to prevent mold and keep out insects.
coffle a group of animals or slaves fastened together in a line, or driven along together.
cold house a springhouse or storage shed for dairy items, meats, and other items which would spoil in a hot kitchen.
Colored Ladies of Delaware, Ohio a women’s organization dedicated to social and civic activities, such as petitioning the courts to free Sethe from a death sentence.
comfrey any of a genus of European plants of the borage family, with rough, hairy leaves and small blue, purplish, or yellow flowers, sometimes used for forage or ornament.
cracklights glimmers of sun through the cracks.
croaker sack a burlap bag.
croup a condition resulting from any obstruction of the larynx, esp. an inflammation of the respiratory passages, with labored breathing, hoarse coughing, and laryngeal spasm.
cut and run to flee.
dead Miami a large Indian tribe that once populated the Ohio Valley before its lands were stolen and its tribal members shunted to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Dearly Beloved the traditional opening words for a Protestant wedding or funeral.
Diane dianthus, any of a genus of plants of the pink family, including the carnation and sweet william.
die witch! stories scary tales that Denver’s brothers told her, suggesting their fear of Sethe, who had tried to execute them.
Don’t study war no more a line from “Down By the Riverside.” Baby Suggs, an illiterate preacher, took her texts from Negro spirituals.
the dragon a Klan symbol.
Dred Scott (1795-1858) a Southampton County, Virginia, slave who sued for freedom in 1846. Voting seven to two, the Supreme Court dismissed the case of Scott v. Sanford nine years later on the grounds that the Constitution did not guarantee rights to a non-citizen. This pro-slavery decision is thought to have hastened the Civil War. Scott, who was freed by his owner in May 1857, died the following year from tuberculosis.
dropsy edema, or an abnormal accumulation of fluid in cells, tissues, or cavities of the body, resulting in swelling.
dry-goods church formerly a general merchandise store.
established asylums created places where runaway slaves would be safe and secure.
even learn reading Laws forbade owners from teaching their slaves to read.
fagot a bundle of sticks, twigs, or branches, esp. for use as fuel.
familiar in folklore, an evil spirit constantly attending someone and typically viewed as dwelling within an animal; also, the animal within which such a spirit dwells.
fast bread bread made from batter rather than yeast dough, which must rise before it can be baked.
fixed on concentrated on.
fixing ceremony the arrangement of a corpse for burial.
fixing me putting a hex or magic spell on; conjuring.
flatbed a flat-bottomed skiff.
foal to give birth to (a foal). By comparing Sethe’s condition to that of a pregnant mare, Amy reveals white prejudice about blacks, whom owners treated like brood animals so that their offspring, like foals or piglets or calves, could be reared for labor or for market.
four o’clocks any of a genus of chiefly American annual or perennial herbs, esp. a garden plant with fragrant yellow, red, or white flowers opening late in the afternoon.
Fugitive Bill The Fugitive Slave Bill, tacked onto the Compromise of 1850, required the return of slaves from free states as just compensation of owners. Although contested in Ableman v. Booth, on October 16, 1859, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the unpopular law.
George III King of England during the American Revolution, with whom the Cherokee sided.
Georgia took up all of Alabama and Mississippi the taint of slavery made one Deep South state indistinguishable from another.
get right make amends, apologize, or atone for a personal injury.
glazing the work of a glazier in fitting windows, etc. with glass.
God’s Ways and Negro pews contemplation of God’s apparent blessing of white people, who continued to isolate black worshippers in segregated pews, often in the “colored balcony.”
gone to Glory died.
haint a dialect pronunciation of “haunt;” a ghost.
a hairy white thing Ella’s deformed child fathered by her white owner.
half peck a unit of dry measure equal to an eighth of a bushel, or four quarts.
hazelnut stranger a visitor with reddish-brown skin.
he had company in the prettiest trees you ever saw Paul A is hanging from one of the trees of Sweet Home farm.
He won’t be back Here Boy leaves because dogs are believed to sense the presence of a ghost.
head cheese a loaf of jellied, seasoned meat, made from parts of the heads and feet of hogs.
helped Andrew Jackson fight Creek the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, March 17, 1814.
hominy dry corn (maize) with the hull and germ removed and often coarsely ground (hominy grits); it is boiled for food.
horehound candy made with horehound juice, a bitter juice extracted from a horehound herb’s leaves, stem, or flowers.
huckleberries the fruit of any of a genus of plants of the heath family, having dark-blue berries with ten large seeds.
