In memory of Etheridge Knight (1931 – 1991)
and my dad, Leonard Mallory (1954 – 1997)
My mom still has the picture frame made of KOOL cigarettes my dad sent from prison more than three decades ago. Made of his preferred cigarette brand, it is holding three-year-old me for safekeeping. My lace socks folded perfectly at my crossed ankles. My toddler smile folded neatly at the corners. My short braids and beads covered by a floppy bucket hat. The now yellowing, once white, linked double O’s of the brand name in all caps are broken across the pattern of the green backdrop. The frame is also made from empty packs of the same brand I’d go to the corner store to purchase for my dad near our brick project row house, granted permission by a handwritten parental pass. Down in the bottom. Down in the “Old Folks” section. Its name referring to an area with mostly one-bedroom units, some walk-ups like ours, that weren’t sized for more than one or two occupants. My dad would buy packs when money wasn’t funny or loosies when it was a riot. Taking cues from him, in his absence I’d eventually learn how to master the handwritten note:
To Whom It May Concern: Please excuse Julia’s absence from school.
To Whom It May Concern: Julia has permission to attend the field trip.
My dad also taught me grooming rituals—how to repair and restore. How to salvage. How to bring healing to things. How to properly lace shoes. How to use a shoehorn to get your shoes to fit. How to shine shoes, how to angle and slap the bristles until the leather glistened using KIWI shoe care products—its industrial smell breaking in my young nose. “I used to cry cuz I had no shoes until I saw a man that had no feet,” my father would tease when I wanted new shoes. Money ain’t grow on trees. Even if my dad’s hand grew into the porcelain apple where I stashed my money. “As long as I owe you, you’ll never be broke.” He had a saying for every occasion.
Neither of my parents were skilled at doing my hair but I’d learn that my dad’s caramel-colored boars-bristle hairbrush could work wonders at holding a ponytail together. He’d fuss if I didn’t put it back or clean it like he taught me. I was supposed to rake the bristles clean with a comb to clear the brush of my Blue Magic hair grease strands or the savory sweet-scented brown hair gel camouflaged on the bristles. He showed me how to run the brush under cold water to firm up the bristles. All of my dad’s things seemed so significant because of how he tended to them.
In the summer of 2016, I am attending events during the Democratic National Convention in Philly, where I spent summers and accompanied my dad on visits to my grandma’s house as a child. I will meet journalist Gwen Ifill on this trip and feign calm when I tell her, “I love your show!” before she enters the elevator of the rooftop gathering. She will depart this dimension four months later. While at a reception at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, I browse the exhibits, including Arresting Patterns: Perspectives on Race, Criminal Justice, Artistic Expression and Community.
I encounter Felandus Thames’ “Ideas of Ancestry,” a sprawling installation of 281 hairbrushes set against a sea of teal, measuring 26 feet wide by 5 feet tall. It captivates me because these brushes resemble the hairbrushes my dad had introduced me to as a child. Except the bristles have been removed from each of these brushes, and their remaining bristles form letters, and the letters form words. It is Thames’ tactile tribute to fellow Mississippi-born writer Etheridge Knight’s poem, “The Idea of Ancestry.” The poem offers a glimpse of Knight’s experience in prison—written while he was incarcerated and in solitary confinement. The words in Thames’ installation are a near replica of the first verse of the poem, sans punctuation and the text in parentheses, reading:
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 Black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers, grand-
fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins, nieces, and nephews.
I have been visiting prisons as long as I can remember and have lost count of the number of times my picture may have been taped to the wall of a cell. Visits Upstate meant early morning departures on the weekends. Trips to the County meant mostly middle of the day and evenings. Geography lessons of heartache experienced through small towns and cartographies of captivity. Same waiting spaces. Same security wanding and invasions. Folding your arms over your underwire is supposed to silence the screeching of the hand-held metal detector. Some correctional officers invested in showing that you are just another number attached to the number of someone deemed less than human.
Even as incarceration rates take a modest decline in some states, we cannot escape the reality that the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any nation in the world, with substantial disparities in its incarceration of Black and Brown people. In the height of the pandemic, when my home state Pennsylvania could not distribute housing assistance swiftly enough, it would relinquish $108 million dollars to the Department of Corrections signifying that it is easier to punish than it is to prevent.
