Books by Etheridge Knight
Poems from Prison /
Black Voices from Prison
Belly Song and Other Poems
Born of a Woman
Essential Etheridge Knight
* * * *
& the Black Aesthetic
I think the Black Aesthetic differs from the
European Aesthetic mainly . . . because it does not separate art
or aesthetics from the other levels of life. It does not
separate art from politics, art from economics, art from ethics,
or art from religion. Art is a functional and a commercial
endeavor. The artist is not separate from the people. If you
were to trace the separation of art from life historically, you
would trace it back to the Greeks when Plato and others made the
“head thing” the ideal—reasoning being the ideal—there
was a separation between reason and emotion. There was a
It is like people trying to separate church
and state. How in the hell can you separate church and state? A
man’s politics is determined by how he views the world, how he
sees God. Aesthetics, to me, means how one sees beauty, truth and
love as they relate to all levels of life—not just watching
the sunset, but how one’s politics are dealt with and how
one’s economics are dealt with. All art stems basically from
economics. All the Western dances and all the songs, that people
call classical music grew out of formulas—European formulas.
All of our blues and things that we
considered cultural grew out of our economics. People sing about
the river rising because their crops are going to be fucked up.
It’s economics. I don’t make the distinction between
aesthetics and ethics and politics or whatever other aspect of a
man’s existence. One might say this is political, and this is
not political. As Gwendolyn Brooks says, “just being Black in
this country and walking down the street is a political act.”
Anytime you walk into a place where there is a whole bunch of
“peckerwoods,” you are making a political act.
When you are wearing bell bottom pants and a
beard and a big Afro, you are making a political statement by
merely walking in there. Everything is political, everything is
aesthetical, and everything is ethical.
Politics, Religion &
A group of people controlled by another group
of people—every level of existence is political. There is no
black preacher that ever preached that wasn’t making a
political statement. If I had to lump it together, I would lump
it closer to religion and economics. It is no accident that most
of our leaders, even before Nat Turner, were religiously
inclined. They have all been preachers. From Nat Turner to
Malcolm X, they have been heavy into religion. I see religion as
a total view of life. Religion includes economics, politics,
ethics, aesthetics, and all that. That’s how I view religion.
Historically, artists were connected with the church first. The
priest and the artist were one and the same.
Politics & Art
In the first place, I would say such critics
are coming from European definitions. Even though Imamu Baraka
and I differ on a lot of things, I would say he has evolved
honestly and naturally. Art would necessarily lead to his
position. If you are a black artist in this country at this
time, you cannot help but be a politician, a wheeler-dealer.
That’s what’s necessary—to deal. One of the statements
that he made is that it is all theater. In a lot of ways it is
theater. What’s happening with him and that Dago in Newark is
theater. He calls Baraka “the slick nigger” and Baraka calls
him “Moby Dick, the big white whale.”
What I am saying is that the idea that poetry
or the other arts do not involve all the other levels of life is
a European concept. Baraka is a total person, not only an
artist; he is not an artist separated from the community. In my
opinion, the greatest artist alive in this country today is
Elijah Mohammad. A lot of people ain’t got onto the Messenger.
I can’t accept his theology because I have been schooled in
the European thing, too. That brother has survived, and all us
are dealing with the psychological fallout of his
teaching—black education, black economics, etc., which he
talked about in the 1930s, when they put him in jail. Remember,
he wouldn’t go to fight the Japanese in the 1940s.
We have all of these war protesters now. This
was a brother who wouldn’t go way back then, and the put him
in jail and he spent his time and kept on doing what he was
doing. That’s just a little old “nigger man” with a
fourth-grade education. He didn’t have a formal education. To
me, he is the greatest artist. Imamu Baraka, as a poet, as an
artist, as a person, has evolved logically.
I disagree with some of his methods, because
in a lot of ways he is still playing out the European
temperamentalist bag, which I don’t think we can afford. In
some ways, I am a realist. Things hurt me, and I know they hurt
me, and I say that. I don’t fool myself, give you the “snow
job,” of what’s going on. It hurts to be aware in this
country. They are killing us.
The brother, Kalamu ya Salaam, who was talking about
the Delta and the flooding, you still got Nebraska, Montana,
Idaho, Nevada, Ohio, Indiana. These “peckerwoods” can still
raise enough food to feed half the world. He [Kalamu] has a
small view of that flooding. If you are in the immediate
vicinity of the flooding areas, you are, of course, concerned,
but in three hours’ time you can be in Montana where honky
farmers are still plowing hundreds and thousands of acres. . .
Poeting & Hustling
Let me tell you something. I have no
secrets, no private life. There have been magazines, like the North West Review, that have asked me for poems. They’d pay me $50
or $100. I would sit down and write a poem. I am not like you; I
don’t have academic credentials. I did not finish high school.
I live by poeting. I live from the people. I don’t do anything
but poet. Sometimes people attach me to universities. If I
don’t poet, then I am a thief because that’s what I was
doing before I was poeting.
I don’t know anything else to do but hustle
or poet. I write poems for publications. They look good and I
can use them when I list my credentials—I have been published
here and there. But my real poems are for people. What happens
at a reading is very important to me. This has been verified for
people who doubted, and by other poets who have all the
credentials—the University of Cambridge, the whole thing.
For example, a white poet, Donald Hall, who
is a good friend of mine, has the aristocratic New England
thing—he went to Harvard and Cambridge. I asked him if he had
a choice between publishing and reading which he would prefer?
