The Idea of Ancestry, by Etheridge Knight
When I read this poem it struck me as something powerful, a distant cry for a story that stayed within the confines of a jail cell.
The Idea of Ancestry makes me think about the people we leave behind. The narrator often interjects with anecdotal memories he draws from his recollection. In the 1960s Knight was sentenced to eight years for robbery, of which he documented in Poems from Prison.
“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.”
The number of family members are tied to his present state; he feels they depend on his future. He carries with him a family legacy but also a burden. His family’s photos are taped to the wall of his cell as a reminder of where he came from, and it brings him pain that he can’t do more.
“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.”
There’s something comically sad about the stubbornness of his grandmother that goes by the name of my father’s mother. (How well does Knight know her?) She’s adamant not to include any member who has disappeared or abandoned the family. There is no place in her bible for “whereabouts unknown.” Knight is perhaps inferring that this has happened to him.
“This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream…and I have no childrento float in the space between.” He paces back and forth in his cell, thinking he’ll have no one to call son or daughter, no one to call him dad.
The poem travels from present to past then back to present. This is often how I map my thoughts especially when writing a journal entry, which comes off as natural and intuitive. It beautiful to capture a story through the movement of thought.
For the full poem have a read here.