Hard Rock / was / "known not to take no shit From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it: Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut Across his temple and plowed through a thick Canopy of kinky hair. The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn't a mean nigger Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head, Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity Through the rest. When they brought Hard Rock back, Handcuffed and chained, he was turned loose, Like a freshly gelded stallion, to try his new status. And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep, To see if the WORD was true. As we waited we wrapped ourselves in the cloak Of his exploits: "Man, the last time, it took eight Screws to put him in the Hole." "Yeah, remember when he Smacked the captain with his dinner tray?" "He set The record for time in the Hole—67 straight days!" "Ol Hard Rock! man, that's one crazy nigger." And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit. 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 knot holes in a fence. And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock Exactly 3 minutes to tell you his first name, We told ourselves that he had just wised up, Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long, And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed. He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do, The fears of years, like a biting whip, Had cut deep bloody grooves Across our backs.
Etheridge Knight - 1931-1991
The Idea of Ancestry
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. 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-yr-old niece (she sends me letters 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 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."
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr/like a salmon quitting the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birth stream/I hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a monkey on my back. And I 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 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 was almost contented/I had almost caught up with me. (The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker's crib for a fix.) This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them, they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children to float in the space between.