I knew Etheridge Knight personally for a few years back around 1980. He was sponging off the place where I was working: The Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, TN. Even the folks who ran that place were wary of him, and they would use anyone they could to make a name for themselves. You see, you don't have to become a worthless thief and liar to be a junkie. You can become a drug addict and still maintain a sense of honor. In fact, when I hear libertarians talking about legalization of all drugs, I imagine them imagining a world of decent, honorable junkies who just stare at their big toe and don't break in someone's house to feed their habits. This, of course, is wishful thinking on their part, but God bless them for their faith in humanity.
I used to call Ethridge "Eldridge" just to piss him off. In fact, I bet if someone in Hell yelled Eldridge right now, he'd turn around and say, "I'll be damned to Hell! When did you get here, dannye?"
Why did I want to piss him off? Well, he owed me money all the time, for one thing. And he owed everyone I knew money. And he was always coming up with some lie about why he couldn't pay the money back and how tough it was for a black man to get by. Especially a black man who'd been to prison. And a black poet who'd been to prison? Forget about it...
Hard Rock was "known not to take no shit
From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumped ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.
Of course, this was all a scam. He was just another con artist getting what he wanted by using the poet card. He was also getting some really good little white Yankee college girl intern loving by playing that card. I think he'd been married at least 3 times and had yard children scattered all over America. He wasn't what you'd call faithful to his wives and lovers.
Well, God bless Eldridge. He and I used to joke about being born in the same little town in Mississippi.
I hope history treats his work well. I never saw him do any work the whole time I knew him (aside from trying to work a needle into his badly scarred arms), but I have it on good testimony that he actually did some work at one time in his life. However, I would ask those of you who are writing critical commentary on Mr. Knight to consider this: There is Affirmative Action for poets in America these days. And if they are junkies just out of prison, the bidding war just gets juicier for the idiots making literary decisions for our college kids.
". . . Man, the last time, it took eight
Screws to put him in the Hole." "Yeah, remember when he
Smacked the captain with his dinner tray?" "He set
the record for time in the Hole -- 67 straight days !"
"Ol Hard Rock! man, that's one crazy nigger."
And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock once bit
A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.
Yeah, sounds just like something he'd do. What a guy.