Nikky Finney, South Carolina native and professor of English at University of Kentucky, has won the National Book Award for poetry. The National Book Award, which has been around since 1950, is an award given to writers by other writers. Each year the National Book Foundation gives awards to four writers, one for fiction, non-fiction, poetry and Young People’s Literature.
Another black woman, Jesmyn Ward, won the award for fiction for her work “Salvage the Bones,” a story detailing the lives of a family affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Finney’s award-winning piece, “Head Off & Split” details the the history of South Carolina from segregation to integration and mental reformation, the latter expressed in a portion of the poem called “Dancing with Strom.” Strom being Strom Thurmond, the U.S. senator who was known for his views on racial separation.
Finney includes a 1948 quote from Thurmond in the poem’s foreword,
“I want to tell you, ladies and gentleman, there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and accept the Negro into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
But in his later years Thurmond’s views changed. So much so, that Finney, the daughter of Ernest A. Finney Jr., a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, watched as Thurmond danced with her mother and other women at her brother’s wedding.
Other critics have received the poem, which reads like a series of short stories, well. Kwame Dawes, founding director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative wrote that Finney “establishes herself as one of the most eloquent, urgent, fearless and necessary poets writing in America today.”
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