Donney talks about how the work of the late poet, Etheridge Knight inspired Black boys in Baton Rouge public schools to embrace poetry in a manner they never did before.
The first time I stepped into a classroom as a teaching artist was right at 15 years ago. After a half-decade as a performance poet and a few years as a substitute teacher, I was afforded the opportunity to teach the art of spoken word poetry to middle and high school students via the nonprofit I was working for at the time. The majority of my first year as a teaching artist was spent conducting writing workshops in Baton Rouge public schools. The pedagogical approach of the organization I worked for was to work in partnership with classroom teachers and guide their students in writing original poems in response to literary devices and forms they discovered in model texts we brought to the classroom. Oftentimes when the classroom teacher would inform the students that there was a ‘special guest’ that day to lead them in a poetry lesson, a collection of sighs and groans would fill the room.
The students’ disinterest was less about me, and more about how they had been conditioned to view poetry as a genre that primarily celebrated the canon of dead white men whose work did not resonate at all with millennium teenagers.
But the context of their apprehension went a little deeper than just not caring about Shakespeare or Robert Frost.
The Baton Rouge public school system is an overwhelmingly majority Black school system in a state that consistently either hovers toward the bottom or bottoms out in national education rankings. Its students by and large come from impoverished households. The East Baton Rouge Parish School System, which is the governing body of public schools in the city, held the nation’s longest-running school desegregation case which went on for 51 years and did not resolve itself until 2007.
2007 was also the year I began working as a teaching artist.
For Black students in the northern part of the parish, and certain zip codes in the southern part of the parish, the decades-long desegregation case placed them in underfunded schools where their quality of education suffered on multiple fronts. From the infrastructure to the quality of educators schools were able to retain to the merry-go-round of superintendents and their patchwork solutions to a deeply systemic problem, generations of Black students in Baton Rouge’s public school system endured gross inequities in how they were educated in comparison to private and parochial schooled students in Baton Rouge that were mostly white.
I know this educational inequity firsthand, as I was a student in the EBR public school system before I eventually returned as an arts educator.
The first thing I noticed when I began teaching workshops was an unsurprising resistance from Black male high school students. Many of the Black boys I initially came in contact with regarded poetry as a feminine art form that required too much vulnerability to participate in. Their position was all too familiar for me, as I was once a high school Black boy sitting in English classes, gripping tight to whatever semblance of masculine bravado my environment taught me. When I was in high school, I wrote rhymes, and when I became a teaching artist I used my performance experience as a part-time lyricist and emcee to aid me in reeling in boys in my workshops that were reluctant to participate, often gaining favor with them by showcasing my freestyling ability.
But after their initial impression of me wore off and it was time to engage with the model poems I was there to teach them, the Black boys in class would often check out throughout the duration of the lesson. And even though most of our curriculum consisted of contemporary poets whose work reflected very modern themes and was written in accessible language, there was still a large degree of disconnect with a lot of my Black male students who could not identify with the plight of certain poets’ identities that were being used in our workshops.
This was until I introduced those boys to the work of Etheridge Knight.
Etheridge Knight was not a contemporary poet. He was born an entire generation before the students I taught and died several years before they were alive. But his story and poetic voice struck a tone that resonated with those boys who sat in my workshop and previously felt unseen. Knight was a high school dropout from Mississippi that eventually joined the army and fought in the Korean war. During his time in the military, Knight developed a severe drug addiction that ultimately led to him committing a robbery in 1960 that would land him in the Indiana State Prison for eight years. It was during his incarceration that Knight began writing poetry and corresponding with influential Black writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks.
He released his first collection of poetry, Poems from Prison in 1968, and on the back cover, wrote the following text:
“I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”
Knight would go on to win various awards and fellowships for his poetry and became a central figure in the Black Arts movement. He was married to legendary poet, Sonia Sanchez, wrote a myriad of critically-acclaimed poetry collections, and ultimately gained a Bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice in 1990, one year before he died. His writing told gritty truths about mass incarceration, addiction, and criminality, but also leaned into tales of family and dispossession, written with the authenticity of someone who had been to hell and back and found redemption in poetry.
