This column is the first of 21 pieces on poems I’m interested in, and I hope you will be too, that I want to offer here as poems that have shaped America. By that I don’t mean poems really, truly “shaped” America. Or created America. Poems don’t have the impact of creating mass perceptions as Hollywood or politics, or the latest iPhone. Rarely anyway. I certainly don’t mean shaped America the way the Magna Carta shaped America, the way the Constitution shaped America, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or The Feminine Mystique shaped America. Nor the way the Compromise of 1850 shaped America or the Dred Scott decision did, the March on Washington, the cure for polio, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and etcetera. I mean a poem that shaped America as in figured America, as in imaginatively invented, or actualized, concocted, stamped, framed, or cast America. And so this series of 21 pieces, I hope, will range across American history (but not so much American poetry history—others have written wisely about how poems have shaped or influenced American poems or poets). Whether about the Revolution or all the other wars the United States has fought in over two-hundred years of existence, from the tapestry and melting pot of our races and faiths and ideas and ideologies, from the causes for individuality and industrialism, from the rise of capitalism and technology alongside the social government compact with its citizens, from agrarianism to civil rights to our worldwide super power-dom, America’s poets have written crystallizing poems in response to and to figure a way of existing in one’s own time. I don’t mean to say this list is the only 21 poems that shaped America, the best 21, or the most anthologized. In truth, I’m predisposed to look for poems not on the Poetry Bandstand, or the Poetry Top of the Pops, even if it excludes some obvious ones. What I ask of you, dear reader, reader true, is please respond. Please use the comments section below to send counter examples. Please nominate your poems and continue to do so after underneath each of these 21 columns over the next several months. The Rumpus wants to hear from you. I want to hear from you.
Part 1: “The Idea of Ancestry” by Etheridge Knight
In December 1960, while serving a ten-year suspended sentence for stealing cocaine out of the Indianapolis General Hospital, Etheridge Knight was arrested again when he and a friend stole $10 from a woman named Lillian Robertson. For that robbery he was sentenced 10–25 years in the State Reformatory,where he began to write and publish poems that would be championed by Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall, and Sonia Sanchez (whom he would later marry). Randall’s Broadside Press published Knight’s first book, Poems from Prison, in 1968, the year he earned his early release. The positive reception for Poems from Prison turned Knight into an influential figure in the Black Arts movement and in academic circles.
In the early 1960s the US state and federal prison population was about 200,000. By 2014 the number of people incarcerated in America more than quadrupled to 2.3 million—that adds up to 25% of the world’s prisoners even though the US is only 5% of the world’s population. Today one in every thirty-one American adults are under some form of correctional control. The racial disparity is atrocious. Even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population, more than 60% of the people in prison today are people of color. For black men in their thirties, one in every ten is in prison or jail on any given day. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.
This is extraordinary, and Etheridge Knight’s extraordinary poem, “The Idea of Ancestry” shapes an American ideal of how to begin to detoxify this rotten state of affairs by dramatizing the basic connections of family life and exposing how disruptive extreme levels of incarceration are for generations in families and communities.
It’s not just incarceration. “Within a precarious economy,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates about Detroit in his landmark Atlantic essay, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” “black people generally worked the lowest-paying jobs.” He continues:
They came home from those jobs to the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where most of them used their substandard wages to pay inflated prices for inferior housing. Attempts to escape into white neighborhoods were frustrated by restrictive covenants, racist real-estate agents, block associations, and residents whose tactics included, as [New York University historian Thomas] Sugrue writes, “harassment, mass demonstrations, picketing, effigy burning, window breaking, arson, vandalism, and physical attacks.” Some blacks were richer than others. Some were better educated than others. But all were constricted, not by a tangle of pathologies, but by a tangle of structural perils.
We live in a time when the racial injustice of our economic system can’t be refuted. Not to mince words, Knight was a victim of a racist judicial system that didn’t, in 1960 so much as now, fear making an enemy of people of color. In March 1965, while Knight was serving time in Indiana, an internal Labor Department report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” written by future New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, contended that the federal government was ignoring “three centuries of unimaginable treatment” of blacks in the United States. This oppressive system, the report concluded, was responsible for creating a “racist virus in the American blood stream.” I think it helps to notice two of Coates’s quotations from the report as a filter to reading Knight’s poem. First here—
That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary—a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have… But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.