Hush, hush. Somebody’s calling my name. O my Lord, O my Lord, what shall I do? lyrics of a familiar spiritual used as a coded message. Such verses form a meaningful segment of black lore, particularly “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” the lyrical reminder for runaways to aim for the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major, the constellation that pointed north toward the free states and Canada.
hutch a hut.
I been bleeding I have been menstruating.
I had milk an unusual occurrence that Sethe is both pregnant and lactating, since breastfeeing suppresses ovulation. Also, the likelihood that a woman can endure extreme trauma and still produce milk for two children is a rare example of determination winning out over cruel circumstances.
I’m a take I’m going to take.
I’m on dry land I have just cause.
in chambers in private.
in line the positioning of slave teams to work the indigo fields.
in the brace in a vise.
indigo a deep violet blue.
jelly-jar smile pretended innocence.
juba a Southern plantation black dance of the ninteenth century, characterized by a lively rhythm marked by clapping the hands.
juniper any of a genus of evergreen shrubs or trees of the cypress family, with needlelike or scalelike foliage, aromatic wood, and berrylike cones that yield an oil used for flavoring gin and formerly in medicine.
keeping room a colonial term for parlor or sitting room.
King of Spain Charles IV.
knocked her down (or up) mistreated or impregnated her.
laid fires arranged kindling, splits, and back logs to make a fire.
led Oglethorpe through forests native guides helped General James Oglethorpe colonize Georgia in 1733, the same year that he founded Savannah.
Licking River a river that branches south from the Ohio River into northern Kentucky.
lisle a fabric, or stockings, gloves, etc., knit or woven of lisle, a fine, hard, extra-strong cotton thread.
live oak a wide-spreading, evergreen oak native to the southeastern U.S. Because it has tough bark and does not lose its leaves, the live oak often symbolizes resilience.
looking for something to beat a life of tobacco and sorghum Paul D assumes that the stranger is a farm girl, fleeing the labor-intensive chores associated with the production of tobacco and molasses.
Lot’s wife in Genesis 19:24-26, the woman who disobeys God, looks back to see the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and is turned into a pillar of salt.
measuring string the tape measure that schoolteacher uses to study black bodies. According to the pseudo-sciences of phrenology and physiognomy, which were popular in the mid-1800s, the shape of the head and body revealed human character, intelligence, and capabilities.
mint sprig a piece of an aromatic plant whose leaves are used for flavoring and in medicine; a natural breath freshener.
molly apple the wild fruit of a perennial woodland plant of the barberry family, with shield-shaped leaves and a single, large, white, cuplike flower.
moss rose a fleshy annual plant of the purslane family, usually with yellow, pink, or purple flowers.
mouth harp a primitive monotonal metal musical instrument that is held by the lips and vibrated against the teeth.
myrtle a plant with evergreen leaves, white or pinkish flowers, and dark, fragrant berries.
new stitches perhaps, decorative handwork or new clothes.
night bucket the slop jar or portable night toilet.
normal school a teacher’s college.
North Star Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper, published in Rochester, New York from 1847 to 1863.
Oberlin a coeducational liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio, which in 1835 became the first in the nation to integrate.
Oklahoma the destination of 14,000 Cherokee, who in 1838, following the discovery of gold on their lands, were forced to resettle on reservations after a long march named the Trail of Tears. Over 4,000 Cherokee died along the way.
pass her air to burp.
paterollers patrollers or slave-catchers.
people who die bad don’t stay in the ground a belief that victims of murder or wrongful death wander the earth as ghosts.
pickaninnies black children. The term, derived from Spanish or Portuguese, evolved into a racial slur meant to denigrate or dehumanize.
pike a highway.
pitched ceiling an angled ceiling with windows opening on the sky.
pouch of tobacco . . . smoking paper the materials needed for handrolling cigarettes.
press an upright closet in which clothes or other articles are kept.
pride goeth before a fall a common compression of Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
prima donna a temperamental, vain, or arrogant person.
privy a toilet; esp., an outhouse.
published a newspaper Sequoyah’s Cherokee Phoenix, founded in 1828.
Pulaski County, Kentucky a county in south central Kentucky.
raised bread yeast bread.
rendered fat fat from cooked pork, skimmed off and hardened into lard.
