There are writers who can “deliver the goods” but can’t explain how they create them.
There are writers who can “talk a good game,” but whose actual work disappoints.
But the writers who can do both are a great gift — they are beacons who light the way for those who are now wrestling with words and inner demons, and those who will come next, and those who are yet to follow after the next ones.
Nikky Finney (1957- ) was born in South Carolina. Finney’s parents, a lawyer and a teacher, were both active in the Civil Rights movement. In an interview with the Oxford American, Finney said: “I’ve never been far away from the human-rights struggle black people have been involved with in the South. That has been one of the backdrops of my entire life.”
Finney told the Lexington Herald-Leader: “I know the sound of the ’60s and ’70s. There was a lot of standing with signs, there was a lot of shouting. I wanted to be a poet who didn’t shout, who said things but said them with the most beautiful attention to language … I’ve been really working on this for 30 years, exploring how those two paths intersect, the path where the beautifully said thing meets the really difficult-to-say thing…”
Dancing with Strom
I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, there’s not enough
troops in the army to force the southern people to break
down segregation and accept the Negro [pronounced Nigra]
into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes,
and into our churches.
—Strom Thurmond, South Carolina
Senator and Presidential Candidate
for the States’ Rights Party, 1948
I said, “I’m gonna fight Thurmond from the mountain to
—Modjeska Monteith Simkins, Civil
Rights Matriarch, South Carolina, 1948
The youngest has been married off.
He is as tall as Abraham Lincoln. Here, on his
wedding day, he flaunts the high spinning laugh
of a newly freed slave. I stand above him, just
off the second-floor landing, watching
the celebration unfold.
Uncle-cousins, bosom buddies, convertible cars
of nosy paramours, strolling churlish penny-
pinchers pour onto the mansion estate. Below,
Strom Thurmond is dancing with my mother.
The favorite son of South Carolina has already
danced with the giddy bride and the giddy bride’s
mother. More women await: Easter dressy,
drenched in caramel, double exposed, triple cinched,
lined up, leggy, ready.
I refuse to leave the porch.
If I walk down I imagine he will extend his
hand, assume I am next in his happy darky line,
#427 on his dance card. His history
and mine, burnt cork and blackboard chalk,
concentric, pancaked, one face, two histories,
slow dragging, doing the nasty.
My father knows all this.
Daddy’s Black Chief Justice legs straddle the boilerplate
carapace of the CSS H. L. Hunley, lost Confederate
submarine, soon to be found just off the coast of
Charleston. He keeps it fully submerged by
applying the weight of every treatise he has
ever written against the death penalty of
South Carolina. Chanting “Briggs v. Elliott,”
he keeps the ironside door of the submarine shut.
His eyes are a Black father’s beacon, search-
lights blazing for the married-off sons, and
on the unmarried, whale-eyed nose-in-book
daughter, born unmoored, quiet, yellow,
strategically placed under hospital lights to
fully bake. The one with the most to lose.
There will be no trouble. Still, he chain-
smokes. A burning stick of mint & Indian
leaf seesaws between his lips. He wants
me to remember that trouble is a fire that
runs like a staircase up then down. Even
on a beautiful day in June.
I remember the new research just out:
What the Negro gave America
Enslaved Africans gifted porches to North
America. Once off the boats they were told,
then made, to build themselves a place—to live.
They build the house that will keep them alive.
Rather than be the bloody human floret on
yet another southern tree, they imagine higher
ground. They build landings with floor enough
to see the trouble coming. Their arced imaginations
nail the necessary out into the floral air. On the
backs and fronts of twentypenny houses,
a watching place is made for the ones who will
come tipping with torch & hog tie through the
quiet woods, hoping to hang them as decoration
in the porcupine hair of longleaf.
The architecture of Black people is sui generis.
This is architecture dreamed by the enslaved:
Their design will be stolen.
Their wits will outlast gold.
My eyes seek historical rest from the kiss-
kiss theater below; Strom Thurmond’s
I search the tops of yellow pine while my
fingers reach, catch, pinch my father’s
Long before AC African people did the
math: how to cool down the hot air of
If I could descend, without being trotted
out by some roughrider driven by his
submarine dreams, this is what I’d take
my time and scribble into the three-tiered,
white créme wedding cake:
Filibuster. States’ Rights. The Grand Inquisition
of the great Thurgood Marshall. This wedding
reception would not have been possible without
the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (opposed by
The Dixiecrat senator has not worn his
sandy seersucker fedora to the vows.
