I was a small-town girl with a big love for writing sticks. My birthday fell at the end of August, the last week of summer, the first week of the new school year. My early birthday celebrations were always tinged with a distinctly educational theme, but my love for pencils was bigger than any classroom.
One of the earliest rituals of my life was waiting on the front steps of our tiny white house at 311 West Oakland Avenue, Sumter, South Carolina, for the sight of my father driving up after work. I was his “Love Child” and he, the man who warmed my pillow on the heater grate in winter and cooled my forehead with ice cubes from his glass of lemonade in hot unforgiving August. Ours was a mutual adoration society, fed steadfastly with spontaneous afternoon walks and drives out in the world together.
My birthday week always set the stage for one of our special outings. My main order of business, that special week of August, was always the procurement of pencils for the school year ahead. Daddy would scoop me up from the steps, drive us across the tracks, pull in at the foot of the south side bridge and park just in front of the Manning Avenue Drugstore and Grill. Once inside, my father turned and headed in one direction and I turned and headed in another.
At the grill’s barstool Daddy would order a half-pound cheeseburger, seasoned and hand-spanked by the pharmacist-grillmaster himself, Dr. Wilson Deas. I was on the other side of the store near the front door, parked over a cigar box spilling with pencils. And there I would stand, until closing time if you let me, studying the barrels and wooden nibs of pencils like some kind of mad child scientist who seemed to have never seen a pencil before. While I deliberated on which end was more magical, Dr. Deas and Daddy caught up on the news of the day. They were close friends. They were young Black men in small-town Southern America with growing families and professions. We were neighbors. Dr. Deas was the only Black pharmacist in town and my father one of a small number of Black attorneys.
The two entities that made up the Manning Avenue Drugstore and Grill were not in opposition to each other. The bar stools that sat in the middle of the store were the line of demarcation. On one side of his shop sat the grill where Dr. Deas was the master chef of a two-item menu board, French fries and cheeseburgers. The burgers came with more black pepper than should have been legal in the state of South Carolina. They were the juiciest, most delicious cheeseburgers I have, to this day, ever tasted. On the other side of the store was the pharmacy.
As soon as a customer walked in with a prescription to be filled, Dr. Deas would turn down the flame on the grill, walk across the floor, shed his over-the-head grill apron and don his long-sleeved, perfectly starched, pearl-white pharmacist’s jacket, all in one fluid motion.
My side of the Manning Avenue Drugstore and Grill held the one-shelf school- supply section and therefore was the home of the oversized cigar box filled with a high tide of pencils, all sizes and colors. Some were #1 lead but most were #2. The menfolk left me alone to do my pencil choosing, never rushing or hurrying me. I would turn my back to the store and the grill and study only my long fingers lifting and separating nearly every pencil in the box. There was something personal and deeply private about this annual moment for me. I preferred #1 lead even then. Dark and glossy, it added polish to every word I scribbled. I preferred the deep gold pencils with the wide peanut-brown ferrules up near the eraser. My love of pencils was nothing arbitrary.
I was raised in a land of pencils and pencil users. I was reared around people who worked with their hands: seamstresses, tailors, carpenters, teachers, butchers, coaches, house painters, farmers, electricians, and plumbers. These small-town folk were deep and close inside my life and always within earshot. I noticed them, took them in, while they kept eyes on me. I watched how they did their work in the world and I made note of what they used to do that precious work. I noticed their pencil habits. Pencils were part of their toolbelts and their essential jewelry. It was not unusual how close pencils were kept inside their lives; just inside a purse, high inside an overalls pocket, on a cash register, on a string dangling from a nail on a voting booth wall, just over an earlobe. As a girl, not only did I like to write with pencils but I also liked to read them and imagine the places they represented: Jimmy’s Hog Heaven, Jackson’s Undertaking Establishment, the Silver Moon Café, Johnson’s Full Moon Nursery, Miss Mable’s Frozen Pies and Custards. Pencils got me going about what you could do with words while also illuminating the many work worlds of regular hardworking human beings. Pencils in my girlhood were tiny handheld billboards; jumbo pencils with hard knife-carved points, cigar-size pencils with teeth marks speckled all down their backs, evidence of a nervous mouth, early morning computation, or a lonely evening with lunations found in the almanac.
