Born: April 19, 1913
Died: March 10, 1991
Etheridge Knight born into a poor family of seven children. Knight spent most of his adolescent years working in pool halls, bars, and juke joints where he developed a drug habit. In these places, he learned an oral poetry form called “Toasts” that involved memorizing a long narrative poem that was then performed before audiences in the bars he frequented. This was a kind of mental gymnastics that showcased the artist’s memorization and performance skills. His family spent a significant portion of Knight’s adolescence in Paducah, Kentucky, where his father worked on the construction of Kentucky Dam, before the family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana.
Knight joined the U.S. Army in 1947, serving as a medical technician during the Korean War, but was discharged in 1951 after suffering shrapnel wounds that deepened his drug addiction. He was arrested in Indianapolis for stealing a purse in 1960, convicted, and imprisoned at the Indiana State Prison for eight years. While in prison he continued his interest in the “Toasts” form, becoming a poet who was to become the voice of the black aesthetic movement with his first volume of verse Poems from Prison (1968) and in a prose anthology Black Voices from Prison (1970).
He married fellow poet Sonia Sanchez following his release from prison, but they divorced two years later. He was married two other times, once to Mary Ann McAnally (with whom he had two children) and Charlene Blackburn (with whom he had a son). Knight taught at various universities and contributed to several magazines, working for two years as an editor of Motive and as a contributing editor of New Letters (1974).
According to Shirley Lumpkin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “His work was hailed by black writers and critics as another excellent example of the powerful truth of blackness in art. His work became important in Afro-American poetry and poetics and in the strain of Anglo-American poetry descended from Walt Whitman.”
While Whitman said the poet was a prophet, Knight suggested that the poet was a “meddler” who formed a trinity with the poem and the reader. Much of his verse was collected in The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986). In much of his poetry the arc suggests that imprisonment of the black person constituted a kind of extension of slavery.
In 1990, Knight earned a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Belly Songs and Other Poems (1973). He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974.
Knight was highly respected by such great poet/writers as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, and Galway Kinnell. According to Lumpkin, this group considered him to be “… a major Afro-American poet because of his human subject matter, his combination of traditional techniques with an expertise in using rhythmic and oral speech patterns, and his ability to feel and to project his feelings into a poetic structure that moves others.” Etheridge died of lung cancer.
Voce Negre dal Carcere (et al). Laterza, Italy, 1968.
Black Voices from Prison. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.
A Poem for Brother/Man. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.
Belly Song and Other Poems. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1973.
Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
The Essential Etheridge Knight. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.