The top of Strom Thurmond’s bald head
reveals a birthmark tattooed in contrapposto
pose: Segregation Forever.
All my life he has been the face of hatred;
the blue eyes of the Confederate flag,
the pasty bald of white men pulling wooly
heads up into the dark skirts of trees,
the sharp, slobbering, amber teeth of
German shepherds, still clenched inside
the tissue-thin, (still marching), band-leader
legs of Black schoolteachers, the single-
minded pupae growing between the legs of
white boys crossing the tracks, ready to
force Black girls into fifth-grade positions,
Palmetto state-sanctioned sex 101.
I didn’t want to dance with him.
My young cousin arrives at my elbow.
Her beautiful lips the color of soft-skin
mangoes. She pulls, teasing the stitches
of my satin bridesmaid gown, “You better
go on down there and dance with Strom—
while he still has something left.”
I don’t tell her it is unsouthern for her
to call him by his first name, as if they
are familiar. I don’t tell her: To bear
witness to marriage is to believe that
everything moving through the sweet
wedding air can be confidently, left—
I stand on the landing high above the
beginnings of Love, holding a plastic
champagne flute, drinking in the warm
June air of South Carolina. I hear my
youngest brother’s top hat joy. Looking
down I find him, deep in the giddy crowd,
modern, integrated, interpretive.
For ten seconds I consider dancing with
Strom. His Confederate hands touch
every shoulder, finger, back that I love.
I listen to the sound of Black laughter
shimmying. All worry floats beyond
the gurgling submarine bubbles,
the white railing, every drop of
I close my eyes and Uncle Freddie
appears out of a baby’s breath of fog.
(The dead are never porch bound.)
He moves with ease where I cannot.
He walks out on the rice-thrown air,
heaving a lightning bolt instead of
a wave. Suddenly, there is a table set,
complete with 1963 dining room stars,
they twinkle twinkle up & behind him.
Thelonious, Martin, Malcolm, Nina,
Dakota, all mouths Negro wide &
open have come to sing me down.
His tattered almanac sleeps curled like
a wintering slug in his back pocket.
His dark Dogon eyes jet to the scene
below, then zoom past me until they are
lost in the waning sugilite sky. Turning
in the shadows of the wheat fields,
he whispers a truth plucked from
the foreword tucked in his back pocket:
Veritas: Black people will forgive you
quicker than you can say Orangeburg
History does not keep books on the
handiwork of slaves. But the enslaved
who built this Big House, long before
I arrived for this big wedding, knew
the power of a porch.
This native necessity of nailing down
a place, for the cooling off of air,
in order to lift the friendly, the kindly,
the so politely, the in-love-ly, jubilant,
into the arms of the grand peculiar,
for the greater good of
the public spectacular:
In 1968, on the South Carolina State University campus in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Highway Patrol officers opened fire on over 150 protestors, on the third night of demonstrations against racial segregation. When one officer fired his gun in the air, his fellow officers assumed someone in the crowd had fired at them, and used shotguns with buckshot on the unarmed students. Three young African American men were killed and twenty-eight other protesters were injured, many shot in the back as they fled. Nine officers were tried on charges of excessive force, but all were acquitted. Cleveland Sellers, the SNCC representative, was tried and convicted of inciting a riot, and sent to prison. He was later pardoned.
A Personal Digression: In looking up the Orangeburg Massacre, I couldn’t help but notice the state seal of South Carolina. Adopted in 1776, the Latin motto on the left can be translated into English as: “Minds ready for anything.” The motto on the right: “While I breathe, I hope.” The female figure is identified as Spes, the Roman Goddess of Hope.
Apparently, 18th century slave-holders in the South Carolina legislature had very little sense of irony.
Nikky Finney at the National Book Awards in 2011
From her acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry for her book Head Off & Split:
One: We begin with history. The Slave Codes of SC, 1739: a fine of one hundred dollars and six months in prison will be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read, or write, and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature. The ones who longed to read and write, but were forbidden, who lost hands and feet, were killed, by laws written by men who believed they owned other men. Their words devoted to quelling freedom and insurgency, imagination, all hope; what about the possibility of one day making a poem? The king’s mouth and the queen’s tongue arranged, perfectly, on the most beautiful paper, sealed with wax and palmetto tree sap, determined to control what can never be controlled: the will of the human heart to speak its own mind.
