Etheridge Knight Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Etheridge Knight, one of Bushie Knight and Belzora (Cozart) Knight’s seven children, came into the world on April 19, 1931, near Corinth, Mississippi. During this time, the United States was gripped by one of history’s most sensational racial battles, the Scottsboro boys trial. Nine black youths, ages twelve to nineteen, were taken off a train near Scottsboro, Alabama, and charged with the rape of two Huntsville, Alabama, white women, Ruby Bates, eighteen, and Victoria Price, twenty-one. The incident seeded a cloud of white fear and rage that shadowed black men throughout the South for more than thirty years.

Angered by the racial segregation and disgusted by the backbreaking work of sharecropping, Knight dropped out of school after the eighth grade and left home. He wandered for about five years, then enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1947. Knight was a medic, stationed in Guam and Hawaii, and was on the battlefront in the Korean War when he was wounded by a piece of shrapnel in 1951. Knight, who had become addicted to drugs, was discharged in 1957. Drugs dominated his life.

In 1960, Knight was sentenced to prison for a robbery in Indianapolis, motivated by his need to buy drugs. His experience doing time at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City led Knight to self-discovery and an increased desire to be more than an outcast in the United States. Those yearnings prompted him to write.

Poems from Prison, his first...

(The entire section is 523 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Critics and reviewers have suggested that Etheridge Knight, who served an eight-year prison sentence in the 1960’s, expresses in his poetry a metaphorical search for freedom. His use of powerful language and his evocation of his own personal experiences are the most notable and recognizable traits of his poetry. Knight was born on April 19, 1931, in Corinth, Mississippi. He was sentenced to prison for robbery in 1960, and while he was incarcerated in the Indiana State Prison he began writing poetry. Knight, however, had been reciting poetry long before his prison days.

An important aspect of Knight’s Mississippi background is its strong oral literary tradition. This oral literary tradition can manifest itself in many different forms. One of the forms Knight was most familiar with was the “toast,” which is a “long, memorized narrative poem often in rhymed couplets.” These toasts often relate “sexual exploits, drug activities, and violent aggressive conflicts” of people familiar to the person making the toast. By the time Knight entered prison he was adept at making these toasts; he perfected the activity as an art form while in jail. These toasts were the literary activities that provided the foundation on which Knight would build his career in poetry.

While he was in prison Knight’s toasting captured the attention of his fellow inmates as well as the interest of some listeners on “the outside.” Dudley Randall, the founder of Broadside Press, was one of the first of the “civilian” population to recognize Knight’s natural gift with language. Randall visited Knight in the Indiana State Prison and encouraged him to pursue his talent, suggesting to Knight that he translate his toasts into written poems.

Randall evidently made an impression on Knight. His first two collections of poems, Poems from Prison and Black Voices from Prison, deal exclusively, as their titles suggest, with prison experiences. The...

(The entire section is 812 words.)