The poem is deeply emotional, although emotion does not come through in every line. The subject matter is incredibly meaningful to the poet and based on his own experiences. The poet wrote this piece while serving time in Indiana State Prison for robbery. This is something that he alludes to in the text, calling himself a “thief” and his family “farmers.” He turned to crime in order to support his drug addiction, something he alludes to in the poem as well.
Explore The Idea of Ancestry
‘The Idea of Ancestry’ by Etheridge Knight is a powerful poem written about Knight’s family while he was in prison.
The poem is divided into two sections. The first part details the various members of Knight’s family and how he’s related to them. It also alludes to Knight’s feelings of loneliness during his incarceration when he feels worlds away from his family. The second part of the poem explores specific family details and elaborates on a period of time that he spent at his home, in Mississippi, prior to going to prison,
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘The Idea of Ancestry’ by Etheridge Knight is a two-part poem that is divided into stanzas of varying lengths. The first part contains three stanzas, and the second has two. The lines are very long, making the stanzas appear more like paragraphs than lines of poetic verse.
The first stanza is eight lines long, the second is five, the third: eight, the fourth: thirteen, and the fifth: five. The poet used free verse throughout this piece, meaning that there is no single rhyme scheme that the lines conform to. But, there are many examples of rhyme, perfect and half. For example, “me” and “thee” at the end of stanza one.
In this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. These include:
- Assonance: the repetition of a vowel sound in multiple words. For example, “no” and “unknown” at the end of stanza three.
- Internal Rhyme: can be seen when the poet includes rhyming words in the middle of a line rather than at the ends. For example, “me” and “thee” in the last line of stanza one. There is also an example of assonance in this line with these two words and “thief.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “death dates” in the second to the last line of stanza three.
- Parallelism: the repetition of the same line from multiple lines. For example, “I am…” which is used a number of times in stanza one.
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.
In the first stanza of ‘The Idea of Ancestry,’ the speaker begins by describing the photos taped to the wall of his prison cell. This is a direct reference to Etheridge Knight’s personal experience. Throughout the photos, there are 47 black faces belonging to all of his family members. This includes his mother, father, grandfathers, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews.
He uses a literary device known as accumulation to list out all the relations he can find when he’s looking at the photos. He also uses parentheses to include small details that are delivered in a very clear and emotionless way. He notes how some of his family members are dead and how distantly related he is to his cousins.
The speaker is in his bunk, separated from his family members; he considers how distant he is from them at the present moment and also how distant he is from them in the various time periods in places in which the photos were taken. He knows that they are scattered across space but, in a way, there with him staring at him in his bank.
The speaker uses repetition, beginning several lines with the first person pronoun, “I.” This helps describe the connection the speaker sees between himself and his important family members. They have the same eyes (so similar that they’d recognize their own eyes when they look at him). But there are also some differences. He notes that his family members are “farmers” while he is a “thief.”
While they may be similar looking and related, they are all their own people as he is his own person. They all made different decisions in life and ended up in different places.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
(she sends me letters in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
In the second stanza, the speaker elaborates on all the love he has had at one point or another for the female members of his family. He has loved his mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts, and cousins. Right now, he feels the most connected to his seven-year-old niece.
He elaborates why he feels the most connected to his niece with two lines contained within parentheses. Of all the photos, her’s is the only one that smiles at him. She also sent some letters in “large block print” that likely kept him company and elevated his spirits in a way that other letters, if he received them, do not.
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”
The third stanza continues in a list-like fashion. The speaker mentions who he shares his name with and a few interesting details about his uncle. He describes how his uncle disappeared at 15 years old and how he is remembered/discussed at every family reunion. He is an “empty space” in their family. This is something that makes everyone uncomfortable and likely quite sad.
The second part is dedicated to his father’s mother, who was, at the time the poem was written, 93 years old. This grandmother, who is one of his only living grandparents, is the one who always brings the uncle up. This feels especially emotional when the poet adds details of the family Bible in which everyone’s verse and death dates are inscribed.
The Bible is an important token of his family’s history and the connection they all have with one another. But, because the uncle disappeared, no one knew what to write in the Bible about him. There’s no section for, as the poet puts it, “whereabouts unknown.”
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
contented/I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)
In the next stanza, the speaker takes a different approach to the subject matter. Knight takes readers to a specific moment in time rather than generally reflecting on the past. He describes how, throughout his life, the fall season inspired him to come home. For some reason, he craves visiting the graves of his grandfathers, a way of honoring the past and his ancestors, and spending time in his home—Mississippi (this is likely one of the family reunions he mentioned previously).
He remembers how last year he traveled from LA to Mississippi with a symbolic monkey on his back. He was haunted or plagued by something (his drug addiction) that got some relief from his spending time around his family. The poet uses imagery to describe himself walking in his grandmother’s backyard, experiencing nostalgia related to the various sights, smells, and feelings, and drinking corn whiskey along with the male members of his family.
The quick procession of lines in the stanza ensures that the reader moves from one image to the next quite quickly. It is as though the speaker is pouring out an experience with no time to pause or consider his words. This connects to some of the last lines in a stanza in which he describes spilling his guts or explaining something that’s been bothering him to his grandmother (this is likely related to his troubles with addiction and money). This, along with being at home with his family, almost made him “contented.” But his addiction caught up with him, and the next day, he was in Tennessee.
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
to float in the space between.
The final stanza is the shortest of the entire poem. This year, he says, there is nothing to take away from his emotions regarding his family. He’s alone, in prison, and far from the places and people that made his addiction worse. He spends his time staring at the “black faces across the space” and considering how similar and dissimilar he is from them. The final line suggests that he feels somewhat empty regarding the fact that he has “no children to float in the space between them.”
The purpose is to reflect on how important family is and how being around family improved the poet’s life, at least for a time, before his addiction took hold of him again.
The theme of ‘The Idea of Ancestry‘ is family and how important it is, especially in difficult times. The speaker alludes to his struggles in life and how now, while imprisoned, his family is there with him (and very far from him) via pictures.
Knight likely wrote this poem in order to explore his experiences and emotions after being incarcerated and how after going to prison, he only truly realized how important his family is.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Etheridge Knight poems. For example:
- ‘Hard Rock Returns to Prison’ – an allegorical poem about the oppression of inmates in America.
Other related poems include:
- ‘Family House’ by Gillian Clarke – explores cherished family memories with a nostalgic tone.
- ‘Human Family’ by Maya Angelou – speaks about the world and how all people are connected.