South Carolina Encyclopedia Guide to South Carolina Writers

By Tom Mack | Go to book overview

Finney, Nikky (b. Lynn Carol Finney, 1957).

Poet, editor, educator. Nikky Finney was born in Conway, South Carolina, on August 26, 1957, the daughter of Ernest A. Finney, Jr., an attorney who became the first African American chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, and Frances Davenport. She took the name “Nikky” during her high school years in Sumter. She attended St. Jude Catholic School until the mid-1960s, when public schools were integrated in the state. With her older brother, she was among the first to integrate Central School in Sumter.

Finney left Sumter in 1975 to attend Talladega College in Alabama, where she found her calling as a writer. As a child she had started keeping a journal, and at the age of fifteen she had become interested in the black arts movement. In college she spent her time writing and studying literature, especially that of the African American tradition. During her junior year at Talladega, she befriended the poet Nikki Giovanni, who would later play a significant role in her growth as a poet. Finney majored in English in 1979 and won the Whiting Writing Award.

Finney enrolled in the graduate school at Atlanta University to study African American literature but left the program, which did not allow creative writing components in a thesis. Instead she joined Pamoja, a writing collective founded by the writer Toni Cade Bambara. From this workshop came Finney’s first book of short poems, On Wings Made of Gauze, in 1985. In 1986 Finney moved to Oakland, California, where she made a living from a series of jobs, from photographer, to printer, to workshop instructor.

In 1993 she began teaching creative writing at the University of Kentucky. There she cofounded the Affrilachian Poets, a collective of African American writers in the Appalachian region. In 1995 Finney wrote the script for the PBS documentary For Posterity’s Sake: The Story of Morgan and Marvin Smith, brothers who were photographers in the 1930s. Her second poetry collection, with photographs, Rice, was published in Canada in 1995. Rice constitutes an important development in American poetry. The poems are set in coastal Carolina, where Carolina Gold Rice once was a large export crop. Dealing with race, lost values, womanhood, and abuse, the poetry is in plain lyrical words and the imagery is powerfully evocative. Finney emphasizes her ancestry and African lineage, celebrates slaves who rebelled, and delights in the Gullah culture of her home state. PEN American awarded Rice the Open Book Award of 1999.

In 1997 Finney was promoted to the rank of associate professor at the University of Kentucky and also published a short-story cycle, Heartwood, which is about overcoming racial anger, fears, and prejudice in a small community by relying on the soundness of an individual’s duramen or “heartwood.” She published her third book of poetry, The World Is Round, in 2003. The collection won the Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry (2004). In these poems Finney emphasizes her African lineage and matriarchal ancestry, celebrates the spirit of anybody who rebels, and convincingly incarnates her delight in the Gullah culture of her home state. Several of the poems are frank about police brutality and honest about same gender sexual relations among the “Southern North American Africans.” In spite of the justified sound and fury of the uncompromising political poems, and outraged protests

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