He wrote back and said, “Why did you ask me such a silly-ass
question? Publishing, I would throw it away—where it’s at it's
what’s happening with me and the audience.” I had placed him
in a different bag, to tell you the truth. Coming from my
background, I had taken a kind of anti-intellectual position.
Before I met him, I thought he would say, “He ain’t a
college graduate; what the fuck he knows?”
When I met him, I found out he was just
another guy who might have reflected more than I did. As soon as
something happened to me, I just acted right off. He stopped and
reflected a minute. That was the main difference. He is a
helluva poet. A lot of black poets say, “Well, he is white.”
Just as we are sitting here drinking a bear and liquor, I was in
his living room, and he said, “Imamu Baraka thinks that I
can’t get to him. I can get to him.” He did. So, it ain’t
Sure, black poetry is ideological. There are
other characteristics that distinguish it. To say that other
people can’t get to it is crazy. Then we would have to admit
that you can’t get to William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway.
But I know well you can.
Black Audience First?
Yes. Who else? That argument has come up, and
to me it is a racist’s reaction. Nobody says anything about
the Irish playwrights or Shakespeare, or the German or French
writing to German or French people. There is always an audience
in mind. Jean Paul Sartre made it clear—I always use him
because people accept him as an authority. In his essay, “For
Whom Does One Write,” he pointed out clearly that to the
people in the French underground during the Nazi occupation the
word boche meant
something completely different from what it meant to anybody
Just like the word motherfucker
means something different to us—nobody else can understand it.
What I am saying is that through extension we are humanists in
the beginning, but how are you going to love or speak to
somebody else if you can’t speak to your own brothers and
sisters? What business do I have speaking to the Chinese,
Japanese, French, Italians, the English, if I can’t speak to a
brother? No Chinese can tell me anything speaking to me, because
I am going to ask. It is important that (a Japanese, a Chinese,
an Italian or a Frenchman) knows what he is saying to his people
You definitely have to speak to people of your own
experiences or your own history. By extensions of history, all
human beings are the same. We have our Sampsons and our
Jezebels. Instead of Sampson, we have John Henry. Instead of
Jezebel, we have Frankie and Johnnie. All people have the same
history, the same men, the same heroes. They are just played on
differently. We have some pretty good ones. You talk about John
Henry and Staggerlee. Just means niggers. . . .
Gwendolyn Brooks said, once when she came to the
prison where I was to read, “Everybody defines poetry.” Her
definition was that poetry is a telescope turned upside down.
You are looking at life from one little specific thing. All art
is specific, really. Now, from this specific comes the general.
If I get into me, if I am true to me, I assume I can bet that
just about have where you are also. I know damn well if
three-headed man in a flying saucer landed right there, I would
get scared and so would you. Just by my own feelings, I bet you
that you got scared.
recognized my [art] stems from the
specific. If he is honest, a black artist can’t help directing
his art to a black audience. The same way a French artist
can’t help but direct his art to a French audience. It
doesn’t mean that the other people can’t understand it,
can’t get into it, on a lot of levels. I cannot get into
Rudyard Kipling. He is an imperialist, an English colonist
motherfucker. I have gotten into “If,” but where he was
coming from does not enlighten me.
I came to poetry not through any academic
channels. The first poet I was introduced to was a village poet,
“Hound Mouth.” I never knew any other name but “Hound
Mouth.” He never wrote anything, but he would sit in the park
and tell toasts. They were really narrative poems, although we
called them toasts. For example, he would tell us about the
flood of 1937. The fire burning down a dance hall in Tupelo,
Mississippi—he would tell us about that. The sinking of the Titanic,
the signifying monkey, the pool;-shooting monkey—he’d tell
them all for hours. He had them all in his head. If somebody
said something about publishing some of it, he would not know
how to write to a magazine.
Origins—Mississippi & Kentucky
Paducah, Kentucky. My daddy was a common
laborer. He didn’t make it as a farmer. He did not like to
work hard enough to be a farmer, so he moved into town. At that
time, the Kentucky Dam was being built. There was a great need
for black labor, strong black backs. So he moved up—he caught
a freight train up in 1939, right after the big flood, worked
two or three months and sent money back. At that time, there
were my mother, my two oldest brothers, my oldest sister, and
Later on, there were four other sisters,
younger children, who were born. Anyway, we moved up to Paducah,
Kentucky. That’s a helluva town. Its claim to fame is Alben
Barkley, who was Truman’s Vice President, and Irving Cobb, the
home spun humorist. The town was named after Chief Paducah, a
helluva Indian, who killed a lot of [whites].
My teenage life was spent in Kentucky. Actually,
Kentucky is no different from Mississippi. When I was 11, 12, 13
and 14, I came back to Mississippi to spend the summers. My
mother and father would send us back to my uncle in the country
to spend the summers to keep us out of trouble in big cities.
All that time, I started running away from home—I started
noticing things and people. I didn’t like my old man too much.
I grew up, and at 17 went to the Army.
I said I am not going to wind up in this town and
accept the same kind of destiny that my father accepted. I am
going to break out here, so I went to the Army. In the Army I
went to Korea, saw people and some things, and, also, got hooked
on drugs. I got out of the Army in 1950. All of the 1950s were
the whole drug scene—skag—I mean for the heavy drug scene.
