The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 134-147
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Myth and Resistance in Nikky Finney's Rice
Nikky Finney, a native of South Carolina and a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a collective of Appalachian poets of African descent who incorporate into their work themes of regional as well as transnational identities, local as well as global communities. Although she hails from South Carolina and not the geographical region traditionally associated with Appalachia, Finney, along with other members of the group, including writer Gurney Norman and adopted member Nikki Giovanni, focus on the intersection of history and culture that is central to the vast region called Appalachia. Finney's perspective on being Affrilachian is a global one. In Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers, Finney writes of "the geographical evolutionary theory," which contends that, at one point in time, all land masses were one. She explains that if one were to "pull all the countries of the world in together" one would discover "how the Appalachian mountain range melds perfectly into the long green valleys of Africa like one single sacred ground." Finney sees the same connection between the coastal Palmetto State of her birth and the continent of her ancestors. However, she laments in her Introduction to the collection Rice (1995) that "South Carolina has disregarded much of its African heritage." Through her poetry, Finney seeks to remedy that neglect by examining what melds the sandy land of South Carolina [End Page 134] to the continent of Africa—the tradition of planting and harvesting rice. 1
Rice combines poems and photographs. The photographs appear to be family pictures, some taken professionally, some by amateurs. There is an elegant studio portrait of a woman, her high-collared blouse trimmed and tucked in lace, tied neatly at the neck, and fastened with an ornate brooch. There is a photo of a man and a woman, a couple in their sixties perhaps, standing in a dirt field. There are miscellaneous family photos: a mother and a son, two pairs of women—in the first, an older woman poses before a car alongside a younger woman. The second pair is young girls, sisters perhaps, in a professional photo from the last century. There are handsome men: a teen in knickers, a headshot that could be a graduation photo. A beautiful young woman holds a bouquet. A couple kisses before the backdrop of a seaside resort in one of those shots solicited by photographers who prowl the boardwalks for vacationers. None of the pictures has captions. We have no sense of who these people are or where and how they fit into Finney's narrative. They seem to tell a story—are they parents and children, second, third, even fourth generation? Are they Finney's mother, father, grandparents?
In Rice, the shadows of Africa and of slavery in Finney's poems undercut the seeming innocence of the family photos. Family photographs, however, are far from innocent. They are instrumental in constructing what Marianne Hirsch defines as the "familial gaze"—that is, "the ideology, the mythology, of the family as an institution." The power of this myth is evident in Hirsch's description of the familial gaze as "hegemonic" (8). Family photographs create an image of unity, a moment of cohesion, a protection from discord that most families cannot uphold. Here Hirsch echoes Roland Barthes, who also recognizes the "disturbing," "insidious," and "astonishing" power of the photograph. 2 In his discussion of the signifying function of photography, Barthes tells us, on one level, the photographic image is full of meaning. On another, it is form, emptied of meaning and waiting for context, all in the service of myth.
Family photographs, such as those that appear in Rice, reproduce the dominant mythology of family. Claude Levi-Strauss describes the purpose of myth as "provid[ing] a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction" (Levi-Strauss 229). Myths, in other words, make a fragmented world understandable and...