As a girl I tied pencils to sweat and hard work. I associated them with calculations and contemplation. People who worked with their hands and their heads used pencils. People who made mistakes and understood the power of second effort reached for pencils. City folks used pens. With a fancy pen you could say any fancy thing you wanted to say and not be as accountable. A pen’s ink was effusive, sudden, and unchangeable. You could write anything with a pen and it was made to look good. A pencil could be said to have a mind of its own. I found that the dark sweet mind of a pencil had to be coaxed and nurtured out of its shell and into the sunshine. Sometimes the tip of a pencil had to be licked in order to start it up after a long night’s sleep. You could sign your life away with a pen and never know what happened to your life. Slick-talking salespeople pushed pens into my father’s hands. Insurance men, car dealers, appliance salesmen, newspaper reporters were all pen users. A pen wrote things out easy and smooth. Drawing the delible blood out of a pencil took more effort, more deliberateness, more muscle and intention. And best of all, a pencil came with an eraser, that ever- so-thoughtful democratic attachment, that the inventor of the pencil must have jumped for joy once made and put there on the end. Pencils were the most honest writing instrument I had ever met. Consequentially, I chose with great care each one that I would eventually use, as if it might surely be some kind of magic wand.
The first time I heard Barbara Jordan speak, she was sitting at a congressional hearing and she had a pencil in her hand. I was sixteen. It was 1974. The impeachment hearings for Richard M. Nixon were under way. Barbara Jordan, the brilliant Black congresswoman from Texas, was speaking about the significance of her role in the hearings. Her voice rolled out like brown sugar and thunder. I—am—an—inquisitor, she said slowly on camera. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator. Her voice made me stand up in the middle of our family room. Her specific words made me reach for the nearest dictionary. I grabbed my own pencil and wrote her words down, inquisitor and idle spectator. I liked these words as soon as I heard them even though I had no idea what they meant. They reminded me of a word I had written down and put in my pocket a few years before, insurgent. I wondered how many ways there were to inquire. And how else a human being concerned with words and truth-telling might conduct her investigation.
Three years before Nixon’s impeachment hearing, in 1971, a professional Black theater company announced a tour of small towns in the South. The play they were touring was entitled To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a Black woman to be performed on Broadway. Her uncompromising words took America by storm in 1959. As a family we kept up and read about her success by way of our national Black publications, Jet, Ebony, Crisis, and Black World, which kept Black people across the country on the same page. At the young age of twenty-nine, Lorraine Hansberry was an activist, intellectual, and acclaimed American writer. A triptych that made me lick the tip of my pencil.
Professional Black theater companies were few and far between and they rarely visited the small-town South. When Sumter, South Carolina, heard one was coming our way it looked as if Dr. King might be returning to Earth for one night only. Two hundred–plus families crowded into the small Morris College auditorium and gymnasium that hot summer night. The floor seats were all taken when my family arrived. We scattered about to find any seats that we could. I ended up on a windowsill. The house lights fell and everything in my life since has been colored by the well-lit words that sparked and flew off that dark dusty stage.
I had never heard a Black woman talk about writing with such intention and verve before. The monologues and scenes played out on that stage, of the young Lorraine and the older Lorraine, the girl and the woman, holding on tenaciously to her own sizzling questions, her well-chewed pencils and smol- dering cigarettes, changed my world. Some of the deepest and longest-held breaths of my girlhood came and went that night. I began to quickly understand what I wanted to do, whispering over and over there on that windowsill to whosoever could hear me, above or below, Hansberry’s own words: I am a writer. I am going to write.
During the intermission I kept looking down at my hands, staring at them, in the half-light. They suddenly felt so different. As the eyes and bodies of others around me got up from their seats to get water, or food, or share small talk with a neighbor, I remained glued to my windowsill. I sat and stared at my hands, wondering if I could take the same twenty-six letters of the alphabet that Hansberry had taken, and make my own stories and poems, and create my own ways of saying whatever I felt needed to be said. So much of what Lorraine Hansberry believed, which the actors had so brilliantly dramatized, spread out into the night air around me, dropping down around my body like a second skin.
