Etheridge Knight (1931-1991)
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
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
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
6. What are the major influences on Knight's poetry? (Discuss the influences
of Walt Whitman, Langston
Hughes, and Sterling
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,
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 : 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
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,