Etheridge Knight

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Etheridge Knight (b. April 19, 1931, Corinth, Mississippi--d. March 10, 1991, Indianapolis) was an African-American poet who became a notable poet in 1968 with his debut volume, Poems from Prison. The book recalls in verse his eight-year-long sentence after Etheridge was arrested for robbery in 1960. A prose version was published in Italian as Voce negre dal carcere, and in English as Black Voices from Prison (1970), which includes other prisoners' writings.

Etheridge Knight was born to a poor rural family in Corinth, Mississippi April 19th, 1931, in which he was but one of seven children. After attending school only until the completion of the 9th grade, Knight decided to drop out at the age of 14. At such a young age, he realized that without an education, his opportunities were limited. In his hometown, he could only find menial jobs such as shining shoes and spent much of his time in bars and pool halls. This took an emotional toll on Knight. Desperate to relieve himself of the despair of reality, he turned to narcotics. In an attempt to find himself and a purpose in life, Knight decided to enlist in the military to fight in the Korean War. However, it was during the war that he suffered a severe shrapnel wound. During the war, Knight’s addiction to narcotics increased as they were used to treat the wound. He is quoted saying, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me." Upon being discharged from the military, Knight roamed the country, still searching for some purpose. He settled in Indianapolis, Indiana where he picked up the art of telling toasts, which are traditional, black, oral narrative poems acted out in a theatrical manner. During this time, he still maintained his addiction to narcotics. In 1960, Knight snatched an elderly woman’s purse in order to support his addiction and was sentenced to serve a ten to twenty-five year term in the Indiana State Prison.

Enraged by his lengthy prison sentence, which he believed to be unjust and racist in nature, Knight, during his first year of prison became hostile and belligerent in his ways. However, in the following years of incarceration, he turned to books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Inspired by the two people, he redirected his embitterment into the writing of poetry so as to liberate his soul. By drawing from his experience in toasting, Knight developed his verse into a transcribed-oral poetry. The poems he had written during his time in prison were so effective that Dudley Randall, a publisher/poet, published Knight’s first volume of verse, which he called Poems from Prison, and hailed Knight as one of the major poets of the New Black Aesthetic. Other poets such as Don Lee, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez aided Knight in obtaining his parole in 1968.

Upon his release from prison, Knight married Sonia Sanchez. However, as a result of his ongoing narcotics addiction, the marriage did not last long. He ended up marrying a Mary McNally and fathering her two adopted children, they settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota until 1977. He later separated from McNally and published a volume of poems called Belly Songs and Other Poems. He then resided in Memphis, Tennessee where he received Methadone treatments. He later moved back to Indianapolis where he died of lung cancer on March 10th, 1991.

Belly Song and Other Poems (1973) dealt with themes of racism and love. Knight believed the poet was a "meddler" or intermediary between the poem and the reader. He elaborated on this concept in his 1980 work Born of a Woman. The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986) is a compilation of Knight's work.

Knight was married to fellow poet Sonia Sanchez.

Shortly threreafter, Knight taught at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Hartford, and Lincoln University. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974.

External links and Further Reading

  • Mr. Africa Poetry Lounge: Etheridge Knight Small collection of poems.
  • Guide to the Etheridge Knight Collection, Butler University
  • Modern American Poetry: Etheridge Knight (1931-1991)
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