Stephen W. Baldwin
English 6923: Working Class Literature
'So keep your bouncing walk, and.
keep your hip and mellow talk. yeah-and
keep your jackknife laughter that shakes the air.
cause white/america would have you move
like cubes. stumbling. without rhythm
or freedom . . .'
--from Etheridge Knight's "A Poem for 3rd World Brothers"
Etheridge Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi, in 1931. After dropping out of school in eight grade, he began to learn the art of toasts, which is a form of oral improvised poetry. Its roots are found in African poetry and play a major role in shaping Knight’s career as a poet. Having served in the U.S Army in Korea from 1947-951, and suffering a shrapnel wound to the head, Knight began a life-long struggle with drugs.
From 1960-1961, Etheridge Knight served a prison sentence for robbery. While in prison, Knight mastered the art of the toast. He honed his talents and learned from outsiders how to become a better poet. Knight was introduced to poet Gwendolyn Brooks who mentored him in his first published work, Poems from Prison (1968). It is in prison he found his audience. Knight would use fellow inmates, prison guards, whomever he could get to listen to his poetry. He even began writing poetry on behalf of his fellow inmates for their spouses or girlfriends.
In the 1970’s, Knight saw further publications of his work in Black Voices from Prison (1970), Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), and Born of a Woman (1980). In these more well-known works, Knight transcends racial and economic boundaries by discussing the human spirit’s desire for love, freedom, equality, and culture. In 1986, The Essential Etheridge Knight was published and brought together a collection of poems previously written.
During his career, Knight served as poet in residence at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Hartford, and Lincoln University. He received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1972 and a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1974.
In 1991, Etheridge Knight died of lung cancer at age 59. Upon his death, the annual Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts conference was established in Indianapolis to honor the works of various poets (See link below).
Etheridge Knight’s work explores working-class themes such as oppression, imprisonment, and cultural survival. He identifies with the reader by describing his own life and trials. Whether describing imprisonment or freedom Knight’s poetry touches the soul of the common working class citizen.
In the collection of works Black Voices from Prison, Etheridge describes how the black man in the free world is as much a prisoner as a man in an actual prison. He explains the universal theme that all men are imprisoned by the weight of authority and oppression.
This oppression is clearly seen in one of Knight's most famous poems, "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital of the Criminal Insane" (published in Born of a Woman). The poem describes a tough inmate after returning from a lobotomy operation. It describes the sense of loss the other black inmates feel at seeing their hero destroyed and succumbed to the prison authority:“The fears of years, like a biting whip,/ had cut deep bloody grooves/ Across our backs.” This oppression mirrors images we seen in other working-class texts, such as industry versus laborers, the steel mill’s control over the laborer’s lives.
Knight made a connection with the working-class audience. He tested his poetry at local bars or pubs, practicing his “art of the toast.” Knight states, “If you can stop a man with a full-kidney of beer heading for the men’s room, then you’ve got a good poem.” These public readings continued throughout Knight’s career and came to be known as the Free People's Poetry Workshop. He learned to “channel” his voice through the common man. His poems touch the heart of any person who has experienced passion and emptiness, joy and hatred, or laughter and sorrow.
Knight’s voice has not only connected with working-class culture but also with other communities as well. Knight became a voice of Black America and helped shaped the Black America movement in the 1960’s. He was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for one of his anthologies published in 1973. His writings represent the inner core of working-class culture -- not so much the details of job descriptions or manual labor, but of the inner workings of a man’s mind.
Knight’s candor and expressiveness left a permanent mark on society and working-class America. Through a unique medium of poetry, he connected with an audience desperately seeking survival in an oppressive society. He helped encourage unity in the community of Black America and working-class peoples. Not only did he build up the lower-class citizens but he also informed others who did not belong to working-class culture. With accurate portrayals of working-class themes, Etheridge Knight unfolded a brilliant body of work that is both alarming and poignant.
Knight, Etheridge. Black Voices from Prison. New York, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.
Knight’s first published work. Knight compiles writings from other inmates and creates a breathtaking image of social isolation and oppression. The majority of the works published in this collection are from Knight himself. His poems and essays contain themes of family, relationships with other races, and life as a prisoner.
Knight, Etheridge. Belly Song and Other Poems. Detroit, Michigan: Broadside Press, 1973.
One of Knight’s earliest works, this collection of poems conveys his pride and passion for African-American culture. He considers his thoughts revolutionary and encourages other Blacks to join in his cause for fighting oppression and racial discrimination.
Knight, Etheridge. Born of a Woman. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.
This collection brings together two decades of Knight’s most acclaimed work, along with previously uncollected poems.
Knight, Etheridge. The Essential Etheridge Knight. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.
This collection spans three decades of Knight’s most acclaimed work. Included in this work are texts pertaining to relationships, racial discrimination, politics, and love.
“Etheridge Knight Papers, 1964-1995.” The Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections. University of Toledo. MSS-016.
The University of Toledo holds a special collection of Knight’s work. This biographical sketch contains information on Knight as well as a listing of publications of his writings.
Etheridge Knight. Gale Literary Databases.
The Gale Database is incredibly useful in researching authors. It lists in-depth biographical information as well as criticism and reviews of the author’s work.
Etheridge Knight. Poetry Exhibits.
Focuses primarily on Knight’s life and how he represents the core of thinking for Black America in the nineteen sixties. Gives details of his work and how he genuinely depicts the life and existence of African-American working-class society.
Liftson, Amy. "Knight: The People’s Poet." Humanities. January/February 1998.
An essay containing biographical information on Knight. Also includes Knight’s comments on his poetry and audience.
Premo, Cassie. "On Etheridge Knight’s Life and Career." The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford, England: University Press, 1997.
Discusses Knight’s earlier works including Poems from Prison and Belly Song and Other Poems. Describes Knight’s writing in these collections as full of emotion, pain, memory, and survival.
“The Poetry of Etheridge knight: A Reflection of an African Philosophical/Aesthetic
Worldview.” The Worchester Review. 19.1-2, 1998.
In this essay, Knight is described as attributing his own identity to that of his ancestors. This essay also analyses specific poems that help define his African philosophical ideals.