Etheridge Knight

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1597

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 author understood that most African American lives, even mythic ones, do not have happy endings. The poem also shows that sometimes heroes are not what most people (meaning whites) see as nice or pretty. In the language of the incarcerated, Knight laid out the heroic stature:

“Ol Hard Rock! Man, that’s one crazy nigger.”And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock once bitA screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.

To many, those details are as alienating as the description:

Hard Rock was “known not to take no shitFrom nobody,” and he had the scars to prove it:Split purple lips, lumped ears, welts aboveHis yellow eyes, and one long scar that cutAcross his temple and plowed through a thickCanopy of kinky hair.

The prisoner, Knight recognized, is an archetype of all black Americans, only nominally “free” but really imprisoned. In prison, the prisoner stays in a hole, a tiny cell devoid of light. The guards’ intimidation cannot break the man’s spirit, so the prison doctors give him a lobotomy. They take his ability to think. Knight saw that scenario as identical to the experience of the descendants of Africans in the United States. In Mississippi and other places, he had seen black people who tried to stand tall against the onslaught of racial oppression either killed or, like the fictional Hard Rock, tamed:

A screw who knew Hard RockFrom before shook him down and barked in his faceAnd Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly.His eyes empty like knot holes in a fence.

The poem captures the disappointment and defeat Knight saw in black men on both sides of the walls:

We turned away our eyes to the ground. Crushed.He had been our Destroyer, the doer of thingsWe dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do.

“The Idea of Ancestry”

Knight reflects on the connections between imprisoned and free blacks in both “The Idea of Ancestry,” from Poems from Prison, and “A Poem for Myself (Or Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy),” from Born of a Woman. In the first part of “The Idea of Ancestry,” he wrote:

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 blackfaces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand- fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,

cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stareacross the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I knowtheir 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.

After exploring the variety of their individualism, he concludes differences cannot break family ties:

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just tookoff and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each yearwhen the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness inthe clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There isno place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”

Works written after prison extended Knight’s reflections on connections. When considered to its fullest extent, what binds people is love. Knight’s reflection on ancestry in “The Idea of Ancestry” reveals an understanding of a family, the accidental space where one shares traits and foibles with loved ones. “Accidental” refers to things outside a person’s control. The ability to create family lines was stripped from African Americans for generations. The practice of selling slaves without regard for emotional ties also made it hard to keep track of the existing linkages.

“A Poem for Myself”

Many of Knight’s poems openly grapple with questions of belonging, a theme shared by legendary black poets such as Langston Hughes and Sterling A. Brown. This theme is particularly clear in the blues poem “A Poem for Myself (Or Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy)”:

I was born in Mississippi;I walked barefooted thru the mud.Born black in Mississippi,Walked barefooted thru the mud.But when I reached the age of twelveI left that place for good.

The narrative stanza sounds no different from the lines of a traditional Mississippi blues ballad. Many black poets, particularly during the Harlem Renaissance in the early twentieth century, used the style and meter of blues music. Sung ballads usually have three iambic pentameter lines with the second line repeated. Knight slightly varies the meter, echoing the first line in the third and the second line in the fourth to create a more accessible feel and slightly disguise the poem’s basic blues flavor.

Singing the blues

In a review of Born of a Woman, scholar Patricia Liggins Hill described Knight as a blues singer, “whose life has been ’full of trouble’ and thus whose songs resound a variety of blues moods, feelings, and experiences and later take on the specific form of a blues musical composition.” In Obsidian (Summer/Winter, 1981), Craig Werner states that Knight “merges musical rhythms with traditional metrical devices, reflecting the assertion of an Afro-American cultural identity within a Euro-American context.” If the blues form bodes defiance of established norms, it becomes as rebellious as the use of rhyme. It becomes yet another way to identify with the masses, which is clearly more of Knight’s interest than meeting Western European standards. Some critics found Knight’s language objectionable and unpoetic, and judged his use of verse forms to be poor. However, others praised the vitality of his language and his wide-ranging subject matter, noting the emotion conveyed by his poems and the freshness of his voice..

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Knight, Etheridge