Photo by Forrest Clonts

Inducted 2021

Born: August 26, 1957, Conway, South Carolina.

Nikky Finney, a poet and teacher, has emerged as one of America’s most prominent and eloquent Black voices on issues of racial and social justice. A founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, her writing is remarkable for its visual, lyrical and powerful use of words. “The human heart,” she told an interviewer, “is at the center of what I write about.”

Lynn Carol Finney was one of three children, and the only daughter, born to Frances Davenport Finney and Ernest A. Finney Jr., a civil rights lawyer who later became a state legislator and the first Black elected chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.  She grew up in Sumter, South Carolina, where she attended public and parochial schools. She acquired the nickname Nikky in college.

Finney earned a B.A. from Talladega College in 1979 and studied African American literature at Atlanta University. While working as a photographer, writer, and editor for the National Black Woman’s Health Project in Atlanta, she began focusing her creative energy on poetry.

Finney says she became a serious poet after her mentor, the short story writer Toni Cade Bamara, asked her a pointed question during a writing circle meeting at Bambara’s Atlanta home. “So — you can write pretty,” Bambara said. “But what else can your words do besides adorn?” Since then, Finney said, her writing has been rooted in “empathetic encouragement and human reciprocity.”

Themes in her poetry and essays include what she calls “Black girl genius unrecognized,” under-appreciated aspects of Black and women’s history, sexuality, the “invisibility of poverty” in the modern world, Black family perseverance, the “necessity of memory,” and the loss of natural habitats. Finney’s poetry is distinguished by strong, direct, and precise language.

Finney accepted a visiting writer position at the University of Kentucky in 1989, became a full professor in 2005 and eventually the Guy Davenport Endowed Professor of English. She was named Provost’s Distinguished Service Professor in 2009. She has been a visiting professor at Smith and Berea colleges (1991-1992).

Finney was a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, an influential group of regional poets of color based in Lexington, Kentucky, and has been a faculty member at the Cave Canem summer workshop for African American poets.

Since 1985, Finney has published five poetry collections, a collection of short stories, and a poetry anthology. She wrote her poetry collection Rice in a cubby space at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Her poetry collection Head Off & Split won the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, and the video of her acceptance speech went viral on the internet. “That was the best acceptance speech for anything I’ve ever heard in my life,” John Lithgow, the award ceremony’s host, said as Finney left the stage.

Finney returned to her native state in 2013 to become the John H. Bennett Jr. Chair in Southern Letters and Literature at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, with appointments in both the Department of English Language and Literature and the African American Studies Program.

Finney’s books and a video of her National Book Award speech were on display in the inaugural exhibition of the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Selected Bibliography  

On Wings Made of Gauze, W. Morrow, 1985
Rice, Northwestern University Press, 1995
Heartwood, University Press of Kentucky, 1997
The World is Round, InnerLight Publishing, 2003
Head Off & Split: Poems, Northwestern University Press, 2011
Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, 2020
The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (editor), University of Georgia Press, 2007

Major Awards:

2011 National Book Award for Poetry, for Head Off & Split
2020 The Wallace Stevens Award ($100,000 prize)
2020 Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
2020 Aiken Taylor Poetry Prize
2016 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award for the Arts in South Carolina.
2013 South Carolina Academy of Authors
2004 Benjamin Franklin Awards (Independent Booksellers Association), First Place for Poetry, The World Is Round
2002 Honorary Doctorate of Humanities, Claflin University, Orangeburg, South Carolina
2002 Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent, Chicago
1999 Al Smith Fellowship, Kentucky Arts Council.
1999 PEN/Beyond Margins Award, for Rice.
1996 PEN American Open Book Award

Finney’s acceptance speech for the National Book Award (2011)

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