The first poem of Knight’s I taught in a classroom was “The Idea of Ancestry,” a narrative poem told out of sequence about Knight looking at photos of family members he tacked on the wall inside of his prison cell. In the poem, Knight reflected on family members he shared similar features and mannerisms with and told the story of the robbery he committed that separated him from his loved ones. What I remember most about the first few times I taught that poem was the responses from Black boys in my workshops who spoke about their fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins that had been trapped by the prison industrial complex. The objective was to have students write narrative poems about a time they faced danger, but the context of Knight’s piece cut to a core that I had not previously experienced in the response from my Black male students.
They had read and heard a poem that spoke directly to so many of their lived experiences. In Knight’s words, they found literary kinship that explained the material conditions that shaped their educational outcomes and the societal dynamics that criminalized poverty and addiction and caused a separation between themselves and their loved ones. The rugged truth-telling and cadence of Knight’s work gave those boys a different permission to be vulnerable than other poems I shared with them. For the first time, they were engaging with poetry that was not canonized in the traditional sense they were accustomed to. They were intrigued to learn of a poet who lived under dire conditions who was able to brilliantly articulate tales of survival and redemption for public consumption. They were in awe that those poems found their way into their English classes, delivered by a Black male teaching artist who affirmed that this too was the American canon of poetry.
One of Knight’s most powerful pieces we used in our curriculum was called “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane,” a poem about a prisoner known as ‘Hard Rock’ who was known “to not take no shit” but had his brain rewired after spending time in an asylum.
The testing came, to see if Hard Rock was really tame.
A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch
And didn’t lose his teeth, a screw who knew Hard Rock
From before shook him down and barked in his face.
And Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly,
His eyes empty like knotholes in a fence.
Hard Rock Returns is a gut-wrenching piece about the long-term dehumanizing effect of being institutionalized. Knight draws from his own experience watching Black men be reduced to a shell of their former selves while incarcerated. The boys in my workshops would often share heartbreaking stories of institutionalized family members who went into prison one way and returned as strangers. The raw language of the piece authenticated it for the Black boys in class who were often disenchanted by flowery poetics. And despite the heartache of seeing many of their family members’ stories in the piece, what connected with them, and prevented them from disengaging was reading text that humanized their family members’ experience.
The poem affirmed their suspicions about just how cruel and inhumane the carceral system was, allowing them to not only recognize where they never wanted to be but also empathize more with their loved ones whose crimes could never be equal to their punishment.
Another of Knight’s poems that resonated with my students was the piece titled “The Warden Said to Me”. Knight begins the poem with the following lines:
The warden said to me the other day
(innocently, I think), "Say, Etheridge,
why come the black boys don't run off
like the white boys do?"
I lowered my jaw and scratched my head
and said (innocently, I think), "Well, suh,
I ain't for sure, but I reckon it's cause
we ain't got no wheres to run to."
And within those first few lines, Knight speaks a reality about how inequity plagues the formerly incarcerated and often leads to recidivism. Much like reading the text of Hard Rock Returns connected to personal experiences my students had with incarcerated family members, the text of The Warden Said to Me sparked painful dialogues about their family members who were incapable of functioning outside the confines of the prison system. To see my students light up in the dimmest way imaginable when sharing stories about repeat offenders in their families made me think of my own relatives that were ensnared in a cycle of incarceration. Knight’s words bonded us in a manner that was less about shame and more about collective grief.
His rich imagery turned up the volume on voices that had been cast to the margins, reminded us of what our loved ones were enduring on the inside, but most importantly reminded us that they were still human and capable of feeling fear and hatred and being forgotten.
But through his writing…his exquisite way of humanizing those who had been relegated as less than human, he taught us about the nuance and beauty of the human condition, even at its most destitute.
His words got those Black boys in those neglected public high schools in Baton Rouge to write in a way that no other examples I showed them were able to. Which, I suppose what part of his legacy he was intending to leave behind.