Republicans political movement led by Abraham Lincoln from third-party status to frontrunner.
rind a piece of pork skin, traditional southern style seasoning for green beans.
the river that slid down from the Blue Ridge Mountains the Oconee River.
rue any of a genus of strong-scented shrubs of the rue family, esp. an herb with yellow flowers and bitter-tasting leaves formerly used in medicine; symbolizes regret.
salsify a purple-flowered plant of the composite family, with long, white, edible, fleshy roots having an oysterlike flavor.
sassafras a small eastern North American tree of the laurel family, having an aromatic bark, leaves with usually two or three fingerlike lobes, and small, bluish fruits.
Sea Islands islands sheltering black communities that cling to African language, customs, and worship.
Sethe took a little spit from the tip of her tongue . . . lightly she touched the stove a method of testing temperature in a woodstove. A skillful cook can detect by the sizzle of saliva when a stove is hot enough for baking.
setting-up night-long watch over a corpse.
Settlement Fee Pro-Union Southerners pressed claims for damages after their property, supplies, and animals were confiscated by an army quartermaster or commissary or were destroyed during foraging, pillage, or hostile action, such as artillery shelling or arson. On March 3, 1871, Congress began a process of reimbursement for the loyalists’ losses. The legislation was extended on May 11, 1872 to cover similar losses caused by U.S. naval action.
the singing would have begun at once If Sethe had been less proud, her neighbors would have begun the soothing songs they instinctively began to mourn the dead. Instead, they hum but intone no words of blessing or comfort.
skin voting only white people had the right to vote.
slats The Cincinnati sidewalk is made of wooden planks.
slop jars indoor containers that take the place of toilets, especially for night use or for people too ill or infirm to walk outside to an outhouse.
Society the Society of Friends or Quakers, prime movers in the abolitionist movement.
Sojourner’s high-wheeled buggy Sojourner Truth was the alias of Isabella Baumfree (1797-1883), a slave and abolitionist born in Hurley, New York, who was freed when the state emancipated its slaves in 1827. Impelled by religious fervor, Isabel took the new name to announce her mission. She personally led many runaways to freedom and, despite her illiteracy, addressed rallies and women’s rights conventions.
spiderwebs used as a primitive type of coagulant, or clotting agent.
Spirit willing; flesh weak As described in Matthew 26: 40-41, Christ, in his agony in Gethsemane, the night when he is betrayed, chastises Peter because the disciples have fallen asleep.
strawberry shrug a version of “shrub,” a dessert made from fruit pulp, sweetening, and crushed ice.
stud his boys use male slaves as breeders.
sugar teat an early kind of pacifier; a small square of cloth filled with a mixture of brown sugar and butter, tied off, and given to babies to suck on.
sunshots sunlight reflected by water.
sweet thorny place was made up of paper scraps containing the handwritten names of others the symbolic nest at Lady Jones’s house where Denver enters the sisterhood of other black women, who are providing ample food and bits of paper containing their identities so that Denver can return food containers to their owners.
taking a bit of foreskin with him to Jesus biting the guard’s penis during fellatio before being shot.
talked through that chain like Sam Morse communicated through the chain by wordless jerks similar to Morse code.
talking sheets members of the Ku Klux Klan, who hide their identity beneath white sheets.
things older, but not stronger, than He Himself was that is, evil.
to curse His daddy say “Goddamn.”
to let my water to urinate.
trace a beaten path or trail left by the repeated passage of persons, vehicles, etc.
underground agent the guide who waited in the cornfield to lead slaves to freedom.
walking man an unsettled man, not the marrying kind.
watery field terrain flooded for the cultivation of rice.
way station a safe house where wandering blacks could inquire about relatives and expect hospitality.
white satin coat a residue of cooked milk.
Wilberforce a black college in Wilberforce, Ohio, named for William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a noted abolitionist who moved the English government to end the slave trade in the British Caribbean.
wild veronica any of a genus of plants of the figwort family, with white or bluish flower spikes.
wire from the top of the jar and then the lid a forerunner of the metal-lidded canning jar. The container was sealed when the wire bail was pulled into place at the top of the glass lid.
wrote their language In 1820, Sequoyah invented a phonetic alphabet which enabled Cherokees to become literate after only a few days’ study. Very quickly, they established a mail system with distant Cherokees.
you in deep water You’ve gone too far.
you sure ‘nough knew her In the biblical sense, Paul D had sexual knowledge of Beloved, who apparently was pregnant with his child.
you way off the track with that wagon a common adage meaning “you’re overstepping the bounds of courtesy.”
your eyes here, stove burners.