Although “Knoxville, Tennessee” does not address any specific issues regarding race, it was published at a time when Giovanni’s writing was very much concerned with the question of black identity. Other selections in Black Judgement, the volume in which this poem was first published, make affirmative statements about being black (such as “Beautiful Black Men”) and about mocking the white males who held political power (such as “Ugly Honkies, or The Election Game and How to Win It”). A prose poem titled “Reflections on April 4, 1968,” about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., begins with the line “What can I, a poor Black woman, do to destroy America?” It goes on to state, “[t]he assassination of Martin Luther King is an act of war. President Johnson, your unfriendly candidate, has declared war on Black people.” This book was published during the Civil Rights Movement, a time when black-American writers were struggling to use words to affirm the cultural identity of their people.
Historically, blacks in America have met resistance to attempts to form a cultural identity. From the time the first Africans were brought to the new world as slaves in 1501 to the fall of the Confederacy in 1864, it was in the interest of mainstream culture to view blacks as subhuman, lacking in the mental and emotional capacity to form authentic, significant cultural ties. After the end of the Civil War, it was in the interest of whites, especially those on the lower end of the social strata, to promote the myth that held blacks to be too incompetent to control their own fate through property ownership and voting. Laws were passed to keep the races separate and to keep blacks out of the political process, assuring that organized black voters would not be able to change oppressive laws. These laws, referred to collectively as “Jim Crow laws” (after a foolish black character in minstrel comedies), claimed to offer blacks “separate but equal” facilities, such as schooling and public transportation. In reality, the facilities provided for black citizens were not equal to, rather far worse than, those provided for whites.
The struggle against racial discrimination in America made great strides in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court found the “separate but equal” doctrine to be unconstitutional while ruling on the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. While the case specifically discussed the issue of integrating public schools, its basic principle came to be used to tear down racial barriers in all areas of society. In 1955, Rosa Parks, a Montgomery, Alabama resident, refused to sit in the back of a public bus, as blacks were required to do by law. Her arrest and a subsequent boycott of the Montgomery bus system by blacks served to change the law and showed blacks the power of presenting a united front. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy proposed far-reaching legislation to ensure the rights of black citizens a hundred years after President Lincoln had abolished slavery in America with the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Black Pride movement was both a cause and an effect of the push for civil rights. A major psychological barrier was breached as black Americans became increasingly aware throughout the twentieth century of their own rich culture and of the artificial standards of mainstream culture that associated black traditions and physical characteristics with shame and ugliness. During the mid-1960s, authors and social critics made a point of emphasizing the beauty of black life. “Black is beautiful” became a popular slogan in the movement for racial equality, along with “Black Power.” In this context, Giovanni’s inflamed condemnation of the traditionally white power structure in Black Judgement was a fairly common claim for the legitimacy blacks had been denied for hundreds of years.
“Knoxville, Tennessee” is not written from a...
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