In her most flat-footed no-nonsense voice she wrote, A classical people deserve a classical art. As she battled cancer for her life, it was perhaps an old reminder to herself and certainly a new directive for fifteen-year-old me. I am a writer. I am going to write. I lifted up her nine words that night, wondering if I could be true to them. Near the end of the play and just before she died, in 1965, at the age of thirty-four, there were more words that Hansberry spoke. Before ’tis done, may I trust that all my commas and periods be placed and someone will complete my thoughts. This last should be the least difficult since there are so many who think as I do. If it had been possible for me to stand up on that windowsill in that moment I would have. Something was handed over to me. From the tiny stage to the even tinier windowsill. Something monumental and personal. Something perhaps at the very end of a pencil. That was the night that I consciously remember beginning to figure and configure, contemplate and computate just how I might leave my own delible mark on this life.
On our way home from the play I asked my father what an insurgent was. It had been the word used in the play to describe Lorraine Hansberry. He looked at me. He looked away from me. He looked out of the window. I knew he knew what it meant. He didn’t want to say. He didn’t want me to know, not yet. He could see how smitten I was by Hansberry’s words. He wasn’t ready to let me go, to go and become what the point of the pencil was pointing toward. This was the same man who had walked me to the pencil box instead of the candy store, the same man who never went on any road trip anywhere without returning with at least one book by a Black writer. He sat them down near my pillow and there they were when I awoke. This was the same man who bought his children tickets for Off-Broadway plays that examined what it meant to be Black in America. I was growing up fast and hanging off the new edges, and old meanings, of critically important words that America in general did not want me to become familiar with. The South I was growing up in was not changing very much but other places were hot with change. I was his only daughter. He was afraid of the fear he could not find in my face, afraid of the light and the flame burning quietly there instead.
inquisitor. A person whose official duty it is to inquire into or examine matters of crime, taxation. An investigator.
insurgent. A person who rebels or rises in active revolt against authority. A rebel, revolutionary.
pencil. An instrument for marking, drawing, or writing, which leaves a delible mark on a surface.
I was born inches away from the sea at the bottom of a fiercely Confederate state, in the small coastal town of Conway, South Carolina, on August 26, 1957. The backyard of our first family house was all sand and seashells. Hundred-year- old oak trees with their canopies of Spanish moss dotted the entire street of tiny wooden houses. The lilting Gullah voices of the children of pure Africans were the first air I ever breathed and the first stories I ever heard. There were postcards sold near the beach that spoke of the legend of the live oaks and the Spanish moss that blanketed them. These cards told a history and held a story that the moss of the live oak was the hair of a Southern maiden who had lost her rebel sweetheart and hung her hair there, hoping for his return. But there were others of us whose great-grandfathers had fought against the Confederacy and believed otherwise: the moss was the braided hair of all the Africans who had run away and been caught and hanged there. To us the live oaks were said to house the spirits of the slave dead. I learned as a girl there were indeed two (or more) sides to every story. More and more I knew I wanted to be one of those telling and passing on the infinite dark sweet side.
I was a Black girl born in America in the middle of the twentieth century. Because of this fact I was set out on a journey to live a writing, self-examined life. It wasn’t one thing that set me sailing in this direction. It was nearly everything. The political and social geography of the sixties and seventies: a toasty milieu of upheaval, old and new violence, historical lies, brilliant muscular straight spines of regular folk, inquisition, revelation, tired feet, pride, and stubborn art. I didn’t know what words to describe what tribe I belonged to as a curious creative girl, but as soon as I could hold a pencil I began to recognize what moved me to my own kind of action and I paid close attention. I remember scribbling furiously
in private notebooks, hoping to join that pack of inquisitors and insurgents that refused to believe the madness we were living in was normal. I wanted to decipher hatred with my pencil, study benevolence with my eraser, study state documents that said one thing and talk back to the human mouths that interpreted them in whatever narrow ways they pleased. I began by wondering aloud on paper about dinosaurs and why the women in my family always protected their mean streaks with such pride and reverence. Was there a through line?
I wanted to be a writer.
The Black Arts Movement of the 1970s helped rocket my wild tender heart to the page. Black art, culture, music, intellectual thought was being postured, packaged, and celebrated in the north, east, and west, and, in its purest form, still created and crafted in my schizophrenic South land. From my working- and middle-class neighborhood I subversively signed up for and received packages of Black-consciousness newspapers and boxes of broadsides from newly formed Black publishing houses. I read the Black Panther newspaper and Frantz Fanon at fifteen. I read communist and socialist manifestos and the new Black poetry of Giovanni and Sanchez, Evans, Rodgers, Madhubuti, and Baraka. For hours on end I would sit with notebook and birthday pencils in my father’s Buick Electra 225, rewinding Curtis Mayfield’s eight-track tapes, hoping to dissect exactly how he mixed the political with the beautiful, in search of my own particular way of saying.
