Ali Lutz, Vanderbilt University
The words of poet Nikky Finney—in two addresses available on YouTube—have had a profound influence on my speaking, teaching, and writing in the past several months. Because she is a poet, Finney’s words make the work of activism and intellect accessible to the grassroots and also plain to the academy: you do not need an advanced degree to perceive the nuanced narrative of resistance Finney tells; and you cannot dissect her stories for abstract analysis severed from an embodied call to action. Because she writes from the perspective of a black woman poet growing up in the U.S. south, Finney draws on the power of counter-narrative to reclaim the agency of people who in dominant national narratives are cast as objects and not agents of history.
In her 5-minute acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, Nikky Finney situates her work as a poet in the context of her ancestors’ resistance to the laws of her home state of South Carolina that made it illegal for people who were enslaved to learn to read or write. Finney’s words hearten me that acts of teaching, learning, and writing, however small, that are born in courage and offered for the struggle for freedom, self-determination, and justice constitute resistance, now and to come.
Finney’s 2015 Cole Lecture at Vanderbilt Divinity School weaves history, poetry, and “Christian revolutionary action theology” in an hour-long meditation on hope and activism. Finney begins with a reflection on the dark matter and dark energy of astrophysics—the unknown that makes up most of the universe—to set the stage of her telling of the story of Bree Newsome, the 30-year-old black activist who, ten days after the murderous act of white supremacist terror that took the lives of nine people at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June 2015, climbed a flagpole to remove the confederate flag that flew over the South Carolina statehouse. Finney’s talk richly rewards anyone who takes a precious hour in these turbulent times to listen to her full address. Her lecture expands and inspires me from the opening epigraphs by Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker to its closing lines: “Whenever we step forward to be larger than our fears, freer than our unjust laws, and more loving than polite and mannerable, then a brand new galaxy has been discovered, and it is the first one that has everything each of us needs to live.”
Finney’s deep influence on my thinking and writing found expression in a sermon I preached on the Sunday after the presidential inauguration. I wanted to show that if we pay attention to history, we should not be surprised that the two terms of the United States’ first black president have been followed by the inauguration of a white president who used explicitly racist appeals to win on the premise of taking America back. I asked the congregation to consider the history of racial justice in the United States—in particular, the movement from the promise of Reconstruction to the horrors of Jim Crow in the aftermath of the Civil War. Because of Finney’s influence, I took time to learn and tell the story of one person in Nashville, where I live and work. I told my congregation the story of Thomas Sykes.
Thomas Sykes, a black man who began his life under enslavement in North Carolina, came to Nashville in 1872 to take a prestigious position at what is today the Internal Revenue Service. Sykes was elected to represent Nashville in the state legislature from 1881-1882. And then the laws that had made this possible for him as a black man were undone, overturned, taken back, reversed. By 1890, after the enactment of the “Black Codes” that eroded black Americans’ ability to exercise their right to vote and to participate freely and equally in public life, the best job Thomas Sykes could get was as an elevator operator in the same Federal Customs House where he had begun his career as a high-level civil servant. In the face of such cruel injustices, black Nashvillians and their allies did not stop fighting for justice and freedom. They taught their children to fight with courage and love. And their children’s children found the love and courage in 1960 to sit at Nashville’s lunch counters facing violence and abuse in order to overturn the city’s segregation laws.
If they didn’t give up then, we can’t give up now. This for me is the essence of Nikky Finney’s speeches, and it is why I return to them and share them.
Ali Lutz is a PhD student in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Religion focusing on Ethics and Society. Ali’s doctoral research explores the ethical assumptions that drive humanitarian aid and service missions, in particular the issues of control and imbalances of power that beset many well-intentioned efforts to relieve global poverty.