Word Analysis: Vestige

The meaning of the word “vestige” in Clint Smith’s poem “We Are Black Boys in America” enhances the poem’s meaning when read as a double-entendre. Its first and perhaps most well-known definitions are “a trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists” (Vestige 1), or “the smallest amount (meant to emphasize the absence of something)” (Vestige 1.1). In keeping with these definitions, when the speaker describes, “charred vessels / vestiges of wood & wonder” (later clarifying that he is describing a burning ship) the word “vestige” is simply used as a means to describe the ship (Smith, 7). However, it becomes clear that, rather than describing a ship, the speaker uses the ship as a metaphor for the “black boys in America”. This shows us the importance of the other definition of “vestige:” “a part or organ of an organism that has become reduced or functionless in the course of evolution” (Vestige 1.2).

When this connotation of the word is considered, the meaning takes on another dimension. Rather than simply revealing “black boys in America” (an organ of the larger organism that is Blackness itself) are disregarded in the American social consciousness and perhaps even “disappearing”—though this may also be metaphorical language—the speaker laments racism and the reduction of Black culture and worth in America. The poem ends when the speaker mourns that they (the black boys in America) are,

“surrounded by

the very thing that should


save us.” (Smith, 7)


This shows that it is not the black boys themselves who are inferior, but the situation they find themselves in that makes them appear so.



Works Cited

  1. Smith, Clint. “We are Black Boys in America,” Line / Breaks. 7. Print
  2. “Vestige 1.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 25 October 2015.
  3. “Vestige 1.1” The Oxford English Dictionary. 25 October 2015.
  4. “Vestige 1.2” The Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 25 October 2015.

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