The Sufferers

Roger Porter

July 13, 2011


It’s kind of sick how we view our artists. Sometimes it seems like the more troubled they are the harder we fall in love with them. I’m no exception. There is something inside of me that disallows me to truly feel an artist unless I can hear some pain in his or her voice. This is the same thing that prevents me from appreciating the music of Luther Vandross because every time I hear one of his songs I can visualize him smiling. It’s sad I know but I think it’s the Christianity in me. After all don’t we love Jesus so much because he suffered on the cross for us?

At any rate there is a poet whose literary voice I passionately adore. I have been enraptured by the works of Etheridge Knight for nearly all of my adult life. I would like to think that it has nothing to do with the fact that he served several years in prison or had a very serious heroin addiction but I know it does. Just like when I first found out how many times 50 cent had been shot it made me want to buy his record. It’s a shame that I can get caught up in something so petty, however, I suppose it’s similar to the Blues. I mean don’t you have to have the Blues to be a real Blues singer?

Either way Etheridge Knight was an exceptional poet who wasn’t afraid to cry and bleed in front of his audience. Here is one of his many masterpieces:


By Etheridge Knight1931–1991 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.

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