Barton Towers39.774743, -86.149524

Etheridge Knight

Author and poet Etheridge Knight spent a great deal of time in his residence at Barton Towers and at the surrounding restaurants and shops.


Etheridge Knight
b. 1931 – d. 1991

Literary Inspiration

“The Idea of Ancestry”

Published 1968


555 Massachusetts Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46204

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“The Idea of Ancestry” in Poems from Prison

Etheridge Knight

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 & 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 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 an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who 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
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet 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.


The Indiana State Prison is a major presence in Knight’s work: It was while jailed behind its walls, (which a 1920s Indiana power broker and Klan Grand Dragon allegedly demanded be raised to protect “society”), that Knight—a wily, sensitive army veteran and drug addict who had been convicted of armed robbery—made himself the author of now frequently-anthologized poems, including one about a prison rebel whom functionaries that the Klan Grand Dragon would have approved of decide to destroy.

Toward the end of his life, Knight lived, wrote and received literary luminaries in Indianapolis’s Barton Apartments. Barton was the home base from which Knight went out to teach his Free People’s Poetry Workshops. And it was the base from which, in 1991, when he was suffering from lung cancer, he went to attend a farewell tribute to him. After struggling up to the stage, Knight asked the assembled poetry world luminaries, “But what if I live?”

—Michael Collins, Ph.D.
Professor, Texas A&M University
Author of Understanding Etheridge Knight

A poet who writes about a region creates a musical, philosophical and psychological map of the region’s glories and terrors. Knight did this for the Indiana State Prison and for many places in Indianapolis, including the Indiana War Memorial, where boys playing among the weapons there dream “Death” in one Knight haiku; the VA Hospital (where, in a 1982 masterpiece, Knight contemplates “Stars from five wars, scars”); and Crown Hill Cemetery, where (in another haiku), a dog marks “Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley’s monument with pee.

—Michael Collins, Ph.D., Professor
Texas A&M University
Author of Understanding Etheridge Knight

Knight is viewed by major American poets as a writer who expanded the possibilities of American verse. Donald Hall, the 2006 U.S. Poet Laureate, saw Knight as the source of “an eruption of language from a Black world that probably had never quite expressed itself.” Terrance Hayes, winner of the 2014 National Book Award and of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” wrote an entire book to explain Knight’s impact on him.

—Michael Collins, Ph.D., Professor
Texas A&M University
Author of Understanding Etheridge Knight

After a Korean War injury led to drug addiction and personal upheaval, Etheridge Knight served eight years in the Indiana State Prison for robbery. During his time in prison Knight began to write poetry, including works featured in his 1968 collection, Poems from Prison. Knight went on to become a major poet in the Black Arts Movement. Among his many honors and awards, he earneboth Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations for Belly Song and Other Poems. 


Indianapolis is a place that inspires creativity. This is one of a dozen original pieces of visual and performing art created by Hoosier artists inspired by Bookmark Indy authors.


Gary Gee

The Idea of Ancestry: Locked into Thought

Etheridge Knight found his poetic voice while incarcerated at the Indiana State Prison. Likewise, while imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and for which he was later exonerated, artist Gary Gee discovered his own creative expression within the confines of a prison cell. His sculptural work explores the nature of those walls and that experience: concrete blocks represent barriers but also foundations; hard, impenetrable boundaries rendered in ceramic become light and fragile. This work created by Gary Gee imagines the parallels between Knight’s and the artist’s experiences finding a sense of freedom in captivity. 


555 Massachusetts Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46204


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On May 31, 2021 we hosted “Swingin Syllables” a haiku competition in honor of Etheridge Knight. Eight poets competed in head-to-head matches until the winner, Chantel Massey, was the last standing. View the competition here.

Here is one of Chantel’s haikus from the night:

“in the soot and soil 
i am reborn again
named revolution”
Learn more about Chantel and her writing at

Report Back.

Read the location passage. What questions would you ask the author? What would help you understand the author's viewpoint?

Added TEXTure.

Writing is about more than just words. Look around to discover what textures are most prevalent in this place. Do a texture rubbing using a piece of paper and a crayon or pencil.

In the Margins.

What inspires you most about this place? Draw a quick doodle of it in the margin of one of your books.

Found sound.

Walk around the location and record the sounds of surroundings. Did what you hear depend on what time you visited?

Backward / Forward.

Cities change—what did your location look like in 1920? What will it look like in 2120?


Find another perspective by walking to a different spot around this location. Do you notice anything new? Which of your five senses notices a change first?

Strike a Prose.

Write a short passage describing how this place inspires you.

Love Letter / BreakUp Letter.

Think about your relationship with the place you’re visiting or perhaps with your own neighborhood. Is it time to commit? Or time to let go? Write a letter as if you’re speaking directly to the place you have in mind.

Field Notes.

Explore your stream of consciousness by writing down every thought that enters your mind.