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“Pennies on their eyes: Gullah/Geechee Culture and the Concept of ‘Otherness’ in Nikky Finney’s The World Is Round”

     The port at Charleston, South Carolina was one of the most important to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Colonies and the Americas. It is estimated that some 121,464 slaves were brought into the port of Charleston between 1716 and 1807 (Pollitzer 44-45). Through state and federal documentation, we know that the largest percentages of these slaves were, in order of largest to smallest, from Angola, Senegambia, and the Windward Coast of Africa (map 5, Pollitzer 46). While the majority of these slaves were sold to inland planters, many were sold to planters of the Sea Islands, a swath of lowland coastal plain islands stretching 400 miles from the southern coast of North Carolina, to the northern coast of Georgia. It is in the Sea Islands where the birth of Gullah/Geechee culture took place. For almost one hundred years, this culture thrived in near-isolation – it wasn’t until the 1930s, and some islands as late as the 1950s, that the islands were accessible to any transportation except boats (Twining 387). With this isolation, the Gullah/Geechee were able to maintain their own language, and preserve their oral traditions, fishing and agriculture methods, and their artisan techniques – thus creating their own, what Derek Attridge would call, “idioculture” and becoming an “other” to the mainstream culture of the United States (Attridge 24). Nikky Finney was born and raised in South Carolina, ninety-five miles north of Charleston. The daughter of a civil-rights attorney and a school teacher, she was raised during a time when to be African American in the South, and would attempt to “understand how human beings could, one: be so violent, and two: hate somebody so much because of the color of their skin or some other personal characteristic without knowing them” (Finney Interview).  In the collection titled The World is Round, Nikky Finney explores, and explains, her connection with this particular culture, illustrates how this culture is “other” to the different African American cultures in the United States, and helps readers to see what it is to be an “other” within an already-marginalized culture.

What are we to make of the concept of the other, specifically in relation to both the Gullah/Geechee culture, and Finney’s text? Attridge claims that “[w]e can specify the relation between the same and the other a little more fully by thinking of it in terms of that which the existing cultural order has to occlude in order to maintain its capacities and configurations” (33). Therefore, what is it the existing culture is blocking off with the “alterity” (another one of Attridge’s words) of the Gullah/Geechee? France Ntloedibe, in the article “A Question of Origins: The Social and Cultural Roots of African American Cultures,” points out that anthropologists Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price declare “we do not believe . . . that those Africans who were enslaved and transported to the New World can be said to have shared a culture, in the sense that Europeans colonists in a particular colony can be said to have done so” (qtd. in Ntloedibe 402). Ntloedibe uses the rest of his article to explain how the closeness in linguistic patterns of enslaved peoples, as well as the similarities in religious rites, such as water baptism, the ring shout, and – most importantly – funeral rites, encouraged the development of a culture, which grew into the Gullah/Geechee culture. In the introduction to her collection of poetry Rice, Finney writes that “It is in the contest of world history that I life my family up in context of personal history” (qtd in Kraver 138). Finney goes on in this introduction “my first breaths were drawn, my first words coaxed on a triangular patch of sandy land called South Carolina. Land that Indians first inhabited and that Black folks, Africans, had made” (qtd in Kraver 138). Finney illustrates this concept of shared culture, and the concept of cultural memory, throughout the entirety of The World is Round

In her poem “Fishing Among the Learned,” Finney recounts the lessons she learned from her grandmother, lessons that are italicized to show the change from Finney’s voice, to that of her grandmother. These lessons, she explains, “This kind of standing stare at still water;/Fresh Water Philosophy, this speaking on/the depths of a true life lived full,” are part of the shared cultural memory (22-24). In this piece, written in three parts – Part i the past, part ii the present, part iii future wisdom – Finney beautifully illustrates how these shared cultural memories and lessons can impact one’s whole life. In Part i, the history section, Finney recalls how she would “wonder why she’d stood/me there, that pole in my hand gripped tight/as teeth full born to a jaw insisting, Girl,/pond water is as good as any book” (35-38). In Part ii, the present, Finney has learned how to incorporate those enigmatic lessons of the past, incorporating them into her everyday life: “Fishing is the key to everything that moves” (78). While in Part iii, the future wisdom, she expands these lessons:
In the spirit of the old blind ones, those who
would take their chances in a heartbeat, pull
up safe anchor, all their eggs trembling in one
basket, throw your line out a little farther
tomorrow. Remember their commandment:
“If you do what you’ve always done, 
you’re gonna get what you’ve always got.” (112-118)
It is through the shared cultural memory of “the spirit of the old blind ones,” Finney illustrates, that the Gullah/Geechee have been able to preserve their small culture. “There are possibilities all the way to the end;/whatever you do, take fishing with you” (123-124).