Pimps, whores, etc. Then I fell and went to prison in 1960 for
armed robbery to get some money to get some drugs. I stayed in
prison eight years, until 1968, and I have been poeting ever
“Died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and
narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence
and poetry brought me back to life.” —Etheridge
I began to define myself as a poet in prison.
Before then, I had been writing toast about incidents, about
things in the neighborhood. I would make them up. When I would
go to jail, guys would come around and say, “Hey,
Knight”—this was especially after supper like a social hour
in jail—“Hey, Knight, tell us a tale.” I would start
telling about somebody who OD-ed or somebody who is fucking
somebody else’s old lady. I started creating. Then I got in
what is called legitimate poetry in prison and started
submitting to a wider audience.
Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall are
mainly responsible for that. Two beautiful people, man. They
would come down the “joint” and see me. They would give me
advice, and I would give them advice. I started writing in the
sense you mean it in prison. In Korea I was awfully
confused—you have to remember that I was only seventeen and I
dug some things that were too heavy for a seventeen year old to
handle, so I quit.
I said to myself I am not going to be
involved in this shit anymore. I ain’t going to fight—you
take your guns; I ain’t going to kill and they said, “You
are crazy.” I said, you call me whatever you want to call me,
and I gave my gun to my Company Commander. He couldn’t
understand it. I said, “I refuse to be involved in this kind
of shit anymore. You got me over here about to be killed, about
to have me kill someone, and it has nothing to do with me.
You see, that’s true because I understand
poetry and the poet as a song—as a chant; the poem and the
poet are like songs. They are mystical. When you say things in
chant, they take on a different meaning from what you say—and
you may be saying the same words—in everyday speech. What’s
involved is music—a kind of arrangement of the sounds that
create in you a certain feeling. When you go to church, for
example, certain things happen in church.
The preacher’s preaching and the choir’s
singing create in you a certain receptiveness—the feeling that
you are in church. If everybody starts bowing their heads, you
bow your head. In music, a certain beat is set up and you find
yourself patting your foot. These are the same rituals in
poetry. That’s the reason for the devices in poetry—rhyme
and rhythm. They set up a oneness. If anyone is patting their
feet at the same time, a ritual is being played out. Basically,
I see the poet as singing in a sense that his sounds are put
together in harmony or in a structure which differs from just
I see poets basically as singers, as
preachers, as prophets. The poems that I look at, the poems that
I see, the things that I call poetry—you know—speak about
big things in human life—death, war, freedom, and birth. These
kinds of things can only be spoken about in a way that you can
feel them. They can only be spoken about in symbols, in myths.
You deal with these big things, not in terms of how much a
product costs—e.g., the price of bread—but whether you are a
slave or whether you are not a slave, or whether you are a good
man or a bad man, etc.
When you are speaking of feelings, you can’t present
them in prose, in everyday English; they must be present through
symbols or myths. That’s why religion has been so effective in
speaking to people. The big questions concern economics,
politics, medicine, etc. All of these things answer the
question: Where did I come from and where am I going? Religion
and poetry speak in symbols and myths and try to answer big
Conception & Musicality
It does not come with the conception. The conception
comes with an awareness of life, and the music comes with trying
to express that certain awareness—that certain feeling. You
have a preacher, a politician, an economist seeing the same
situation—let’s say, the energy crisis. The economist would
tell you all about the production of oil and supply and demand,
but the politician would tell you which country has got the
oil—like the Jews or the Arabs. The preacher would put it in
that same context. The economist would write a paper, the
politician would make a speech, and the preacher would preach a
sermon about the same thing, but they are coming from different
places. The poet would write a poem.
in and Out of Prison
Actually it [Belly
Songs and Other Poems] was not easier, because in all the
real senses I am still in prison. If I can articulate a minute.
To make a poem or to preach a sermon or to create in any sense,
you become extremely aware. I think it is what the Greeks meant
when you are caught up in the Muses. For the Nigerians, among
the Yoruba people, there is a word which refers to the power
taking over you. In other words, you become extremely aware.
It’s that you are able to relate to the whole world what you
see and hear.
Prison is very painful reality. If you walk into a
meadow and see flowers, while the sun is shining brightly, and
you are in love with a young girl, you are extremely aware then,
too. Those things you are aware of are pleasant. You are just as
aware when you are caught up in prison, but there ain’t no
flowers. That’s painful. All of us are going to try to avoid
pain. That’s why it’s harder. You can sit and write about
the sunset and love; or sit, watch the sun go down on the sea,
and that does not hurt—that ain’t painful. That’s why it
is hard. It’s difficult.
Collective Vision of Black
Sometimes you do things in poems that you
don’t consciously do, and you find out that you want to do
them later if you think about it. What hangs me up is being
aware, being aware of what is wrong with what is happening. Then
you know or you feel that common feeling with all people. If you
know yourself—your own feelings well enough—you can’t be
pretty certain that they are the feeling among people in the
same situation. Being aware means that you are one with the
feelings of other people—their dreams and fears, everything
If you can articulate or express those
feelings in your art honestly, then you are expressing the
general feelings of other people. It is like in prison. In
prison, maybe only two percent of the people participate in a
riot, but if that riot is honest—is based on honest
feelings—you can bet ninety-nine percent of the prisoners felt
the same way while only two percent took action. They are
reflecting the feelings of ninety-nine percent of the people in
It is the same way with the artist in
society. If he is honest with his feelings and expresses them
honestly, then he is expressing the feelings of most of the
people. … One man is afraid to say to another, “Hey, I am
scared. I don’t think that this is right. I don’t want to do
it.” In the Watergate affair, if one of those guys had said,
“Hey, naw, I ain’t going to do this; this is wrong,” it
wouldn’t have happened. You get caught up in your own images.