I got to choose the college that I eventually attended. Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, beat out Fisk, Spelman, and Howard because of its quiet luminous landscape. Its hundred-year-old oaks canopied the campus like great brown-and-green umbrellas. I knew I would be able to think and write beneath its majestic trees.
One of my work-study jobs at Talladega was to accompany various notable Black artists around campus when they arrived for our annual Spring Arts Festival. During my senior year, Nikki Giovanni headed our way. My English professor and mentor, the incomparable human being who introduced me to Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, was the writer and scholar Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles. She encouraged a deeply shy me to show Nikki my work while she was visiting campus. I laughed. Was this not the most ridiculous idea in the whole world? It was one thing to show my work to my ninth- and tenth-grade English teachers, quite another to show it to the most popular and outspoken Princess of Black Poetry!
The poems remained hidden under the seat of the college van for two days. Finally, on day three, the day we were driving Nikki Giovanni back to the airport, I took a deep breath and pulled them out. She was gracious in accepting my thin little folder. Two weeks later she called me on the public phone booth in my Foster Hall dorm. She said that she and her high school English teacher mother had sat at their kitchen table and reviewed my work. She was calling me now to warn me: Underneath all the red marks on the pages is something beautiful trying to happen. I couldn’t believe Nikki Giovanni had taken the time to read my neophyte poetry.
After Talladega days I moved to Atlanta. I had been given one name and one address on an index card that Dr. Gayles had slipped into my hand as she hugged me goodbye and pushed me out into the world. Toni Cade Bambara had started a writing workshop at her house in Atlanta. It was open to anyone in the community who had a pencil and was interested in the power of words. I was terrified to go. Everyone who spoke of Toni Cade Bambara knew that she did not play when it came to words. It took me several months to work up the courage. I was twenty-one years old when I finally walked up the winding path to her Simpson Avenue door with a packet of sweaty, recently typed pages under my arm. I was expecting to knock first but the door was already open and flung wide when I got there. Black folks of all ages and backgrounds were sitting around Toni Cade’s living room, on sofas and on the floor, everybody there was talking about writing. I will never forgot how, after reading my work aloud during one of those First Sunday afternoons, Toni Cade looked up from the xeroxed pages that rested in her hands and said, Nikky, so you can write? So you can write pretty? So what? So what’s the plan? I had no response at the time but I also did not dodge the sting of her question. The two years that I spent sitting on her floor or chair or couch, listening to her lessons about language and culture, were the two most important years of my writing life. I found my most serious writing voice on Simpson Avenue in the home of the Black woman writer who was never afraid to write down what Black life sounded like. Toni Cade did not want us to look up to her and treat her with kid gloves. She wanted us to listen and be planful. I found the beginnings of my voice in that richly disheveled, book- stacked house of Toni Cade Bambara.
Toni Cade Bambara died in 1995. Another Black woman blindsided by cancer. She had been a passionate community activist and a brilliant American writer. She was spirited and egalitarian in her approach to everything. She believed that writing should be as beautiful as it was political. Her definition of being a writer in the community wasn’t just someone who wrote about the fictive lives of imagined people but also someone who stepped into the real lives of real people and generously offered something tangible and concrete to that life. She lived close to her own words: The job of the writer is to make revolution irresistible.
Soon it will be fifty years of life that I have lived and I feel that I am only halfway there. On this journey of many moments and many influences, I have come to understand the power of words. I also know there is so much more to discover beneath this landscape of alphabets. The more I pencil-dig down, the more frankincense I turn up. I am accountable to truth and beauty. I am Love Child, the insurgent sensualist.
Nikky Finney, “Inquisitor and Insurgent: Black Woman with Pencil, Sharpened,” in Meridians, Volume 7, no. 1, pp. 214-221. Copyright, 2006, Smith College. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyrightholder, and the present publisher, Duke University Press. www.dukeupress.edu
Cover Art by Azzah Sultan