Columbia City of Women Honoree
Image Courtesy of Forrest Clonts
"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."
-Nikky Finney, National Book Award acceptance speech, 2011
In Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, she began with history. In South Carolina, enslaved people were explicitly barred from becoming literate by the Negro Act of 1740, enacted in response to the Stono Rebellion the previous year. The rebellion, which saw black men and women come together with cries of “Liberty!” on a southward march to freedom in Spanish Florida, was the largest slave insurgency in the colonies before the American Revolution. Almost 300 years later, a single historical marker along US Highway 17 serves as the only tangible reminder of this freedom uprising, a stark contrast with the hundreds of Confederate monuments that celebrate the men who fought to continue owning others. For Finney, this history permeates everything she writes.
Nikky Finney was born August 26, 1957, in Conway, Horry County, to Ernest A. Finney, Jr. and Frances Davenport Finney. Her father, a graduate of the segregated South Carolina State University School of Law, was not able to practice in Horry County. Both he and his wife worked as teachers until 1960, when they moved to Sumter. There, Ernest Finney began a storied career as a human rights lawyer, politician, and judge. He ultimately defended more than 6,000 individuals charged during protests and sit-ins, including the Friendship 9 of Rock Hill. His clients often lost, and, as part of the “jail no bail” strategy, served brief sentences on chain gangs, before having their convictions overturned. As Nikky Finney recalled to NPR, “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.”
Even as Finney was shaped by the protest era of the 1960s and 1970s — with her father bringing home “every incendiary dictionary, encyclopedia, and black history tome”— she was equally influenced by her mother’s family, particularly her maternal grandmother, Beulah Lenorah Butler Davenport, and their roots in South Carolina. As a child, Finney was often tasked with visiting the local fishmonger. The fish she received would always have its “head off and the body split.” It was not until she returned as an adult and heard those words that she switched “from the daughter to the poet.” The metaphor was suddenly clear: the natural state of the fish represented humanity before enslavement, before corruption. Five years later, the phrase became the titular poem of her award-winning book.
Finney graduated from Central Sumter High School in 1975 and enrolled in Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. As she later shared with NPR, “I loved poetry as a child in a small Southern town in South Carolina, but there weren't any poets around. I didn't know how to do it. And so I kept meeting people on the path, on the trail to say, OK, put this piece into the puzzle.” Among her mentors were Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles and Nikki Giovanni (who she met in her junior year and inspired her nickname, “Nikky”). After graduating in 1979, she enrolled in the African American Studies program at Atlanta University but did not finish the program because it did not allow creative writing in a thesis. She next joined the Pamoja Writing Collective, founded by author Toni Cade Bambara. In 1985, while a part of the collective, Finney released her first book, On Wings Made of Gauze. That year, she also joined the staff at the National Black Women’s Health project and traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, for the United Nations Conference “End of the Decade of Women.”
After the publication of her first book, Finney moved to Oakland, California, where she worked as a photographer, printer, workshop instructor, and other jobs. In 1989, Finney was offered a visiting writer position at the University of Kentucky. The next year, the university hired Finney permanently. She taught at the University of Kentucky for over 20 years, earning the title of Distinguished Service Professor of English. During this time, she published Rice, Heartwood, The World is Round, and Head Off & Split. She also focused on fostering future black poets, co-founding the Affrilachian Poets, a collective of African American poets based in Lexington, Kentucky, and serving on the faculty of Cave Canem Foundation, which she once called “the major watering hole and air pocket for black poetry.”
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…
- Nikky Finney
In 2013, Nikky Finney returned to her native state to serve as the John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, with dual appointments in the Department of English and the African American Studies Program. The following year, she contributed a poem, “The Irresistible Ones,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the university by Robert Anderson, Henrie Monteith, and James Solomon, to the USC Desegregation Commemorative Garden. This memorial was the first in the university’s 200-year existence that acknowledged the accomplishments of black men and women. South Carolina’s — and the South’s — long history of pain and hope remain central to her work, and to her teaching. “A word here, a phrase there, a history less there,” according to Finney, “all of it is an accumulation of a life lived.”
SHE DID and DOES, so we can speak (and write) truth to power.
Want to learn more about Nikky Finney? Connect with a historian at Historic Columbia.
Interested in advancing the health, economic well-being, and rights of South Carolina's women, girls, and their families? Check out what's going on at WREN.
Built in 1968, and later renamed for John R. Welsh the university’s former Dean of the Department of English, this building has served as office and lecture space for numerous literary luminaries, including poet Nikky Finney since her arrival in 2013.