Etheridge Knight (April 19, 1931 – March 10, 1991) 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. He is considered one of the major poets of the Black Arts Movement, which flourished from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s.
Knight was born to a poor family in rural Corinth, Mississippi, but spent time growing up in Paducah, Kentucky. He was one of seven children. Knight decided to drop out at the age of 16. 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 at juke joints, pool halls, and underground poker games. This took an emotional toll on Knight. Desperate to relieve himself of the despair of reality, he slipped into drug addiction. In an attempt to find himself and a purpose in life, Knight decided to join the U.S. Army in 1947. Knight served as a medic in the Korean War until he was discharged from service in 1951, after suffering from a shrapnel wound that caused him to fall deeper into his drug addiction. After his time in the Army 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 heroin.
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 them, 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. By 1963, Knight began identifying himself as a poet. He also started establishing contacts with significant figures in the African American literary community. These contacts included Gwendolyn Brooks, who visited him in prison and critiqued his work. The poems he had written during his time in prison were so effective that Dudley Randall, a poet and owner of Broadside Press, published Knight’s first volume of verse, which he called Poems from Prison, and hailed Knight as one of the major poets of the Black Arts Movement. The book’s publication coincided with his release from prison. Other poets such as Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez aided Knight in obtaining his parole in 1968.
Upon his release from prison in 1968, Knight married poet Sonia Sanchez. Over the next few years, he held the position of writer-in-residence at several universities, including two years, 1968 and 1969, spent at the University of Pittsburgh. While living in Pittsburgh with wife Sonia Sanchez and their family, Knight spent time as poetry editor for Motive magazine. As a result of his ongoing drug addiction, his marriage to Sonia Sanchez did not last long, and they were divorced in 1970 while still in Pittsburgh. He continued writing his third book, Belly Song and Other Poems, which was published in 1973. His third work incorporates new life experiences and attitudes about love and race, and Knight was praised for the work’s sincerity. Belly Song was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Knight’s time in Pennsylvania was very important to his career: his work during this period won him both a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974.
Knight rose from a life of poverty, crime, and drug addiction to become exactly what he expressed in his notebook in 1965: a voice that was heard and helped his people. Knight died in Indianapolis, Indiana, of lung cancer on March 10, 1991.