As black writers and artists in the late 1960’s reached for words to express their political opinions, Etheridge Knight emerged on the scene, and his voice proved perfect for the times. Like the works of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti), Randall, and Sanchez, Knight’s poems celebrate black heritage and criticize injustices. What readers will find in Knight’s poetry is an attempt to understand belonging and racial isolation in American society. Even after his death, his poetry acts as a testament to the power of freedom and the ability of even a prisoner to imagine it. Knight wrote about life behind bars, unveiling a humanity in prisoners that most Americans, black or white, never knew existed. At the same time, his poetry reveals links between the ways black people inside and outside prisons survived.
Poems such as “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” epitomized the standard for what in the early 1960’s was still called Negro literature. A New York City poet then named Jones (later Baraka) wrote in a 1962 essay, “The Myth of a Negro Literature”:Negro Literature, to be a legitimate product of the Negro experience in America, must get at that experience in exactly the terms America has proposed for it in its most ruthless identity.
Like many of the writers and painters during the Black Arts movement that surfaced in major urban centers between 1965 and 1975, Knight believed that a black artist’s main duty was to expose the lies of the white-dominated society. In an interview, he once said that the traditional idea of the aesthetic drawn from Western European history demands that the artist speak only of the beautiful. However, that aesthetic definition was a problem because African Americans were identified in the traditional European mind as not beautiful. In fact, the broader society saw most of African American life as ugly. Black artists hoped to erase that mind-set. They saw art as a force through which they could move people of all races toward understanding and respect. Knight expressed the view that black writers must grasp the collective vision of African Americans and use writing to return that truth to the people.
Knight began to write poetry in prison, but he did not come to the task cold. He was an accomplished reciter, according to scholar Shirley Lumpkin. In the African American tradition, reciters made “toasts,” which were long, memorized, narrative poems, often in rhymed couplets. The subjects of these toasts were typically sex, drugs, and fights. Like later rap and hip-hop artists, reciters wove the stories in gritty, sometimes obscene street language. Indiana State Prison toasts honed Knight’s skill in the art form and opened his eyes to poetry’s potential. Poetry was what brought Knight into contact with Brooks and Randall, who exposed Knight to the world.
In Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known (1975), Randall states, “Knight sees himself as being one with Black people.” As in the toasts, in rap and hip-hop, rhyme becomes the glue in the black community. “Knight does not abjure rime like many contemporary poets,” Randall wrote. “He says the average Black man in the streets defines poetry as something that rimes, and Knight appeals to the folk by riming.” Knight’s view of the world and himself was forged in the anguish that comes from trying to make it as an outsider. His writings show that he saw African Americans as outcasts everywhere outside their culture, finding roots only in family connections.
“Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane”
In “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” (from Poems from Prison), Knight turns an uncontrollable prisoner into a new-day folk hero. Hard Rock is a Paul Bunyan without a pretty fate. The...
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