Legacy Written in Truth
Date created: 2023
Elio Mercado, a Sunrise, Florida-based artist, painted this mural in June, 2023 on the east exterior of the Chatterbox Jazz Club. His portrait combines visual elements inspired by lines from Knight’s poetry; the mural’s color scheme takes a cue from the cover of Knight’s Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), a Pulitzer Prize-nominated work. “My mural is meant to highlight the life of Etheridge Knight, who creatively worded his
experience with raw imagery and truth,” Mercado said. “I instantly connected with his honesty and willingness to share his most candid thoughts and feelings with us all.”
The Bicentennial Legends murals, of which series this mural is a part, depict people who embody the City of Indianapolis’ Bicentennial Commission’s guiding principles: history, civic pride, innovation, and legacy.
ABOUT ETHERIDGE KNIGHT
Knight was born in Corinth, Miss., but grew up in Paducah, Ky. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1947, serving as a medical technician in the Korean War, but was discharged in 1950 after suffering shrapnel wounds. He moved to Indianapolis, where his family had relocated. In 1960, Knight was convicted of drug-related armed robbery and spent eight years in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. The back cover of his first poetry collection, Poems from Prison (1968), read: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”
During his career, which also took him to cities including Pittsburgh, Memphis, Minneapolis, and Worcester, Mass., Knight earned Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations and fellowships and prizes from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. But he always remained a community poet. “He took a specific experience–Black, formerly incarcerated, junkie–and made it universal through speaking in ways people could understand and by evoking what he called ‘the universality of feelings,’” according to the EKFreePeoplesBe website. Knight’s most well-known works include Cell Song, The Idea of Ancestry, Belly Song, A Poem for Myself, and He Sees Through Stone.
In the 1980s, Knight, who lived at Barton Tower on Mass Ave, would often visit the Chatterbox, drink Budweiser, smoke cigarettes, listen to jazz, and talk poetry, club owner David Andrichik told WFYI’s Cultural Manifesto in 2022. Knight’s Free People’s Poetry Workshops at the club were open to anyone; he’d look over their poetry and encourage them to write from their own experiences. When more high school and college students became interested in his work, Knight moved the workshops to all-ages venues. “He was such a teacher,” Andrichik told Cultural Manifesto in 2022. “People would bring in their stuff, and write, and do workshops or recitals in the afternoon or early evening before the music started.”
Knight died in Indianapolis of lung cancer on March 10, 1991.
Learn more about Etheridge Knight, his work, and his connection to Indianapolis:
Finding Etheridge: a series of conversations with poet Mat Davis
Hanako Gavia: May 7, 2023
Introduction: March 10, 2023
Indiana History Blog: May 3, 2017
Bookmark Indy: Barton Towers