Nikky Finney: The Role of the Writer and Critic

[By Kenton Rambsy]

On Thursday, September 6, U.S. National Book Award-winning
poet, Nikky Finney visited the University of Kansas to deliver a lecture on
“Making Poetry in Our Anthropocene Age.” I was eager to attend the lecture to
find out what angle Finney would take in bridging the literary world to issues
of environmentalism.

Perhaps my view of ecology was limited solely to the
physical interactions of the natural environment. Finney’s talk expanded my
conception of “nature” to emphasize the role of one’s memory in how we conceive
of and relate to our surroundings.

In her lecture, she urged those in attendance to “Put
something back whenever you can.” Finney’s advice far surpassed the superficial
realm of what we think of when we think of conservation such as turning off
lights and air conditioners or planting gardens full of beautiful plants. While
those things are important, Finney was urging us to put memories back into the
world as we take from and manipulate the larger legacies of those that came
before us.
Actually, I was prone to think about the literary
representations of southern landscapes versus northern cities in African
American literature. The restrictions of the South and Jim Crow served to
present complicated visions and barriers for black people and led them to
sometimes inaccurately paint northern cities as the promise land.
For example, in Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home”
(1936), certainly the physical limitations placed on the protagonist Big Boy
that lead him to kill a white man in self-defense and hastily flee to Chicago
to escape the violent, vengeful acts of white people, present the American
South as an oppressive environment.
On the other hand, Rudolph Fisher’s “The City of Refuge”
(1925) reminds readers that even though Harlem, New York, “got cullud
policemans” the hustle and bustle of city life have the ability to mask those
same restrictive forces that black people confront in both the South and the
I brought these two examples up as a means of illustrating
Finney’s point: how we conceive of our past, specifically artistic
representations of black people’s relationship with physical landscapes, has a
direct bearing on how we conceive of our social and political selves presently.
In Finney’s words, this is the job of poets, literary critics and the like, “To
remind you about what’s not written down, so you won’t forget.”
More attention on how black artists represent landscapes in
novels, short stories, poetry, and even music might bring us closer to building
a more comprehensive view of the links across diverse genres as well as
historical and social periods of black artistic production.