15 June 2010
by Justice Putnam
Black Kos, Tuesday's Chile, Poetry Editor
Returning with a drug habit he acquired while serving in Korea, Etheridge Knight was arrested for robbery and sentenced in 1960 to eight years in Indiana State Prison. While serving time, he began to write poetry and corresponded with members of the burgeoning Black Arts Movement; Gwendolyn Brooks was one and enthusiastically championed him and his prison poetry. His first volume "Poems From Prison" was published in 1968 while he was still incarcerated. It was an immediate success and he continued to write while out of prison, receiving grants and honoraria from The Guggenheim Foundation and The National Endowment of the Arts, among others. In 1990, at the age of 49, Knight earned a Bachelor's degree in American Poetry and Criminal Justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis. He died the next year of lung cancer.
The Idea of Ancestry
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).He's discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space.My father's mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everbody's birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him.There is no
place in her Bible for "whereabouts unknown."
-- Etheridge Knight