Finney highlights, both directly, and through allusion, how her family still “takes fishing with” them, through cultural rites, specifically funeral rites. Ntloedibe writes in “A Question of Origins” that “in West Africa and the New World, baptismal and funeral ceremonies reinforced a strong sense of communalism” (409). In The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, William S. Pollitzer explains that “since death is a transition from this world to another, the funeral is the climax of life among African people” (141). Finney tackles this head-on in her prose-poem “Hurricane Beulah.” In Chapter Four: The Cancer, Finney describes her grandmother, Ma Bea’s, struggle with, and eventual succumbing to, cancer. In parts 6, 7, and 8, of this poem, Finney goes into detail of how contemporary Gullah/Geechees deal with the loss of their relatives. She illustrates:
"Daddy said the prayer and Brother No. 1 crossed/her arms across her chest I kissed the pennies then closed/down the eyes of the woman who had taught me how to see.
The funeral home came at midnight. My Father and my brothers
carried Ma Bea out of her old home house and into the back of
the loneliest car in the world. Daddy said it was tradition. He
said, We carry our own as far as we can". (288-294)

The tradition/ritual of the pennies is also alluded to in Finney’s poem “Metallurgy.” The poem, written for jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson and describing Wilson’s vocal style and magnetic persona, alludes to the funeral rite when the speaker states:
all the copper in us turns toward
the magnet of her breath.
Every penny we’ve ever saved
in mason jars, for the ritual closing
of the eyes, rattles.
Pollitzer explains that “trinkets may be placed in the coffin, along with money to enable the dead to cross the river of no return --- like the coin to give the helmsman who rows across the River Styx” (141). 

    Shared cultural memory isn’t always benevolent. There are at least three instances when Finney’s cultural, and racial, memory is haunted by specters of the past, and which also highlight how Finney, herself, is an “other” amongst an already marginalized section of society. As the daughter of a civil-rights attorney, and growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Finney knew the dangers of being African American in the South. In the poem “Coda,” Finney writes “Only now do I understand/that my random levitations and landings had everything to/do with four little girls from Birmingham and a bomb” (99-101). She goes on to explain, “Back then I believed bombs/came wrapped in Black churches” (108-109). Finney once more underscores this event from her childhood in “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” Finney “others” herself, writing:
The summer of ‘63
and I am only one Black girl
who belongs to the South.

A privileged one
who gets to walk to church
then mosey back home alive
without the pin of a bomb
clasped in my hair. (1-8)
 Cultural and racial memory, as we can see in these passages, is not limited to past. However, in the poem “Shark Bite,” Finney does show how cultural memory of the past can strike – and in the most random of circumstances. Finney writes how, during a celebratory dinner out, she ordered shark, not remembering that “a germ of history/four hundred years old/can enter the meat” (4-6), and that her “belly remembered what I had not” (12). Finney recalls she became “Cannibal suddenly to my own history;/one dark, beautiful, devoured human being/going down my pipes like a chunk of lye” (13-15). Memories of slaves lost at sea during Middle Passage, and supposedly eaten by sharks, well up in Finney’s mind, dragging her into a memory that was more visceral than cognitive. 

As with all facets of society, there can the “alterity” within groups which have already been “othered.” Derek Attridge writes “’Culture’ has a huge range of meanings, a diversity which can make for imprecision and inconsistency” (24). Attridge goes on to explain that, in order to see the “other” in a given “culture” we can “use the term ‘idioculture’ to refer to this embodiment in a single individual of widespread cultural norms and modes of behaviors” (24). If we are to read all the poems in The World Is Round as Finney being the speaker, then we can assume Finney’s “idioculture” as being a lesbian within the Gullah/Geechee culture, within African American culture. 
There are two poems in The World Is Round in which the speaker is lesbian: “Sign Language,” and “Sex.” Finney sets up each poem with an explanation, in italics, to give context to each poem. “Sign Language” is written “for the man who jumped out in front of the woman with his arm raised like a machete screaming Abomination! as she walked the streets of San Francisco holding her lover’s hand for the first time in public” (59). Finney confronts this “man” telling him how there is a woman who wishes she could pull out her heart and his, holding them side by side, and to ask him if he sees any difference. “Sex” is written “After ‘Oh, what would you know about it anyway?” (85). “Sex” is more direct in its confrontation of the “othering” of the LGBT community within the Gullah/Geechees, as well as within the African American community, and within American society as a whole.  The speaker of “Sex” states “whatever it is that I do/with another woman/could never even-steven/to what she does with Daddy” (8-11), as if sharing a bond of intimacy with one’s partner isn’t consistent across the lines of hetrosexual/homosexual lines. This is a prime example of the “alterity” Attridge addresses: “Otherness exists only in the registering of that which resists my usual modes of understanding” (30). In this case, that which “resists [the] usual modes of understanding” is how the love between two women, including the physical act of intimacy, could ever compare to the love between a man and a woman.

     Mixing the past with the present, illustrating familial ties, and personal stories, Nikky Finney’s The World Is Round is a wonderful example of “alterity” as it explores, and explains, Finney’s connection with the Gullah/Geechee culture, illustrates how this culture is “other” to the different African American cultures in the United States, and helps readers to see what it is to be an “other,” namely a lesbian, within an already-marginalized section of society. Her clarity and vision throughout the entirety of the collection is precise, and with this collection, readers can see the deep roots this once-isolated culture has in the history of the United States.

Works Cited
Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Finney, Nikky. Interview with Kimberly Reyes. Finding A Window. Poetry Foundation, 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2013
Finney, Nikky. The World Is Round. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003. Print.
Kraver, Jeraldine. “Mobile Images: Myth and Resistance in Nikky Finney’s Rice”.  The Southern Literary Journal  34.2 (2002): 134-147. Print.
Ntloedibe, France. “A Question of Origins: The Social and Cultural Roots of African American Cultures”. The Journal of African American History 91.4 (2006): 401-412. Print.
Pollitzer, William S. The Gullah People And Their African Heritage. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999. Print
Twining, Mary A. and Keith E. Baird. “Introduction to Sea Island Folklife”. Journal of Black Studies 10.4 (1980): 387-416. Print.

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