Wednesday, September 12, 2012

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 North.

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. 


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