Etheridge Knight’s sister Eunice died on Monday, February 4, at 69. To most of us, her death came as a shock. We had heard she was ailing, but did not know the gravity of her illness. Not ten months before, she had directed the most memorable version yet of the annual festival named for her brother; subtitled “Evening with the Legends,” it featured four greats of the Black Arts Movement—Amiri Baraka, Mari Evans, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez—all performing their poetry at the Indiana Landmarks Center. While in other years, the annual festival had sometimes been a quiet affair, housed at the Glendale branch of the Indianapolis Public Library or the Julia Carson Center, this one packed the Landmarks’ auditorium. A community celebration, it also screened archival footage of Etheridge reading his work and exhibited the paintings of Joseph and Saundrajo Holiday. Who knew this festival, the 20th annual, would turn out to be Eunice Knight-Bowens’ last?
I attended my first festival at the Madame Walker ballroom in 1998, the year I started teaching at IUPUI. One of my former students, the poet Derrick Slack, introduced me to Ms. Eunice, a rather small woman with a big presence, adorned in kente and cowrie. But our first real conversation—about which poets might headline future versions of the festival—occurred in the Central Library’s lobby some months later. Not long after, Eunice invited me to be on the advisory board of Etheridge Knight, Inc.
Eunice rarely called the people closest to her by their given names. As a new board member, I quickly figured out that “Junior” was “Etheridge,” and “Ife” (referring to the holy city of ancient Yoruba) was a name Eunice had chosen for herself. These intimacies of naming insured that Etheridge’s memory would be held closest by his family, but Eunice labored mightily so that his legacy would inspire all. The mission statement of Etheridge Knight, Inc. foregrounds its aim of bringing the arts to populations off the radar of many other literary organizations: “youth at risk, adults, seniors, the incarcerated.” For twenty years, the festival brought to Indianapolis not only elders of the Black Arts Movement, such as Dudley Randall and Lamont B. Steptoe, but also younger generations of poets, including Martín Espada, Eugene Gloria, Allison Joseph, Terrance Hayes, the Affrilachian Poets, Jessica Care Moore, John Murillo, and Reginald Dwayne Betts. Each keynote poet would visit a school and make a pilgrimage with Eunice to Etheridge’s grave in Crown Hill Cemetery.
This week, bereft I won’t ever receive another e-mail from Eunice, signed, as always, “Peace,” I’ve been rereading Etheridge’s poems. His “The Idea of Ancestry,” Eunice once confided, was composed not in Etheridge’s prison cell at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Terre Haute where he was serving a sentence for armed robbery, but in solitary confinement, where he wouldn’t have had access to all the family photos taped above his bunk. His effort to write into being a connection with extended family across space and time despite feeling “dammed” by the prison’s concrete walls, is something Eunice Knight-Bowens kept honoring all those years in bringing the Etheridge Knight Festival to Indianapolis. There’s an African tradition of pouring libations to honor one’s ancestors. Long may Etheridge’s words and Eunice’s work refresh us all.
The Idea of Ancestry 1 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 everybody's birth dates (and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no place in her Bible for "whereabouts unknown." 2 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. From The Essential Etheridge Knight by Etheridge Knight © 1986. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press.