Etheridge Knight 1931–1991
American poet, essayist, editor, and short story writer.
Knight was one of the most popular poets of the Black Arts Movement, a period during the 1960s of literary and cultural revival for black writers and artists. His work often protested the oppression of blacks and the underprivileged and reflected his experience as an inmate at the Indiana State Prison. He strove for a balance between "the poet, the poem, and the people," deliberately using direct language, slang, and simple poetic techniques to make his work accessible to the greatest possible number of readers.
Born in Corinth, Mississippi, in 1931, Knight dropped out of school after the eighth grade and began frequenting bars and poolrooms. At the age of sixteen Knight joined the United States Army; he served in Korea as a medical technician. During the war he began to use drugs, and by his discharge in 1957 he had become a drug addict, committing crimes to support his habit. In 1960 he was found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced to ten to twenty-five years in prison. While incarcerated, he published his first volume of poetry, Poems from Prison. After his release, he published two other volumes, Belly Song and Other Poems and Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems. Knight died of lung cancer in 1991 at the age of fifty-nine.
Born of a Woman is considered Knight's most popular and well-received collection. The volume is divided into three sections: "Inside-Out," "Outside-In," and "All About—And Back Again." The poems in the first section convey different aspects of prison life: "For Freckle-Faced Gerald" concerns a young boy who is raped and brutalized by older convicts—an act that also symbolically represents society's oppression of the innocent and defenseless; "Hard Rock" depicts a strong and rebellious hero who defies the system's attempts to break his spirit until a lobotomy forcibly changes his character; and "The Idea of Ancestry" reveals the loneliness and isolation of a prisoner who reflects upon his crime, his family, and his heritage while looking at photographs of his relatives on his cell wall. The second section contains poems about love, and the final section includes more recent poetry that develops a greater scope of themes and subjects.
Although some commentators derided his verse for its unpoetic language and strident political rhetoric, Knight's works were generally well received by critics, who most often commended their vitality of language and personal subject matter. His poetry, which detailed his personal struggles with drugs and prison life, as well as his encounters with war and prejudice, was considered courageous and evocative of the African-American experience. He is frequently compared with such African-American poets as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez.