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About this poet

On April 19, 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.

Dudley Randall's Broadside Press published Poems from Prison (1968), 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.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

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)

Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane

Etheridge Knight, 1931 - 1991
Hard Rock / was / "known not to take no shit
From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.

The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn't a mean nigger
Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head,
Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity
Through the rest. When they brought Hard Rock back,
Handcuffed and chained, he was turned loose,
Like a freshly gelded stallion, to try his new status.
And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,
To see if the WORD was true.

As we waited we wrapped ourselves in the cloak
Of his exploits: "Man, the last time, it took eight
Screws to put him in the Hole." "Yeah, remember when he
Smacked the captain with his dinner tray?" "He set
The record for time in the Hole--67 straight days!"
"Ol Hard Rock! man, that's one crazy nigger."
And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit
A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.

The testing came, to see if Hard Rock was really tame.
A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch
And didn't lose his teeth, a screw who knew Hard Rock
From before shook him down and barked in his face.
And Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly,
His eyes empty like knot holes in a fence. 

And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
Exactly 3 minutes to tell you his first name,
We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long,
And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed.
He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.

From The Essential Etheridge Knight, by Etheridge Knight, © 1986. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15261. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

From The Essential Etheridge Knight, by Etheridge Knight, © 1986. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15261. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Etheridge Knight

Etheridge Knight

Born in 1931, Etheridge Knight was a prominent member of the Black Arts movement.

by this poet

poem

1

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews.  They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk.  I know
their dark eyes, they