17 pages 34 minutes read

Daniel Beaty

Knock Knock

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide


Daniel Beaty (also known as KOA) first performed his poem “Knock Knock” in a 2005 episode of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. Hosted by the singer and songwriter Mos Def, the show featured well-known and emerging poets, especially those engaged in slam poetry (see Literary Context). Soon after, Beaty’s performance became an Internet sensation, receiving millions of views. Autobiographical in nature, the poem describes the experience of a Black boy who loses his father to prolonged incarceration. Because his father is absent and silent, the boy must teach himself how to become a man with enough strength and confidence to flourish in a society where not everyone is given equal access to opportunity and success. Working with the illustrator Bryan Collier, Beaty published a simplified version of the poem as a picture book for children, with the same title, in 2013. Although Beaty is also an award-winning actor and playwright, most people know him as the author of “Knock Knock,” which he has performed on numerous occasions.

Poet Biography

Daniel Beaty, born in 1975, is a poet, playwright, singer, and actor. He holds bachelor of arts degrees in English and music from Yale University and a master of fine arts degree in acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Beaty has performed and given speeches all over America, Europe, and Africa. His plays—The Tallest Tree in the Forest: Paul Robeson, Emergency, Through the Night, and Mr. Joy—have garnered critical acclaim and prestigious awards. He teaches acting, singing, and writing in New York City. As a youth development specialist, Beaty also provides leadership training to nonprofit organizations and promotes using storytelling tools to help individuals and communities recover from trauma.

Beaty’s “Author’s Note” in the children’s book version of “Knock Knock” reveals that the poem is inspired by personal experience. When he was a small boy, his father often took care of him while his mother was at work. He and his father played the Knock Knock game described in the poem. The father’s incarceration and the boy’s traumatic prison visit are also autobiographical. Beaty writes:

As I grew older, I became aware of the tremendous void created by my father’s absence. On my journey to adulthood, I realized how important it was for me to address the pain created by this separation. Later, as an educator of small children, I discovered how many of my students were also dealing with the loss of a father from incarceration, divorce, or sometimes even death. This experience prompted me to tell the story of this loss from a child’s perspective [offering] hope that every fatherless child can still create the most beautiful life possible (Beaty, Daniel. Knock Knock. Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

Poem Text

Beaty, Daniel. “Knock Knock.” 2005. Genius.com.


The poem begins with the speaker describing a game he played with his father until he was three years old: Every morning, the boy pretends to sleep as his father knocks on the bedroom door, and then he jumps into his father’s arms to exchange greetings and words of affection. They call the game “Knock Knock.” One day, however, the father’s knocks stop. The boy’s mother takes him to a distant prison, where the boy can see his father only through a window in the visiting room. When the boy tries to break the window, his mom takes him away. Twenty-five years go by, marked by the father’s absence and silence. Finally, the speaker decides to write down the conversation he wishes he had shared with his father. Although he is now in his late 20s, the speaker voices the feelings and thoughts of his childhood self. The boy misses his father and regrets not having him around to help him learn to be a man: how to shave, play sports, and talk to women. He wants to be like his father, but he is forgetting what his father is like.

The adult speaker cries the boy’s tears as he writes all this to heal and to father himself. For that to happen, he must imagine his father’s response. He writes to himself in his father’s voice, sharing advice about shaving and women, but more importantly, offering words of encouragement and motivation to fight against racism and poverty. The speaker imagines the father telling him to knock down the doors that block Black men’s path to opportunity, forcing them to waste their brilliance in prison cells instead. He must do it for the sake of both his father and his children. The speaker realizes that he does not have to repeat his father’s mistakes. Instead, he will join others with similar experiences who want to fight for change. The poem ends by turning a popular joke line into a poignant statement: “Knock knock / Who’s there? / We are” (Lines 67-69).