Etheridge Knight (1931-1991)

    Contributing Editor:
    Patricia Liggins-Hill

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students often lack the knowledge of the new black aesthetic, the black oral tradition, and contemporary black poetry, in general. I lecture on major twentieth-century black poets and literary movements. In addition, I provide supplementary research articles, primarily from BALF (Black American Literature Forum) and CLA (College Language Association).

    Since Knight has read his poems on various college campuses throughout the country, I use tapes of his poetry readings. I also read his poetry aloud and invite students to do likewise, since his punctuation guides the reader easily through the oral poems.

    Students, black and white, identify with the intense pain, loneliness, frustration, and deep sense of isolation Knight expresses in his prison poetry. They often compare their own sense of isolation, frustration, and depression as college students with his institutional experience.

    Students often ask the following questions:

    1. Why haven't they been previously exposed to this significant poet and to the new black aesthetic?

    2. How did Knight learn to write poetry so well in prison with only an eighth-grade education?

    3. What is the poet doing now? Is he still on drugs?

    4. What is the difference between written and transcribed oral poetry?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Knight's major themes are (1) liberation and (2) the black heritage. Since slavery has been a crucial reality in black history, much of Knight's poetry focuses on a modern kind of enslavement, imprisonment; his work searches for and discovers ways in which a person can be free while incarcerated. His poems are both personal and communal. As he searches for his own identity and meaning in life, he explores the past black American life experience from both its southern and its African heritage.

    Knight's poetry should be taught within the historical context of the civil rights and black revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The social backdrop of his and other new black poets' cries against racism were the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., John and Robert Kennedy, also the burning of ghettos, the bombings of black schools in the South, the violent confrontations between white police and black people, and the strong sense of awareness of poverty in black communities.

    What the teacher should emphasize is that--while Knight shares with Baraka, Madhubuti, Major, and the other new black poets the bond of black cultural identity (the bond of the oppressed, the bond formed by black art, etc.)--he, unlike them, has emerged after serving an eight-year prison term for robbery from a second consciousness of community. This community of criminals is what Franz Fanon calls "the lumpenproletariat," "the wretched of the earth." Ironically, Knight's major contribution to the new aesthetic is derived from this second sense of consciousness which favorably reinforces his strong collective mentality and identification as a black artist. He brings his prison consciousness, in which the individual is institutionally destroyed and the self becomes merely one number among many, to the verbal structure of his transcribed oral verse.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Consider the following questions:

    1. What is the new black aesthetic and what are Knight's major contributions to the arts movement?

    2. What are the black oral devices in Knight's poetry and what are his major contributions to the black oral tradition?

    3. What are the universal elements in Knight's poetry?

    4. In the "Idea of Ancestry" and "The Violent Space," how does Knight fuse various elements of "time and space" not only to denote his own imprisonment but also to connote the present social conditions of black people in general?

    5. How does Knight develop his black communal art forms in his later poems "Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy" and "Ilu, the Talking Drum"?

    6. What are the major influences on Knight's poetry? (Discuss the influences of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Sterling Brown.)

    7. How does Knight's earlier poetry differ from his later poems? (Discuss in terms of the poet's voice, tone, and techniques, e.g., oral devices, imagery.)

    Original Audience

    Knight addresses black people in particular, and a mixed audience in general. He uses a variety of communal art forms and techniques such as blues idioms, jazz and African pulse structures, as well as clusters of communal images that link the poet and his experience directly to his reader/audience. For the latter, the teacher should use examples of images from "The Idea of Ancestry" and "The Bones of My Father" (if this poem is available).

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Walt Whitman are the major influences on Knight's poetry. Knight's "The Idea of Ancestry" flows in a Whitmanesque style and his "Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy" stems from the transcribed oral, blues poetic tradition of Hughes and Brown. He has indicated these influences in "An Interview with Etheridge Knight" by Patricia L. Hill (San Francisco Review of Books 3, no. 9 [1978]: 10).

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. (a) How does Knight's poetry differ in content, form, and style from that of the earlier oral poets Hughes and Brown? How is his poetry similar to theirs?

    (b) How does Knight's poetry differ in content, form, and style from that of Baraka, Madhubuti, and the other major new black aesthetic poets? How is his poetry similar to theirs?

    2. (a) The Western "Art for Art's Sake" Aesthetic Principle versus the New Black Aesthetic.

    (b) The Importance of Knight's Prison "Lumpenproletariat" Consciousness to the New Black Aesthetic.

    (c) The Major Poetic Influences on Knight's Poetry.

    (d) The Written and Oral Poetry Elements in Knight's Poetry.

    (e) Whitman's versus Knight's Vision of America.

    (f) Knight's Open and Closed Forms of Poetry.


    Nketia, J. H. Kwalena. The Music of Africa. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974.