restricted access A Supreme Signifier: Etheridge Knight
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34 A Supreme Signifier Etheridge Knight Etheridge Knight is hard to pin down, but Jean Anaporte-­ Easton’s lucid, revealing introduction captures the elusive toastmaster—­ the man, the poet. What she knows rises out of the personal—­ because she knew the poet—­ and softly collides within her scholarship to reveal to us, the readers, Etheridge in all of his complexity. Her criticism honors the man and his work. But Etheridge would have been the first among us to have stood up to say, “I’m not perfect.” And at that moment the mask would have shifted slightly askance. Then, almost smiling, he would have said, “I wish I were a blues singer. Matter of fact, tonight I’m gonna sing for you ‘Willow Weep for Me.’” And he would’ve left tears in our eyes. Etheridge Knight possessed a genius for surviving the harsh realities of America. Having read his poetry carefully during the 1970s, I thought I knew an aspect of the man before I met him. He could’ve hailed from my hometown, Bogalusa, Louisiana. He could’ve come from my family near Columbia, Mississippi. I’d written him in the early 1980s from New Orleans to request poems for The Jazz Poetry Anthology I was editing. I received a handwritten letter from him that began with the endearment “Bro.” And years later, Kenneth May, then a student of mine, told me that he was taking a poetry workshop with Etheridge at the Slippery Noodle Inn (a historical building that had been a stop along the Underground Railroad) in Indianapolis. While some may see Etheridge as a trickster straight out of Foreword to a forthcoming volume of prose writings by Etheridge Knight. 35 African American folklore or out of central casting, decked out in his blue denim overalls, we could also rightfully say that he was an intellectual survivalist who knew the sharp turns of urban America. The man left a legend of stories behind him. Some takes were contradictory, but they were always intriguing, always filled with vim and vigor, with emotional sleight of hand, always disguised by a shim of innocence. It seems that sometimes he wanted to appear in contradiction, not wrestling with but embracing a duality: unlettered and wise, rural and urban, good and bad, or tough and sweet, cool and uncool. I remember once suggesting that someone should follow Etheridge’s trail and collect all the contradictory stories about him into a postmodern biography. In fact, I’ve heard many such tales of Etheridge. Legend has it that he once sold an old car to someone and then left town driving in it. It seems that I’m one of the few people that Etheridge didn’t try to pull a game on. I wonder what he was reading in me that curtailed him. When we first met he thought I had been in prison; perhaps it was my shyness, my body language, that place where one carries the unsaid. He was surprised that I had never done time, and he seemed to have respected that fact, especially since he knew I had grown up in Bogalusa. And as two black men writing poetry with an awareness of the worlds we’d come from and what we’d survived with a certain grace, in us lived a mutual respect and, for me, deep admiration. In many ways, this compilation of letters, interviews, essays, and musings deepens our understanding of Etheridge and shows him to us intimately, and in his own words, and what inherently emerges is a fuller portrait, the full thrust of his intellect and wit. I have heard some of the spoken word poets portray Etheridge as the unlettered runagate badass, someone to emulate and imitate. I’ve been inclined to reprimand such portrayals while acknowledging within myself that any attempt at prettying-­ up his image would betray him. Etheridge loved reading books. I think books made him feel more complete, and maybe this is another thing he had in common with Malcolm X. I do know that he also at times attempted to disguise his love of intellectual pursuits. And in this sense, like Miles Davis, he seemed afraid that his intellectual currency 36 would undermine his credit on the block. For the poet who’s in the business of vamping on what he sees and feels, on what he or she knows, to ride roughshod on the brain can be a self-­ deceptive affair, and it is hard to...