Pennsylvania also houses the country’s largest population of “juvenile lifers,” people sentenced to life before the age of 18. The oldest juvenile lifer in the country, sentenced when he was 15 years old, was released from a Pennsylvania state correctional institution in February 2021 after serving 68 years. Two winters ago, I taught creative writing to adjudicated youth, my youngest student a fifth-grader who wanted to learn how to use “big words.”
During my enchanted study of Thames’ brushes and Knight’s words, I receive a two-line divine download that I know will find a permanent home in my work:
40 brush strokes until his waves puckered
kissing the crown of his head
I went to high school with people that carried their brushes like their books. Training their minds and their waves—friction from the brush sending their hair into a spiral. What Dr. Koko Zauditu Selassie jokingly called “Middle Passage waves” in the outtakes of Shantrelle P. Lewis’ documentary, In Our Mothers’ Gardens. The whoosh of the brush moving against their hair like brush sticks kissing the top of drums. Always drums. My dad would heat up his bongos in the oven. One night, distracted, he burned them and the biscuits we cut with a drinking glass. My mother’s voice boomed in disappointment. Later, we made an offering of the biscuits to the night rain. When they eventually dissolved, they resembled mounds of unset cement on the slick sidewalk.
Knight, was an April Aries like my dad, and they were both teen soldiers in foreign wars. Knight in Korea at 16 in the late 40s and early 50s, my dad in Vietnam at 17 in the early 70s. I wonder how much of them never returned from overseas. Death is supposed to be a one-time event. Not a slow-simmering process that wears you down over time like the “red Mississippi gullies” Knight describes in “Idea of Ancestry.” Both of them will also later fall in love with women from Alabama. Knight’s marriage will not survive Pittsburgh, my dad’s birthplace.
My dad could be a handful. When he would get put out of a place, even if jokingly, he’d let his audience know that he’d “been put out of better places than this.” He had a laugh that could carry you and carry the pain away from him. Laughing to keep from crying; crying converted to laughter. What Maya Angelou called “that survival apparatus.” He would tell us war stories set in the jungles of Vietnam. Loud, dramatic tales filled with excitement, until the climax cast a wide shadow on the joy of the moment and it seemed like he was beyond where he could be reached—“whereabouts unknown,” like Knight said of his uncle that “just took off” at 15.
Like Knight, my dad shared a name with his father, a man that he hardly knew, a man I thought was a complete mystery until a late-night genealogy search informed me otherwise. In a poem, I wrote that every day was a question mark for my dad because he did not know his father. Now, I imagine those questions differently. In “The Idea of Ancestry,” Knight was catching up across space and time with his memories, his loved ones—including the eight relatives that he shared a name with—and his self-described “almost contented” self. He saw himself in the “47 Black faces” staring back at him. Not mirror images, though, folks that worked the land—“farmers”—while he worked his hustle: “I am a thief.” Perhaps we are all thieves, stealing from today to put a down payment on tomorrow, knowing we are on borrowed time.
“Pa. misses deadline to spend $108M in rent, mortgage relief from CARES Act.” Charlotte Keith. December 18, 2020. https://www.pennlive.com/news/2020/12/pa-misses-deadline-to-spend-108m-in-rent-mortgage-relief-from-cares-act.html
“The nation’s oldest juvenile lifer, Joe Ligon, left a Pa. prison after 68 years.” Samanth Melamed. February 11, 2021. https://www.inquirer.com/news/joe-ligon-juvenile-lifer-philadelphia-incarceration-release-lifetime-parole-20210211.html
“Countries with the largest number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population, as of May 2021.” Statista Research Department. June 2, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/262962/countries-with-the-most-prisoners-per-100-000-inhabitants/
Understanding Etheridge Knight. Michael S. Collins. May 22, 2012. University of South Carolina Press.
“Friends of the Scranton Public Library Poetry Series: Etheridge Knight Pt. 1.” October 10, 1980. Lackawanna Valley Digital Archives. Published September 13, 2013. https://youtu.be/XeOmqFk4Jmg