20 pages 40 minutes read

Nikki Giovanni

Knoxville, Tennessee

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1968

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Historical Context

As an exemplary work of the Black Arts Movement, “Knoxville, Tennessee” is important for the way it depicts Black communities. Describing Black family life, and the extended communities that develop around it, there's nothing that suggests poverty, segregation, violence—or any other victimizing description of Black people. Instead, "Knoxville, Tennessee" portrays Black life as a source of joyful abundance.

In 1968, when the poem first appeared in print, the entire world seemed on the verge of momentous social change. Civil rights was at the center of this, but there were different ideas regarding what civil rights meant and the best way to achieve them—even within the Black community. The U.S. government further complicated issues raised by civil rights activists. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), for example, targeted the Black Panther Party as an "extremist organization" which advocated the "use of violence and guerilla tactics to overthrow the U.S. government" (“Black Panther Party,” FBI Records: The Vault). Governmental authorities downplayed the fact that the Black Panther's activities primarily dealt with hunger-relief programs, improving access to education, and providing healthcare to Black communities. They even launched a systematic program of disinformation around the Black Panther movement.