I think an artist is obligated like a priest.
A preacher is obligated to tell the truth no matter what
happens. People look to priests, poets, an artists to tell the
truth, and by identification they somehow change their own
feelings. People know if an artist is full of bullshit. They
know if a preacher is “bullshitting” them. Everybody in this
country knows that black people are being fucked over.
The dumbest, most illiterate hillbilly
sharecropper knows that black people are being fucked over. And
if an artist stands up and says that black people are being
fucked over, the people know he is not telling the truth. He
loses their respect. Black artists should tell the truth about
reality. The only thing you can be aware of is your reality.
Any black artist whose main theme is not enslavement
has to be lying or crazy, because the most real thing to a human
being is whether he is free or not. And we are not free.
Everything else takes second place to that.
Narrative Form of Black Folk
I didn’t have it in mind. It came about
naturally to me out of my experience. I grew up in Kentucky.
When I was seven or eight years old, I would hang around in
poolrooms and listen to toasts, and later I started telling
them. So, you see, I grew up telling tales such as “Shine”
and the “Signifying Monkey.” I grew up listening to Baptist
preachers—the form, for example of Martin Luther King and the
rhythm of the folk sermon. So I grew up with that. Long before I
published, I was telling toasts—all the time I was in the
Army, in prison and on the streets. Therefore, it was not a
conscious thing; it just naturally developed.
of “For Freckled-Faced Gerald”
I was lying in my cell reading one night,
when all the guys came in. I had been working on the prison
newspaper and had gotten off work early. When they came in, the
word came that a young brother had been raped in the prison
laundry by some older cons.
At the time I was reading James Baldwin’s Another
Country. You remember that in the novel Rufus commits
suicide. I got a little angry. Here was this young
brother—only sixteen and in prison. Also, at the same time he
came into the joint, there were about five or six youngsters in
there. But he was the youngest. There was also a young white boy
from Indianapolis who had burglarized some home and shot some
people. He had gotten life, too. When he came to prison, the
warden made him houseboy and kept him outside the
But the warden put Gerald back inside the
wall because he was just a nigger. I was thinking of all of
that. And I was thinking about Baldwin’s character, Rufus, who
committed suicide. And here was Gerald struggling to survive.
(Suicide is such an uncommon thing among black people. We kill
ourselves through alcohol or drugs, or we kill each other. But
direct suicide is uncommon.) I wrote that poem that night.
All of those things led up to it. I was
trying to express what I saw happening around me and to talk
about the subject of oppression. Here we are—black people,
oppressed. In this country, we are oppressed racially and
sexually. Women are oppressed. Homosexuals in prison and in the
larger society are oppressed. If you are black, a woman, a
lesbian and you’re in prison, you are oppressed four times.
Black men will talk about being free, yet
they’ll have a woman walking four paces behind them and go
“fag hunting.” We cannot win our freedom at the expense of
anybody. Many blacks—artists, educators, politicians, and
other leaders—will say there’s nothing to women’s
liberation or gay liberation. Or they will argue that if we have
to become fascists to win our freedom, it’s better for us to
have the oppressors in jail than for them to have us. But I
don’t feel that way; I don’t think we can be free that way.
I don’t think that conditions of the world
would allow us to be free at the expense of anybody else. The
Europeans were the last people to dominate the world racially. I
don’t think we can dominate the world racially. If you’re
going to come from a point of view of race, then the Chinese
will win since there are more of them than anyone else. We
cannot say that naturals are the best things in the world.
If we argue that way, the Chinese can say slanted eyes
are the best. Since there are more of them, they would have to
be right. I don’t think we can come from that. Everybody has
to be free. I was feeling those things and thinking about Gerald
when I wrote the poem. Why did Rufus kill himself? Was it
because he was black, or was it because he was a homosexual?
That’s how the poem came about.
Idea of Ancestry”
: It has to do with identity—being one with
other people. That poem came when I was in prison also. I had
just gone through a thing of being in the hole for days. The
first two or three days in the hole, you sing songs, recite
Shakespeare, masturbate, and think about the streets. After
about ten days in there, you stop singing songs and start
remembering your early life. You deal with those kinds of thing
when you go into prison. When you first go there, they take away
your name—the name given you at birth. If you’re black, you
don’t accept that name anyway. You know somewhere names means
more than that. It’s the whole thing of identity. You’re not
called Etheridge Knight, but 35652. When they bring your mail,
they say 35652. The letter could be from your mother. If anybody
knows your name, she does. But they yell 35652. It’s the
question of identity. To keep your sanity, you have to place
yourself in the context of the world somehow. I had just been in
the hole some thirty or forty days and that poem came.
I write haiku for two reasons. After I began to define myself as a poet, I understood
that you should master your art form. John Coltrane mastered the
tenor saxophone and two or three other instruments. In order for
him to communicate well what he felt, he had to master his art
form. To me writing haiku is good exercise. I dig and respect
them because they create an image—paint a picture—so
precisely. They draw pictures in very clean lines. You say what
you want to say symbolically. I work with haiku a lot in my
attempt to handle the language—the word. I don’t see haiku
as a black form, but, then, you utilize whatever modes or
vehicles are available to you.
