The Idea of Ancestry

by Etheridge Knight

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The Poem

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“The Idea of Ancestry” is a forty-two-line poem in free verse divided into two parts of three and two stanzas, respectively. The title names the subject of the poem—the poet’s connection to his family, his birthplace, and his culture. The poem is written in the autobiographical, first-person voice of Knight. In stanza 1 of part 1, the poet describes his cell in prison, the walls covered with “47” photographs of his relatives. He reclines on his bunk and contemplates the pictures, imagining they are alive and looking at him. Pointedly, he reflects that he shares identities with them: “I am all of them, they are all of me.” He ends the reflection and the stanza with a statement that presents a radical shift in point of view: “They are thee.” “Thee” addresses all the poem’s readers, indeed all of humanity.

In stanza 2, the poet inventories the twelve relatives he has been “in love” with, starting with his mother and ending with a seven-year-old niece who sends him letters in prison. One of the aunts he loved went into an asylum. It is not clear if all these relatives are female. In stanza 3, the poet gives an inventory of his male relatives, especially those with whom he shares the same name. He considers, in particular, a fugitive uncle who has, since age fifteen, been conspicuous by his absence. This uncle is missed each year by the family at its reunions, particularly by the poet’s ninety-three-year-old grandmother (“my father’s mother”) who keeps track of everybody’s birth and death dates in the “Family Bible.”

In the first stanza of part 2, the poet’s attention turns from the members of his family to himself as he recalls his beginnings in Mississippi, his grandfathers’ graves there, and his return visit the previous year. He says his visit from Los Angeles was almost strengthening enough to allow him to break his drug habit—but not quite. He therefore takes drugs (“caps”) and walks barefoot in his grandmother’s backyard, flirts with the local women, and has fun until he runs out of narcotics, experiences withdrawal pain, and ends up stealing drugs from a doctor’s house (“cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix”). In the second stanza of part 2—the poem’s final stanza—the poet describes himself again in his prison cell. It is “Fall,” the poem’s dominant season. He repeats his reference to his forty-seven photographs of “black faces.” In stanza 1, “they stare” at him. In this final stanza, he stares back at them. He repeats that he is “all of them, they are all of [him].” Climactically, he also repeats that “they are thee,” addressing the reader and perhaps himself, as if talking to himself as people in solitary environments such as prison might. Finally, the poet announces that he has “no sons” to take a place in the world that he shares with the reader (“thee”).

Forms and Devices

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Knight’s poetry is essentially oral. His own voice was a baritone warble, full of water and passion, exactly right for the poetic diction he created. His poems are rich with single-syllable words, and “The Idea of Ancestry” is no exception. Monosyllabic words outnumber polysyllabic words by over four to one through the first four stanzas, an effect that is multiplied until the proportion is ten to one in the final stanza. Monosyllabic words arrest rhythm and are the discourse of the arrested time of the imprisoned poet who is forbidden participation in the flow of his “birthstream”—and thus in history, wherein “ancestry” occurs. The poem’s grammar and punctuation are resolutely simple:...

(This entire section contains 524 words.)

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The poem’s lines do not begin with capitalized words; integer numbers—1, 2, and 3, for example—are not spelled out; and words such as “yr,” “1st,” and “2nd” are adopted, though “year” is also used. Notably, after its use as the principal word in the title, “ancestry” is not among the words used in the poem. Meanwhile, additional oral characteristics of the poem are in keeping with its elemental and emotionally simple meaning. For example, memorized inventories of the contents of one’s life are typical of oral culture, and certain kinds of oral poetry are designed to collect and remember the personalities of family members. The poem also inventories the poet’s personal experience. He has forty-seven photographs of forty-seven relatives, indexed as “father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand/ fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews.” He reports having been “in love” with twelve relatives, whom he enumerates. Next he inventories his male relative namesakes—eight of them. In part 2 of the poem, an inventory of ten declarative sentences enumerates the events of his trip to his Mississippi birthplace.

Significantly, the poem’s most important figurative language occurs in part 2 of the poem. The first example is its central metaphor, “like a salmon quitting/ the cold ocean—leaping and bucking up his birthstream,” which is completed in the last stanza, “a gray stone wall damming my stream,[I] flop on my bunk and stare” (like a fish). The second example employs an oddly esoteric diction in the “electric/ messages” from his home in Mississippi that are “galvanizing” his “genes.” The third example is a sampling of a drug addict’s jargon: “a monkey on my back” and “I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.” Otherwise, the poem’s diction is literal. These details of the poet’s simple personal culture are nevertheless divided in the diptych structure of the poem’s two parts, hinged like a tabletop photograph frame. The parts are pictures, respectively, of Knight’s relatives and of Knight himself. A final feature worth noting about the poem is the average number of syllables in its lines. The first forty-one lines have an average of thirteen syllables. The last line, “to float in the space between,” is emphatically truncated, one is tempted to say decapitated, at seven, followed by the endless space beyond the end of the poem, an emptiness in place of the “sons” the poet does not have.