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The Knee: A Short History

In 328 BCE, Alexander the Great added the gesture of genuflection to his court ceremonies, following the practice of his vanquished enemy, Persia. It was an act of humility already practiced in Babylonia—diminishing one’s stature to a greater degree than a simple bow.

The practice is common to many religions and extends to private use, by a suitor in proposing marriage.

The human body is expressly political. To participate in a demonstration is already to declare your role as a single drop, part of a dense liquid channeled into a current. In the bleachers at sporting events, the crowd stands up and sits down, intentionally conveying the image of a human wave. The body has public eloquence that everyone can understand.

The knee is the human organism’s largest joint, a masterpiece of anatomy, capable of bearing in motion a weight greater than the body’s own. Among parts of the body, the knee is one of our most potent symbols.

In the hundreds of demonstrations, with thousands of arrests for curfew violations, following the murder of a U.S. citizen, George Floyd, by the actions of police officers, a knee lowered to the ground has been the single most resonant act of solidarity.

In the United States, during a ceremony where a flag is presented to the family of a soldier who has died in service to the country, the family members are seated and an officer in dress uniform places his left knee on the earth, to honor and remember.

Over many days, demonstrators, epidermally both dark and pale, have joined together to reunite an America that racism would keep divided. In many sites, police and other local authorities have lowered their left knee to the ground before the demonstrators, as a gesture of military respect for this civilian casualty.

In a stadium, three years before these demonstrations, the football star Colin Kaepernik launched the idea of “taking a knee” during the playing of the national anthem, as an act of antiracist protest. His example spread, then faded away. This time it's not about an action by athletes in the limelight; it’s an act taken by people who will no longer just stand and watch.

A kneecap lowered to the ground marks the start of the second half, for another America, a country made great again by its sense of civilty. From a knee on the earth, this country will begin to rise again, under a new alliance. This could be big—more than a New Deal.

Translated by Jim Hicks

ERRI DE LUCA is an Italian novelist, writer, translator, and poet. In response to the global pandemic and consequent lockdown, with producer Paola Bisson Porrini, director Michael Mayer, and art director Richard Petit, he has assembled a brigade of writers and actor for a new project, The Decameron 2020, in a creative attempt to break the siege.

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