The Lyricism of “Ilu
the Talking Drum”
I have begun to understand in the past five or
six years what black art—really all art—is about. And
as I developed and defined myself more in the first year of my
poeting, I accepted a European definition of what is good, what
is bad, what is art and what is not, what is red, what is white.
I accepted European definitions, and they caused a big conflict
in me. I was trying to be one thing and I felt another. During
the first years of my poeting, I didn’t define myself as a
poet, and therefore, I did not get into the responsibility and
As I developed more, I began to define myself and
the responsibilities of being who I am and what I am. No matter
who you are, with that come certain responsibilities. As I began
to define myself, I began to thin more about it—I developed, I
took more interest, I did more work in trying to say what I
wanted to say as exactly as possible. Imamu Baraka says that is
the duty of the artist to say what is real as exactly as
For instance, I used to refuse to sell my books
myself. I was hung up in that European artistic thing, until I
found out that Langston Hughes used to pay his way from campus
to campus by selling his books. When I discovered what Hughes
did, I did not have that kind of art-for-art’s-sake hangup
anymore, because the duty of the artist is to communicate with
his people. However that’s done, you do it; you work at it.
Who’s going to write a musical composition and play it and
nobody is going to hear it? He is an irresponsible artist. I
studies more and tried to develop more exactly what I wanted to
Nature & Effect of Poetry
Poetry is one of the art forms that has had
very little influence, until recently, on black people. Music
has, however, influenced black people. All art to me is based on
love. Poetry is one art form. But in the past black people did
not relate to poetry. I guess in “Genesis” I was protesting
that artists are people who come to poetry out of love. I guess
it hurts to offer love and have it rejected. Poetry is low on
the totem pole as far as black people are concerned—that is,
poetry that is acknowledged and generally considered legitimate.
We have always had real poetry, but it was not always recognized
as poetry as defined as poetry. The musician, the preacher, and
the dancer are the true artists in the black community that have
been respected and admired and have always been influential. But
the poet is not. I think that is what I was screaming and
protesting about or trying to say.
Watching B.B. King on T.V.”-- An
Attitude Toward the Blues
We talked about that a whole lot, trying to define
what is culture or what is not. I don’t want to get into a
lot of definitions. To me culture generally is the way people
live, how that is recorded, in what form—that’s the culture.
The communication of the feelings and the aspirations of a
people—how they are communicated are cultural forms, what we
call fine arts.
To me, religion is an art form because
religion just expresses the same thing: the feelings of the
people. They deal with these feelings through myths, symbols,
and rituals. Blues to me do certain things: they validate a
people’s existence; they essentially tell people they are
good, that their life is good; they tell them that they are bad;
and they tell them that they are good people. When you study
religion, you find that almost all religion traces the origin of
these people back to God. If you are in Africa, God is black. If
you are China, God looks Chinese. If you are in Europe, God has
What I am saying that all art deals with the
feelings and history of the people. Music is a cultural form.
People have had to exist. Art validates whatever is necessary
for people to exist at that time. If there is a period in the
history of the people to fight a long time, then all that art
will be about war; the poems, the music, the painting, the
sculpture and everything will have to do with whatever traits
are needed for war—strength, marathons, relays, whatever.
If it is an agricultural people, all art will
have to do with farming. There will be all kinds of dances that
will have to do with economics. If people are enslaved, and if
it is necessary for them to survive—to quote Booker T.
Washington or somebody—“We have to take two steps while it
looks like we are slipping back one in order to advance.” If
it is a period of accommodation to the slave master, then the
art of that period will reflect that.
What I am saying is that the blues to me
represents an era of accommodation. It is a music or song of
protest, not that it is not valid. You have to understand that a
protest art is different from a revolutionary art. A protest art
tells you to accommodate; a revolutionary tells you not to
accommodate but to create—to build something new. In the blues
we screamed about our pain—it was an outlet, it allowed us to
live, it allowed us to survive, but it did not teach us, it did
not move us to any kind of change.
When I see culture and when Sonia [Sanchez]
sees culture, she, I think, is speaking of revolutionary
culture—a culture that is dynamic, that moves and brings about
change in a culture that validates an old system. I grew up on
B.B. King. I came out of the 1940s—B.B. King and “Bird,”
the whole era. I listen to B.B. and feel good.
It is like most of the sermons that I hear
that allow me to get it out—all the shit I got into my belly
that I had to swallow, by just living. It allows me to get it
out; it allows me to live. It does not move me to get up and do
anything about it. It moves me to accept a kick in the ass and
still make it. The music of B.B. King says that to me.
The music of Pharoh Sanders moves me to change—to
stop talking the kicking in the ass, to stop it some kind of
way. To me, that’s where the most valid culture is right now.
Culture, ultimately, to me, is not the vehicle that teaches a
people to accommodate; it is a vehicle that teaches people to
move for some kind of change toward their freedom. No longer do
you just stand pat, but rather you take some kind of action.
That is what I think is happening in that poem.
Charles H. Rowell. An Interview with Etheridge Knight.
(Fall 1996): 940–46. This
interview was conducted in the poet’s home in Indianapolis,
Indiana, between mid–1975 and late 1978, after Dudley Randall
issued Belly Song and Other Poems from Broadside Press.
