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On Etheridge Knight's Life and Career


Cassie Premo

In the life and work of Etheridge Knight, the theme of prisons imposed from without (slavery, racism, poverty, incarceration) and prisons from within (addiction, repetition of painful patterns) are countered with the theme of freedom. His poems of suffering and survival, trial and tribute, loss and love testify to the fact that we are never completely imprisoned. Knight's poetry expresses our freedom of consciousness and attests to our capacity for connection to others.

Knight was born on 19 April 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi; he was one of seven children. After having dropped out of school in the eighth grade, he joined the army in 1947, saw active duty in Korea, where he suffered a shrapnel wound, and was discharged in 1957. Throughout this time he developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol that caused him to turn to crime to support his habit. While wandering around the United States after his discharge, Knight was arrested for robbery in 1960 and served his sentence in the Indiana State Prison, where by chance Gwendolyn Brooks visited him and encouraged his writing. He started writing regularly, supported by members of the Black Arts movement such as Sonia Sanchez and Dudley Randall, whose Broadside Press published Knight’s Poems from Prison in 1968, also the year of his release from prison and his marriage to Sanchez.

Poems from Prison attests to the freedom of consciousness that persists in spite of prison. "He Sees Through Stone" portrays a strong, older man in prison whose vision--ability to think, imagine, and dream--survives even behind the stone walls. "The Idea of Ancestry," one of Knight’s most critically acclaimed pieces, is a cry of yearning for the freedom to be with his family and to have one of his own.

Black Voices from Prison (1970) is an anthology of writings by men in prison that includes all of Knight’s earlier poems and "A WASP Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison." In this poem, two people, initially separated by their differences, find common ground when he asks if she has children. The encounter leaves the man touched and softened by the woman, as are many of Knight's male speakers.

The early 1970s were productive years during which Knight gained popularity and recognition across the United States. From 1969 to 1972 Knight held positions at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Hartford, and Lincoln University. He gave numerous poetry readings and led Free People's Poetry Workshops, which were open to anyone. He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974. Still, during this time his marriage to Sanchez ended, and battling his addiction, he periodically admitted himself to veterans hospitals for treatment.

The culmination of these first years out of prison was Belly Song and Other Poems (1973). Now married to Mary Ann McAnally, with whom he had two children, Knight produced a volume that features some of his finest work, including many hauntingly beautiful love poems and "Belly Song," the poem that gives the volume its name. In this poem the speaker sings of love: all the emotion, pain, memory, and passion of living, which is located in the belly. Belly love comes from the sharing of memories, the common experience of survival.

In December 1978, Knight had a son with his third wife, Charlene Blackburn. Knight's next work, Born of a Woman (1980), presents women as healing, lifegiving sources to whom men turn in desire and identification. In "The Stretching of the Belly," written for his wife, the woman's stretch marks are contrasted with the male speaker's scars: hers are marks of growth and life; his are scars from war, violence, and slavery. The volume ends with "Con/tin/u/way/shun Blues," a poem that moves from the "I" to the "we" by means of blues rhythms, attesting to the unifying and strengthening power of the blues tradition, which allows us to "keep on keeping on."

The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986) is divided into five sections, which correspond to his five volumes of poetry. Balanced between poems of prison and freedom, the volume attests to the power of each. Freedom's power is forcefully articulated in "Circling the Daughter," for his daughter, Tandi, upon her fourteenth year. The speaker urges his daughter to remember her goodness, signified by her birth, belly, and newly round body, and reminds her to look within for the freedom to counteract the outside world of limit. In 1991, Knight died at age fifty-nine from lung cancer, yet through his poetry, he continues to testify to the power of freedom, and human capacity to envision it even while in prison.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.


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