February 22: Talladega College Shaped Award-Winning Poet into a Champion for Social Justice

When award-winning author and poet Dr. Nikky Finney was beginning to think about her postsecondary education, she knew the only choice for her would be to attend an historically Black college or university in the South.

The daughter of two Claflin College (now university) graduates and Black activists, Finney describes herself as “a child who was heavily influenced by the Black college tradition.” Between her parents and her community members who were HBCU alumni — “they were graduates, and not just quiet graduates, they were jubilant graduates” who spread the gospel of their HBCU experiences to all in their path — Finney narrowed her list down to Hampton University, Fisk University, Howard University, Spelman College and Talladega College. Hale Woodruff’s Amistad murals, displayed in Talladega’s library, sold her on the small, private liberal arts college in Alabama.

“Instantly, when [then-admissions director John McCray] started talking about the Amistad murals … I knew that I wanted to study to become a writer there beneath those murals. … That meant something to me,” said the self-described “child of the Black arts movement.”

“In this little womb of a space [at Talladega], I thought that I could dedicate my life to the arts and to social justice,” she said. Her time at Talladega transformed her “from something that could be mediocre to something … great,” she said. Her mentor, Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, instructed her one day “under threat of death” to “put some poems in a little manilla folder” and accompany her to the airport to pick up famed poet and Fisk alumna Nikki Giovanni, who was visiting the campus as part of its Black arts festival. Finney recalls Giovanni took the folder home with her, and “she and her mom sat at their kitchen table and corrected my bad freshman poetry and sent it back to me with a note that said: ‘underneath all of those red marks … was something beautiful trying to happen.”

“It was that kind of tutelage and nurturing [from both Gayles and Giovanni] that made me believe I could be a poet,” she said. And she did.

Finney would graduate from Talladega and go on to obtain a graduate degree from Atlanta University. As part of a delegation of journalists, she traveled to Nairobi, Kenya as a photographer for the historic National Black Women’s Health Project, or the End of the Decade of Women Conference in 1985, and covered the historic UN conference for the National Black Women’s Health Project. She has published numerous books of poetry and has served on the faculty of a number of institutions, though she says she is still waiting for the call to join an HBCU faculty so she can have the opportunity to impact the lives of Black students the way faculty and staff at Talladega impacted hers.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com