* * *
Etheridge Knight Poet and Prisoner--An Introduction
By Jean Anaporte-Easton
As an adolescent in Kentucky, Knight ran away
from home repeatedly, and at seventeen forged his parents’
signature to enlist for Korea. Sometime between leaving Korea and
returning to Indianapolis, Indiana, where his family had moved, he
became addicted to heroin. His twenties were spent on the streets,
doing and dealing drugs, pimping, and stealing until his arrest
and conviction for armed robbery in 1960. Such was his rage that
prison officials labeled him an incorrigible and transferred him
from the Indiana State Reformatory to the Indiana State Prison in
Michigan City. He was so angry, he told Art Powers, that he had no
memory of his first few months at the prison. But then, realizing
prison could destroy him, he pulled himself together, read
voraciously, and committed himself to poetry.
His first poem, a tribute to Dinah Washington,
was published in Hoyt Fuller’s Negro
Digest in 1965. Poets no less prestigious than Gwendolyn
Brooks and Dudley Randall visited him at Michigan City. His first
book, Poems from Prison, was published by Randall’s Broadside Press in
1968, while Knight was still in prison. He corresponded with Haki
Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez, poets active in the Black Arts
Movement, and married Sanchez in 1969 upon his release. He left
prison already a major spokesman for the Black Aesthetic, along
with Amiri Baraka, Clarence Major, and Haki Madhubuti.
Outside the prison walls, success carried
Knight forward faster than he was able to move without losing his
balance. As he confessed in his April 5, 1970, letter to Dudley
Randall, he was using heroin again by about August 1969.
Knight’s sense of failure in this letter is so thorough and his
personal losses so great that, in spite of his optimism each time
he returned to a rehab center or hospital, he may have lost
confidence that he really could change. Nevertheless, while he
dropped in and out of jails and hospitals, honors accumulated.
Roberto Giammanco, an Italian sociologist and historian, contacted
Knight about assembling and editing a book to which Knight
contributed a preface, poems, several essays about prison, and a
selection of writings by other inmates at Michigan City. Voci
Dal Caracere [Black Voices from Prison] was published in Bari,
Italy, in 1969. The book was published in English in 1970, and in
1973 Broadside Press brought out Knight’s second book of poems, Belly
Song and Other Poems. His third and fourth collections of
poems, Born of a Woman: New
and Selected Poems (1980) and The
Essential Etheridge Knight (1986), were published,
respectively, by Houghton-Mifflin and the University of Pittsburg
Knight received awards from the Guggenheim
Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1985 the
Poetry Society of America bestowed the Shelley Memorial Award for
distinguished achievement, and in 1986 he received the Before
Columbus Foundation American Book Award in poetry for The
Essential Etheridge Knight. In addition, Knight served as
poet-in-residence at the University of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania;
Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri; and the University
of Hartford in Connecticut. In November 1990, Martin University in
Indianapolis gave him an honorary Bachelor of Arts degree and
commissioned him its Poet Laureate. He died of lung cancer, which
had metastasized to the liver, in March 1991, six weeks short of
his sixtieth birthday. Disregarding intense pain, he kept saying
that if only he could hang on till spring, he could live another
In spite of the achievements and honors Knight
received for his poetry, and in spite of his own commitment to
poetry as a means of social and spiritual healing for both poet
and audience (Price 172–75, McCullough, 22) poetry could not
save Knight. The letter to Dudley Randall, included here, is only
the first in a series of defeats. For the rest of his life, Knight
repeated the cycle of death and resurrection, moving back and
forth between periods of productive writing and drug and alcohol
use. That poetry could not save him is testimony to the power of
his addiction and his own immense self-doubt.
In the interview included here, the earliest
I’ve found, Rowell poses the crucial questions that later
interviewers ask. His questions also reveal Knight’s points of
unease regarding his views of himself as poet and his relation to
black and white audiences. The interview serves as a measure of
change and continuity in Knight’s thinking and a paradigm for
the tangents Knight used in an effort to please all factions
without being co-opted. It also illustrates Knight’s confusion
about who he was and who others wanted him to be. Rowell’s
questions fall into three categories: Knight’s opinions and
practice regarding the politics of that aesthetic, and the
relation between his poetry and his prison experience.
The responses Knight gives to Rowell’s
questions regarding a Black Aesthetic are his own poetics as
well—the inseparable relation between art and life, the oral
nature of poetry, its rhythms, its conception. Knight’s answers
reveal the early stages of his poetics of the trinity of the poet,
the poem, and the people. The circle of communication among the
three elements creates a unity so that “Your sense of your
individual self diminishes, and your sense of your
Greater-Self—I guess religionists would call it your sense of
your God-self—becomes emphasized more” (McCullough 5). In his
best poems and in his readings, Knight transforms this poetics
On the relation between Knight’s practice and
the politics of the Black Aesthetic, however, Knight is on a
slippery slope. In 1968, before his release from prison, he had
written in the Negro Digest that the black poet must create new forms, symbols,
values, and legends; that he “must be accountable … only to
the Black people,” and that he must “hasten his own
dissolution as an individual (in the Western sense) …” (Neal).
Yet by the time this interview take place, Madhubuti has
criticized Knight’s first published his second book, Belly Song and Other Poems, in which the poetic voice often stems
from a lyric and personal source; and Knight has married a white
woman and become a popular poet with white audiences. Rowell asks
Knight to discuss the question of whether the poetic source should
be communal or individual, and he gives Knight three opportunities
to talk about his relation to the white audiences to whom he
reads. . . .
