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.”
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.