Who was Etheridge Knight?
Etheridge Knight (1931-1991)
Etheridge Knight—or “Junior” as he was called by his family—was born on April 19, 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, one of seven children of Etheridge “Bushie” Knight and Belzora Cozart Knight. The Knights moved to Paducah, Kentucky, where Etheridge “Jr.” dropped out of school, and in 1947 he joined the military at age 16; during that time, the family moved to Indianapolis. After his enlistment, Knight served as a medical technician in the Korean War and was honorably discharged twice, in 1947 and 1950. Upon his return to Indianapolis, Knight carried with him a shrapnel wound and psychological terror that contributed to his addiction to opiates.
In 1960, he was arrested for a drug-related armed robbery and received a 10 to 25 year sentence. It was in prison that he started writing poetry. He developed relationships with poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Dudley Randall who visited him while incarcerated; Brooks introduced him to haiku to help him develop concision, and to Randall, who at that time led Broadside Press, a Detroit-based Black-owned publishing company. Brooks and Randall helped Knight prepare Poems From Prison, his first collection of poetry published in 1968.
Shortly after his release on parole in 1968, Knight married Sanchez and moved to Pitts- burgh. The two divorced in 1970. In 1974, Knight married Mary McAnally; she adopted two children named Mary Tandiwe and Etheridge Bambata in 1972, but their marriage also ended in divorce by 1977. Knight had a son, Isaac Bushie, with Charlene Blackburn in 1978, and had a relationship with poet Elizabeth Gordon McKim until his death in her arms in 1991.
Etheridge Knight’s other publications include Black Voices from Prison (1970), Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1980), and The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986). He won National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1972 and 1980, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974, a Shelley Memorial Award in 1984, and was the first poet-in-residence at Butler University in 1990. Knight participated in the University’s first Visiting Writers Series that same year, along with Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Forché, Li-Young Lee, Mary Oliver, and Robert Bly. Knight also worked as a poet-in-residence at the University of Pittsburgh from 1968 to 1969, the University of Hartford from 1969 to 1970, and at Lincoln University in 1972.
During his lifetime, Knight developed and led a series of poetry workshops he named the Free People’s Poetry Workshops, in cities such as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. The workshops expanded overseas to South Korea, where they are led by Kenneth May through his organiza- tion, Liquid Arts. Knight obtained a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin University in 1990.
Etheridge Knight died on March 10, 1991 at age 59 of acute lung cancer.