Like many of us, when he feels in control, as
when he offers Healy advice or includes him in a book, he is
confident; but when he feels threatened, as in the fight with
McAnally, he tightens up. In prison, whether he believed in his
role or not, he was regarded as the spokesman for the
African-American inmates. Prison is also where he was first
recognized as a poet. He wrote a column for the prison newspaper;
he wrote letters for illiterate inmates; he told toasts; and, if
prodded, he showed his poems. Powers claims Knight was regarded
among friends as an “arrogant sonofabitch,” although Powers
found him to have the gentle, easy-going heart of a poet. Powers
can’t resist adding, nonetheless, that Knight could be “mean
and a petty at times, out of sorts with everyone and everything
around him. …” (117).
Whatever the men may have thought, Knight
apparently felt no pressure to win their approval. Young prisoners
wrote him letters attacking his politics and he replied with more
of the same, no equivocation. Regardless of the pain, prison may
have been the place where Knight experienced more clearly who he
was (see also McCullough, 4).
Knight told the interviewer Ron Price that his
“major metaphor” was prison (168). Through his last reading,
Knight continued to include the early poems about his prison
experience and at least one prison joke. He frequently referred to
prison in his conversation. Prison stood for emptiness and
aloneness. Yet Knight writes in letters from the Bridgeport jail
descriptions of the jail sounds at night and of a convict called
“Country”—legendary in the way that Hard Rock was
legendary—with a poignancy that approaches romanticization.
If Knight’s major metaphor was prison, his
metaphor for art was freedom (Price). Freedom stood for love, for
reaching out, being at the center of life. Yet whenever Knight
reached freedom, he let go. A previously unpublished poem, “I Am
a Tree, My Lovers Fly to and from Me,” expresses both emptiness
and fear. As in “Belly Song,” the individual lover faced with
his beloved falls back into the state of aloneness which love
could assuage. The pain of that aloneness is also an alienation
from himself, and we are back at “Junky’s Song”: “A war,
me against my / self / .…” Instead of wholeness there was the
“hole” of solitary confinement or the emptiness of looking
within triggered by physical freedom. The love of self that he
speaks of to Healy and Randall is something he appears never
really to have learned. Lacking that love or too vulnerable to
counter the pain, Knight may not have been able to, as he exhorts
Healy, “write, write, write, write,” letting the truths about
who he was “spill” through the typewriter.
Knight’s contributions to American poetry lie
in his enduring “populism” as he called it. His language is
clear and direct, understandable to people who are not writers and
critics. He improvised on blues, folk rhythms and folk narratives
to explore his own experiences and contemporary lore (Tracy 9–10
and Hill). To the subject matter and language of American poetry,
he added the prison experience and street slang. The strength of
his best poems comes from the humility with which he told the
truths about his life. His humility and his loving inclusion of
whomever attended his readings enabled people who had never shared
his experiences to recognize themselves. In his times of
confidence, he knew that we all shared these truths—we all lie;
we all desire and fear love; we are all incomplete, longing for
the freedom of wholeness yet sometimes lacking the courage to
Although Knight loops away from direct answers in great
arcs, he is at the same time developing one of the main supports
of his poetics: When the poet speaks from his own specific
experience as honestly as possible—Knight invokes Gwendolyn
Brooks for support—he becomes most universal, most
understandable, not only to those who share his background and
experience, but to others. (In fact, Knight had taken this same
position in prison, complaining to Powers that he could speak for
all black inmates: “I speak only for Etheridge Knight!” .
Nevertheless, Knight does avoid answering these questions
directly. And it is not until a 1982 Callaloo interview that Knight finally confronts head-on, the issue
of reading for white audience: “Some people say, then if you see
the black people as your main audience, then why do you read to
white people? That really ain’t a very cool question”
Griswold, H. Jack, Mike Misenheimer, Art
Powers, and Ed Tromanhauser, eds. An
Eye for an Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Patricia Liggins. “‘Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy’:
Etheridge Knight’s Craft in the Black Oral Tradition.” Mississippi
Quarterly 36 (Winter 1982–83): 21–38.
Etheridge. “I Am a Tree, My Lovers Fly to and from Me,” and
“Junky’s Song.” Papers from the Estate of Etheridge Knight
housed at Irwin Library, Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Letters. The Etheridge Knight Papers, 1964–1991. The Ward M.
Canaday Center for special collections, The University of Toledo
Library’s manuscript collection.
Ken. “Communication and Excommunication: An Interview with
Etheridge Knight.” Callaloo
5.1–2 (February–May 1982): 2–10.
Louis. “A Conversation with Elizabeth McKim and Etheridge
Knight.” Callapooya Collage 15 (August 1991).
Larry, ed. “Black Writers’ Views on Literary Lions and
Values.” Negro Digest 17.3 (January 1968): 38+
Ron. “The Physicality of Poetry: An Interview with Etheridge
Knight.” New Letters
52.2/3 (Winter–Spring 1986): 167–76.
Steven. “A MELUS
Interview: Etheridge Knight.” MELUS
12.2 (Summer 1985): 7–23.
