ETHERIDGE KNIGHT was born on April 19, 1931, in Paducah, Kentucky, in a large family that included four sisters and two brothers. Poverty was an ever-present factor in his youth, and as an adolescent Knight learned more from the men with whom he congregated in bars and poolrooms than from the two years he spent in high school before dropping out. At that point, when he was fourteen, he ran away from home and developed an addiction to narcotics. Later, at age seventeen, he joined the army.
Knight spent the years 1947-51 in the army as a medical technician, being sent first to Korea and then to Guam.He suffered some unspecified injury, either physical or psychological, that caused a continuance of his addiction to drugs. Knight's life seemed virtually over when, in seeking money to support his habit, he was convicted in 1960 of robbery in Indianapolis and sentenced to ten to twenty-five years at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan, Indiana.This experience, however, proved the source of a new phase of his existence.
As a boy Knight had been taught "toasts," oral narrative poetry in rhymed couplets dealing largely with sex, crime, and violence and employing figures out of black folklore and street slang. While in prison, where he spent eight years, Knight refined these toasts into poetry and by 1963 was submitting his work for publication. At the time of his release in 1968, Knight had developed friendships with other important black writers and publishers, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Dudley Randall. Randall published Knight's first book, Poems from Prison ( 1968), with his Broadside Press; Brooks wrote an introduction to the volume; and Knight married Sanchez upon his release.
Knight's first volume—as well as an anthology he assembled, Black Voices from Prison ( 1970), first published in an Italian translation as Voce negre dal carcere ( 1968)—reveals an unmistakably male orientation and an uncompromising anger at the oppression of black people, but it is leavened with moving paeans to black political and literary figures (including Malcolm X