Etheridge Knight Jr. was born to Etheridge “Bushie” Knight Sr. and Belzora Cozart Knight on 19 April 1931 in Corinth, the third of seven children. Knight attended the Scales Street School until the financially struggling family moved to Paducah, Kentucky, where his father worked on the Kentucky Dam. After the move, Knight spent several summers in Corinth. He quit school in the ninth grade and frequented bars and pool halls, where he was introduced to “toasting,” an African American tradition of telling long narratives. Knight’s brand of toasting focused on drugs, sex, violence, and crime. In 1947 he enlisted in the US Army, serving as a medical technician during the Korean War and developing addictions to drugs and alcohol. After his discharge, Knight turned to crime to support his habit, and a 1960 armed robbery netted him a sentence of between ten and twenty-five years in the Indiana State Prison.
There, Knight’s toasting entertained fellow prisoners and led him to begin “poeting” (his term for writing poetry). He corresponded with prominent African American literary figures, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Dudley Randall. His first book, Poems from Prison, was published in 1968, the same year he received his release. Knight went on to serve as poetry editor for Motive magazine; receive grants from the National Endowment of the Arts (1972 and 1981); win appointments as writer in residence at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Hartford, Lincoln University, and Butler University’s Writers Studio; and publish two more books, Black Voices from Prison (1970) and Belly Song and Other Poems (1973). Belly Song earned Knight nominations for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to study African American oral history as the basis of black poetry. Born of a Woman (1980) reflected this knowledge. His final work, The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986), won the 1987 American Book Award. Knight also founded the Free People’s Workshop, which educated residents of Indianapolis, Philadelphia, New York, Toledo, and Memphis about publishing. Knight also won a Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America (1985); was the subject of a play, Knight Song (1985); and received the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in Poetry (1986). Knight earned a bachelor’s degree from Martin University in Indianapolis in 1990 and became the school’s first poet laureate.
Knight married three times, adopting two children with his second wife, Mary Ann McNally, and fathering a son with his third wife, Charlene Blackburn. After losing a long battle with lung cancer on 10 March 1991, Knight received the 1993 Indiana Governor’s Award for Literature and was inducted into the Gwendolyn Brooks Hall of Fame. In 1992, his sister, Eunice Knight-Bowens, and her family founded the Etheridge Knight Festival of Arts, which was held annually in Indianapolis until his sister’s death in 2013.
- Dorothy Abbott, ed., Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth (1985)
- Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts Collection Description, www.indianahistory.org
- Patricia L. Hill, Mississippi Quarterly (Winter 1982–83)
- Miles Raymond Hurd, Notes on Mississippi Writers (January 1993)
- Charles Rowell, Callaloo (Fall 1996)