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Etheridge Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi, in 1931. Although he dropped out of school at age fourteen, his education in the uses and joys of language continued as he explored the world of juke joints, pool halls, and underground poker games. He began to master the art of the toast, a form of long, improvised, humorous poetry that dates back to the 19th century and has its roots in African storytelling. From 1947 to 1951, Knight served in the U.S. Army in Korea, and returning with a shrapnel wound that caused him to fall deeper into a drug addiction that had begun in his youth. In 1960 he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to eight years in the Indiana State Prison. During this time he began writing poetry, and he corresponded with and received visits from such established African American literary figures as Dudley Randall and Gwendolyn Brooks. Dudley Randalls Broadside Press published Poems from Prison (1968), Etheridge Knights first book, one year before he was released from prison.
The book was a success, and Knight soon joined such poets as Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez (to whom he was once married) in what came to be called the Black Arts Movement. This movement, according to the poet and critic Larry Neal, was radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. Knight embraced these ideals in his own work and in 1970 edited a collection entitled Black Voices From Prison. Knights books and oral performances drew both popular and critical acclaim, and he received honors from such institutions as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. In 1990 he earned a bachelors degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis. Etheridge Knight died in 1991.
The Idea of Ancestry
From The Essential Etheridge Knight by
Etheridge Knight ' 1986. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press,
Pittsburgh, PA 15261.
(To hear this poem read click here http://www.poets.org/poets/lit/POEM/eknigh01.htm)
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand- fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style, they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me; they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee. I have at one time or another been in love with my mother, 1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum), and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece (she sends me letters in large block print, and her picture is the only one that smiles at me). I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews, and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took off and caught a freight (they say). Hes discussed each year when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in the clan, he is an empty space. My fathers mother, who is 93 and who keeps the Family Bible with everbodys birth dates (and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no place in her Bible for whereabouts unknown.
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr/like a salmon quitting the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birth stream/I hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks. I walked barefooted in my grandmothers backyard/I smelled the old land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men/ I flirted with the women/I had a ball till the caps ran out and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother and split/my guts were screaming for junk/but I was almost contented/I had almost caught up with me. (The next day in Memphis I cracked a croakers crib for a fix.) This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them, they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children to float in the space between.