The March/April 2011 Poets & Writers issue features a colored photo of a woman on the cover who looks so calm and happy. My mailing label covers her name: Nikky Finney. (I didn’t notice it until I read the issue.) I thought she was a woman of color, then I wondered if she was one because she looks sooo calm and happy. I know we’re calm and happy—or can be calm and happy. I hate to generalize but this calm and happy? Maybe the words I’m looking for are peaceful and content? Serene? Pleased with herself? Maybe she looked too pleased with herself.
I looked inside. I saw the reprint from her new book, “Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver”: “Be camera. Be black-eyed aperture. Be diamondback terrapin, the only animal that can outrun a hurricane…”
Last year, a friend and colleague, a white woman, gave me a copy of Finney’s essay, “Inquisitor and Insurgent: Black Woman with Pencil, Sharpened” that was published in Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism in 2006. I fell in love with that essay where she describes her coming of age in pre-Civil Rights era South Carolina and her creative and political consciousness. She skillfully shows how her political inquiries into Jim Crow South Carolina shaped her political insurgency and creative work.
I quickly pulled “Inquisitor and Insurgent” into my Developmental English Essay Writing curriculum. I always learn about my students in their work. Using her essay as a jumping off point, students wrote about their own inquiries and insurgencies. I especially liked reading about one student’s battle to wear her hair dyed a funky color to middle school. Ultimately, she was expelled from the school. Before that happened, her mother supported her daughter’s battle to represent herself and went to a school meeting with her hair dyed the same color as her daughter’s. (I realize that I may not convey the significance of the insurgency as well as my student did.)
In the Poets & Writers article, Kevin Nance does an excellent job of relating Finney’s family’s influence on her while growing up in that era. In her younger years, she was greatly inspired by seeing Young, Gifted, and Black. Later, she worked with Nikki Giovanni and Toni Cade Bambara.
When I read Finney’s essay last year, I wondered why I had never heard of her. I wondered where she was and what she was doing. I didn’t Google her. I didn’t look for her books in any library or bookstore. I thought about her and that essay and just wondered. I would like to think that I wandered. I would like to think that I ran across her writing years earlier. I dread that I ran across it and ignored it.
Saturday night, looking at that March/April issue I still didn’t know it was her, Nikky Finney from the essay. The beginning of Nance’s article compelled me to keep reading: “Beulah Lenorah Butler Davenport was not a woman to be refused. She carried herself with conspicuous dignity, and saw the same in her granddaughter, the writer Nikky Finney, on whom she doted…” Finney tells a story of being with Toni Cade Bambara when a man comes up to the famous writer and asks her if she’s the writer lady. Ms. Bambara says, Yes. Then he asks her to help him fill out paperwork to buy a house. Ms. Bambara went to his house and helped him fill out the paperwork. Finney learned that she didn’t want there to be a separation between her writing and her people too. Eventually, I realized who I was reading about.
When Finney is asked about having anger, she says, “Anger. That’s such an easy word…As an artist and a daughter of the South, and as someone who honors my feelings as often as I can, I don’t have to acquiesce to the polite expectations of the moment…My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is to not look away.”
I had to read aloud quotations from the article and share with Geen because Finney’s words moved me so much. It’s not just her technical writing though her skill is apparent as she relates her experiences of not looking away and fighting. Inspiring.
Nikky Finney has a new book of poems out: Head Off & Split. She has other books: On Wings Made of Gauze, Rice, The World Is Round, Heartwood. I’ve ordered Head Off from the local independent bookstore.
I feel a certain joy at discovering a new (to me) author though I am very aware that Finney is not a new author.
Finney writes in “Inquisitor and Insurgent” and Nance repeats in his article how in her early writing days Ms. Bambara told her, “So—so you can write—so you can write pretty--so what—so what’s the plan?” She adds: “I learned it was never enough just to write it out pretty. I had to follow it through with action. At all times in all ways, I was accountable to my words.”
I’m not a young writer anymore, and I wish I didn’t have to be reminded of this lesson, but since I must, I’m glad—or, grateful—for the nudge. Or kick. I don’t live up to Finney’s words and I struggle to live up to my own, but I will think of Finney and others and try better to do my part.
In the black and white photo of Finney within the article, she looks just as challenging as her writing. I showed Geen the photos. She said that P&W wouldn’t have sold as many copies with the inside photo. I agree. I think I know why Finney looks so calm and serene and peaceful: she doesn’t just challenge her family, community, and nation, she challenges herself. Each insurgency may not be popular or successful, but it is true.
If you’re familiar with Finney’s work—and I’m sure many are—and would like to suggest anything else of hers to read or a particular sequence, please do. If you want to suggest other writers whose work I may have—or probably have—missed and shouldn’t any longer, please do.
Thanks to Nikky Finney for her work. Thanks to Kevin Nance for his article and P&W for publishing it.