In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again. That is not the least vicious aspect of the world that white America has made for the Negro.
In 1965 the national press’s response to the leaked Labor Department report, Coates reminds us, was to condemn “the ‘failure of the Negro family life,’ as the journalist Mary McGrory put it”—with Coates adding:
This interpretation was reinforced as second- and thirdhand accounts of the Moynihan Report, which had not been made public, began making the rounds. On August 18, the widely syndicated newspaper columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote that Moynihan’s document had exposed “the breakdown of the Negro family,” with its high rates of “broken homes, illegitimacy, and female-oriented homes.” These dispatches fell on all-too-receptive ears. A week earlier, the drunk-driving arrest of Marquette Frye, an African American man in Los Angeles, had sparked six days of rioting in the city, which killed 34 people, injured 1,000 more, and caused tens of millions of dollars in property damage. Meanwhile, crime rates had begun to rise… Moynihan’s aim in writing “The Negro Family” had been to muster support for an all-out government assault on the structural social problems that held black families down. (“Family as an issue raised the possibility of enlisting the support of conservative groups for quite radical social programs,” he would later write.) Instead his report was portrayed as an argument for leaving the black family to fend for itself.
Knight’s iconic jailhouse poem, “The Idea of Ancestry,” is a humane counter to the conditions Moynihan’s report both represented and tried to expose. When I hear a recording of Etheridge Knight reading this poem, I am struck by how poignantly he extols the immense salvation of family. Any fair reading of the poem would inspire outrage against racism. When Knight says, “I am me, they are thee,” he echoes the poetry of self-empowerment found in Langston Hughes’s poem, “I, Too,” and also he tethers his singular story to the larger American story of the debts owed to all those who came before.
THE IDEA OF ANCESTRY
BY ETHERIDGE KNIGHT
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.”
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr/like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birth stream/I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard/I smelled the old
land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men/
I flirted with the women/I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split/my guts were screaming for junk/but I was almost
contented/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 children
to float in the space between.
The initial “creative/ impulses for the poem occurred,” Knight has written, “during one of my many stays in Solitary Confinement, which is generally known as ‘The Hole.’” He goes on—
I am being shoved into the Hole. I am stripped naked. . . . I am given a blanket, and the steel door behind me is shut and locked. It is dark and chilly in the Hole. . . . The first/ few/ days . . . I am so filled with anger, fear “gambling, marijuana, or the Politics of the Joint” that I do not notice the smothering. I pace the dark space, do push-ups, masturbate, curse the guards and the gods. Five or six days pass. . . . I begin to slow down, and the smothering starts. . . . I twist and turn on my blanket on the concrete floor, and my mind is like a beehive: I hatch plots, concoct schemes. . . . After being in the Hole for a couple of weeks, not knowing night from day, I begin to lose track of time . . . I become disoriented, out of/ touch/ with myself. . . . So I start re/ membering: my grandmothers, grade/ school classmates, guys I’d been in the army with, and my Family most of all. . . . I was so disoriented, so desperate to regain a sense of self, of who I was . . . I started re/ calling: family, names, faces, I started to making/ up/ lines. . . Later, back in my cell, I finished the poem.
By my reading Knight’s poem dramatizes one way the judicial system banishes black men beyond, what Coates calls, “the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens.” Again, Ta-Nehisi Coates—
Banishment continues long after one’s actual time behind bars has ended, making housing and employment hard to secure. And banishment was not simply a well-intended response to rising crime… At a cost of $80 billion a year, American correctional facilities are a social-service program—providing health care, meals, and shelter for a whole class of people… through the mass incarceration of millions of black people.
And now I ask you to remember another jailhouse piece of writing, a prose poem of a sort, if you will: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” With the Knight poem, with the Labor Department report, and with Dr. King’s letter, we have a merging of a new road to racial justice that, as we all know, fifty years later has yet to be paved:
…when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult.
At the heart of “The Idea of Ancestry” by Etheridge Knight is a call for honoring human dignity and for respecting communities and families. And it seems especially to matter today in the second decade of the 21st century in America as the nation’s “guts are screaming” for an end to unequal treatment in the justice system and the history of mass incarceration and with it the restriction of wealth, jobs, and investment in African American life.