In an interview with Kimberly Keyes, Finney was asked about “writing ‘in between,’ being impartial while standing on a soapbox.” She responded:
“Because rage doesn’t make poetry. And I think that if you’re a poet and you’re an artist, you know this—that rage makes rage. Nobody wants to hear your rant… Art is about the provocative, but it is also about the beautiful. I never forget that…
I know what it takes, having done this for as long as I have, that sometimes you have to wait it out…I call it sometimes finding a window instead of a door. You know a door is right in front of you and it’s got the wall, and all you do is open it and walk through, but a window is over there, and it has a certain plan of life, and sometimes you have to climb up on something to get through it. There’s a little more task involved. So I’m always looking for a window in terms of writing things and figuring out what I want to say about them.”
Finney answered a question related to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision invalidating part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965:
“…We do not live in a post-racial America…I’m always an optimist, but I’m also a realist. It’s going to change by people talking about it, by art, by keeping it in front of our faces. You can talk about tough things without indicting, without pointing your finger and jumping up on the table and making people feel terrible about who they are. That’s the humanity part. I want to have that conversation with people.”
Followed later by:
“…Toni Cade Bambara wrote this on the back of a postcard: ‘Do not leave the arena to the fools.’ I think about that—it’s the second thing I think about when I wake up in the morning…”
The New Cotton
They are just boys
Chain ganged to the side of the road,
Dressed to the nines in sunny orange,
That shade of red that never
Seems to set, familiar color
Of that foreign flower,
The kind you can close your
Eyes in sleep and still see,
But these boys are not flowers
Anymore, no thing that can be
Seen to bloom has been left to bloom,
In this place where a chain around a
Black man’s ankle is that state’s
Jewel, but if you still own your
Eyes, you know, they are still boys.
They do not yet know how
To bend, someone has not yet
Passed on the secret of how
To save their backs for the rest
Of the journey, someone forgot
To offer the old way of how
To get through the whip
Of their young days in order
To reach the sweet rock of
Their old, they angle
And arc carelessly, not knowing
They are matchsticks of American
History, never squatting down low
In the grass, never bending
At the ankle or thigh.
They are such proud brittle lion
Trees about to break in every
Direction, but free, the weave of
All their fabric wasted
In the constant picking up
Of useless plastic things,
That as I get closer to them,
That as I pass,
Looks white and sticky plump,
Some kind of new cotton
Stuck inside their reaching
……………….“Do not leave the arena to fools.”
You couldn’t accuse Nikky Finney of letting the fools have the arena.
Her words make you think and feel and connect to her ideas and experiences. They open up windows in your head.
Nikky Finney was the Provost’s Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, and is currently a professor at the University of South Carolina. She is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a group of multiracial poets devoted to giving voice to the diversity of Appalachia. Finney is also on the Board of Cave Canem, an organization of and for African American poets, dedicated to recognizing excellence and expanding opportunities for black American poets.
In addition to writing, she is a photographer and performance artist.
Sources and Further Reading
- “Dancing with Strom” from Head Off & Split, © 2011 by Nikky Finney (Northwestern University Press) – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/245100
- “The New Cotton” from Appalachian Heritage, Volume 40, Number 4, Fall 2012 – https://muse.jhu.edu/login? auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/appalachian_heritage/v040/40.4.finney.html
- Finney’s National Book Award acceptance speech: http://www.npr.org/2012/04/08/149936338/the-beauty-and-difficulty-of-poet-nikky-finney
- “Finding a Window: Nikky Finney on the South, Condoleezza Rice, and why curiosity trumps rage” by Kimberly Reyes, 2013 – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/246784
- On Wings Made of Gauze, ©1985 by Nikky Finney (William Morrow & Co)
- Rice, ©1995 by Nikky Finney (Sister Vision Press)
- Heartwood ©1997 by Nikky Finney (University Press of Kentucky)
- The World is Round, ©2003 by Nikky Finney (InnerLight Publishing)
- Head Off & Split: Poems, ©2011 by Nikky Finney (Northwestern University Press)
- The ringing ear: Black poets lean south – 2007, edited by Nikky Finney (University of Georgia Press)
Porch photo: The Lighthouse Inn, Tybee Island
Word Cloud Photo by Larry Cloud