Source: Callaloo •
19.4 (Fall 1996): 940–46
* * *
The Idea of Ancestry
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead),
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles,
cousins (1st & 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
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are
have at one time or another been in love with my
grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7 year old
(she sends me letters written in large block print,
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15,
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother,
who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”
Each Fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr/like a
the cold ocean—leaping and bucking up his
hitchhiked my way from L.A. with 16 caps in my
pocket and a
monkey on my back. and I almost kicked it with
walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard/I
smelled the old
land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit
jars with the men/
flirted with the women/I had a ball till the caps
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my
and split/my guts were screaming for junk/but I was
contended/I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib
for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my
stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or
flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am
all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I
have no sons
float in the space between.
To Dinah Washington
have heard your voice floating, royal and real,
Across the dusky neighborhoods,
And the eyes of old men grow bright, remembering;
Children stop their play to listen,
Remembering—though they have never heard you before,
You are familiar to them:
Queen of the Blues, singing an eternal song.
the scarred booths of Forty-Third street,
“Long Johns” suck in their bellies,
the brass studded leather of Elite-town,
Silk-suited Bucks raise their chins …
Wherever a man is without a warm woman,
a woman without her muscled man,
The eternal song is sung.
Some say you’re sleeping,
But I say you’re singing.
Portrait of Malcolm X
For Charles Baker
has the sign
the time shining
his eyes the high sign
His throat moans
Moses on Sinai and cracks
His lips lay full and flowered
the breast of Mother Africa
His forehead is red
and sacrosanct and
smooth as time and
love for you
For Black Poets Who
Think of Suicide
Black Poets should live—not leap
From steel bridges, like the white boys do.
Black Poets should live—not lay
Their necks on railroad tracks, (like the white boys
Black Poets should seek, but not search
Too much in sweet dark caves
hunt for snipes down psychic trails—
(Like the white boys do:
For Black Poets belong to Black People.
Are the flutes of Black Lovers—Are
The organs of Black Sorrows—Are
The trumpets of Black Warriors.
Let all Black Poets die as trumpets,
And be buried in the dust of
The Poetry of Black America.
Copyright © 1973 by Arnold Adoff. Introduction
copyright © 1973 by Gwendolyn Brooks Blakely •
Harper & Row • New York, N.Y. 10022
posted 18 December 2005
Etheridge Knight, born in
Corinth, Mississippi, perhaps will be remembered for his
excellence in blending oral and poetic traditions as he
tried to create works that confronted personal and
social dimensions with relentless honesty. Some critics
praised him on his ability to render the genre of the
toast as high art. He began writing poetry in 1963 while
he was incarcerated at Indiana prison. His books include
Poems from Prison,
Black Voices from Prison,
Belly Song and Other Poems,
Born of a Woman,
Essential Etheridge Knight. Knight
received NEA grants in 1972 and 1980 and won a
Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974. His work is included in
such anthologies as Dices and Black Bones,
Norton Anthology of American Poets, New Black
Voices, and Black Poets. Etheridge died in
Black Southern Voices, Edited
by John Oliver Killens and Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
* * * * *
Guide to the Etheridge Knight
and Rare Books, Irwin Library, Butler University
Etheridge Knight was born on April
19, 1931, in Corinth, Mississippi. In 1947, two years
after dropping out of school in the eighth grade, Knight
joined the army. He saw active duty in the Korean War,
during which he received a shrapnel wound. By the time
he was discharged from the army in 1957, Knight was
suffering from addictions to drugs and alcohol. He
turned to crime to support his habit, and in 1960 was
arrested for robbery. While serving an eight-year prison
term in the Indiana State Prison Knight wrote poetry.
Renowned poet Gwendolyn Brooks met Knight during a
prison visit and encouraged his writing. In 1968 Knight
saw his first book published, Poems from Prison
Knight entered into a successful
period during the early 1970s, enjoying Popularity and
recognition. He led Free People’s Poetry Workshops
(including one in Indianapolis), gave numerous readings,
and was a poet in residence at the University of
Pittsburgh, the University of Hartford, and Lincoln
University. His critical acclaim included a grant from
the National Endowment for the Arts (1972) and a
fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation (1974). He
continued to be plagued, however, by his addictions, and
periodically sought treatment from veterans' hospitals.
The next decade saw the publication
of two volumes of poetry, including The Essential
Etheridge Knight (1986), which brought together pieces
from his five volumes of poetry. In 1989 Knight once
again led a Free People’s Poetry Workshop in
Indianapolis, which ran until his death. He worked with
Butler University’s Writer’s Studio in 1990, the same
year that he earned a bachelor’s degree in American
poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center
University in Indianapolis. On March 10, 1991, Knight
died from lung cancer. The Etheridge Knight Festival of
the Arts was held in Indianapolis in 1992 and 1993, and
in 1993 the Indiana Arts Commission posthumously awarded
Knight the Governor’s Arts Award.
Scope and Content
This collection contains the
personal and literary papers in Etheridge Knight’s
possession upon his death. Some items date as far back
as 1965, but most fall into the period from 1982 to
1991. A collection of Knight’s earlier literary and
personal papers is housed at the Ward M. Canaday Center
at the University of Toledo. The bulk of this collection
is received correspondence, although there is a series
of letters written by Etheridge Knight. The received
correspondence has been subdivided into two categories:
personal and professional.
Contact Information: Special
Collections and Rare Books / Irwin Library / Butler
University / 4600 Sunset Avenue / Indianapolis, Indiana
46208-3485 USA / Phone: 317.940.9265 / Fax: 317.940.8039
* * *
update 3 January 2009