In 1931, Etheridge Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi. Although he
dropped out of school at age sixteen (as soon as he was old enough to join the army), his education in the uses and joys of
language continued as he explored the world of juke joints, pool halls, and
underground poker games. He began to master the art of the toast, a form of
long, improvised, humorous poetry that dates back to the 19th century and has
its roots in African storytelling.
From 1947 to 1951, Knight served in the U.S.
Army in Korea, and returning with a shrapnel wound that caused him to fall
deeper into a drug addiction that had begun during his service. In 1960 he was
arrested for robbery and sentenced to eight years in the Indiana State Prison.
During this time he began writing poetry, and he corresponded with and received
visits from such established African American literary figures as Dudley
Randall and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Randall's Broadside Press published Poems from Prison (1968), Etheridge
Knight's first book, one year before he was released from prison.
The book was a success, and Knight soon joined such poets as Amiri Baraka,
Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez (to whom he was once married) in what came to
be called the Black Arts Movement.
This movement, according to the poet and
critic Larry Neal, was "radically opposed to any concept of the artist
that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and
spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions art that
speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America." Knight
embraced these ideals in his own work and in 1970 edited a collection entitled
Black Voices From Prison.
Knight's books and oral performances drew both
popular and critical acclaim, and he received honors from such institutions as
the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry
Society of America. In 1990 he earned a bachelor's degree in American poetry
and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis. Etheridge
Knight died in 1991.
A Selected Bibliography
2 Poems for Black Relocation Centers (1968)
Poems from Prison (1968)
The Idea of Ancestry (1968)
A Poem for Brother Man (1972)
For Black Poets Who Think of Suicide (1972)
Belly Song and Other Poems (1973)
Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1980)
The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986)