Sunday, February 2, 2020

Nikky Finney’s “Cotton Tea” from Rice

By Christiana McClain

In the poem “Cotton Tea” from her second book Rice, Nikky Finney narrates the resistance of enslaved black women who used cotton root for abortions.

The speaker starts off with a litany of names that the cotton tea has been passed between. By the eleventh line, the cotton root has shifted from eight different hands and dispersed into many more.

The speaker describes how the enslaved black women “chaw” on the root until their teeth are yellow in preparation for rape. The women watch how even the youngest ones are made to drink the tea. In the final line of the poem, the women assert that they use blue jars and cans for the cotton root “for the forcing there will surely be” because they understand that “cotton tea cain’t stop no baby from being made/but can make they babies go ‘way.”

This poem does the work of illuminating the resistance of enslaved black women not just through the dispersal of the tea, but through Finney’s intentional use of active words. In this free verse poem of 40 lines, Finney uses 23 different active verbs to chronicle the diligent work of those women.

It isn’t enough for the speaker to tell us that enslaved black women induced their own abortions, Finney has to show us how through words like “pluck,” “blooming,” “snatching,” “forcing,” “rolled,” “washed,” “birthing,” and “picking.” In that community, the women refused for their bodies to become objects that violence merely happened to. They used their bodies to communicate a quiet message of autonomy.

Christiana McClain is a graduate of Spelman College and an MFA in creative writing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She is a contributing writer for Cultural Front.

A notebook on Nikky Finney for Spring 2020

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