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The Idea of Ancestry

Part I

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures; 47 black faces

my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grandfathers

(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 thier 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 year-old niece

(she sends me letters written 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 a empty space.  My father’s mother, who is 93

and keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates

(and death dates) in it, always mentions him.  There is no

place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”

Part II

Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown

hills and red gullies of Mississippi send out their electric

messsages, galvanizing my genes.  Last year – like salmon quitting

the cold ocean – leaping and bucking up his birthstream –

I hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a

monkey on my back, and 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 old 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 almost contended –

I had almost caught up with me.

The next day in Memphis I robbed a dealer’s crib for a fix.

This year there  is a gray stone wall damming up my stream,

and when the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell

or flop on my bunk and stare at the 47 black faces across the space.

I am all of them, they are all of me, they are thee,

and I have no sons to float in the spaces between.


Etheridge Knight (1931-1985)

I am all of them, they are all of me, they are thee and I am me. 



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