South Carolina poet Nikky Finney never meant to write the speech that earned her a place in history at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
“I was just trying to thank my community, my family, remember what my life had been,” she said in an interview.
Finney won the National Book Award for poetry in 2011. Her acceptance speech, less than five minutes long, became a widely circulated statement on race, history and writing.
If we read our history in an honest, courageous way we wouldn’t be looking over our shoulder thinking, “Did we do this?” Nikky Finney
Finney, 59, will be in Washington on Saturday to hear President Barack Obama’s dedication of the museum when it opens to the public. And thousands of visitors will hear her famous speech, installed in a video display in the section of the museum that celebrates African-American cultural achievements.
The speech begins by quoting the 1739 South Carolina slave codes.
“A fine of $100 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,” she began her remarks. Then she moved the audience two centuries forward into the present.
“Tonight these forbidden ones move around the room as they please, they sit at whatever table they want, wear camel-colored field hats and tomato-red kerchiefs,” she continued. “Some have just climbed out of the cold, wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together. If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl poet self, so too would I call out theirs.”
Her powerful words became famous across the world – more famous than the ones she won the award for, she jokes.
“I feel like I’ve become better known for this speech than for my work,” she said in an interview. “Five years later I can’t believe how many people tell me, ‘I’ve watched the speech 10 times.’ It’s crazy how many people have reached out to me, people from all over the world.”
Finney says the main message of her speech is “not to turn away from the source of who made you who you are.” And for her home state, she hopes that means learning from the mistakes of the past, outlined at the new museum.
“Not only do I feel like I connect with the slave cabin, the slave badges, the Philip Simmons iron gate and the desks (from the Hope school), but I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without those artifacts and what came with them,” she said, referring to some of the more than 50 objects from South Carolina in the museum’s collection. One of them is a reconstructed 19th-century slave cabin from Edisto Island.
“Without them, I wouldn’t be the poet or the writer or the activist I’m trying to be,” she said.
That’s our spirit – you can kill us, some of us will die and some of us will take the stories of our grandparents to the next generation. I am the living embodiment of that. Nikky Finney
Finney was born in Conway, South Carolina, the daughter of Ernest Finney, the state’s first African-American chief justice, who began his public service career as a civil rights attorney. Her work often reflects on growing up in the South during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. After teaching for 20 years at the University of Kentucky, she returned to her native state in 2013 to become the University of South Carolina’s John H. Bennett Jr. Chair in Southern Letters and Literature.
In recent years, Finney said, she has feared that her state may be regressing to a darker era.
“In South Carolina in the last two years we’ve had some of the worst news possible,” she said, listing the shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in Charleston, the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church and a Columbia high school girl who was roughly slammed to the floor by a police officer.
“This doesn’t bode well for what we should have learned from our history,” she said. “We need to use these lessons from the past to forge forward in a stronger kind of way, and I hope the museum . . . will help us do that in South Carolina instead of pushing (history) under the rug.”
Finney said she couldn’t wait to see the museum, where her video will tie past and present together, a small piece in the “collage of history” of African-Americans in the South.
“I’m a pencil-loving girl who comes from a very oral tradition here in South Carolina,” she said, reflecting that her ancestors could have lost their lives for doing the very thing for which she won a national award.
“Back then, if they saw us trying to read or write they would take our hands, take our eyes, if they saw us keep doing it, take our lives, and here I was being awarded one of the top literary awards in the country, having come from that land,” she said. “That’s our spirit – you can kill us, some of us will die and some of us will take the stories of our grandparents to the next generation. I am the living embodiment of that.”