Etheridge Knight was born on April 19, 1931 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 nineteenth century and has its roots in African storytelling.
From 1947 to 1951, Knight served in the U.S. Army in Korea and returned 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.
Randall’s Broadside Press published Poems from Prison (1968), Knight’s first book, one year before his release 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.
The Black Arts 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.