Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Shaker: Wilma Rudolph Appears While Riding the Althea Gibson Highway Home
In "Shaker: Wilma Rudolph Appears While Riding the Althea Gibson Highway Home" from Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney uses historical figures Althea Gibson and Wilma Rudolph to draw comparisons between the speaker’s attempt to love again to a legacy of movement and perseverance.
Unlike the other poems, I’ve reviewed that deal directly with the persona of another black woman, this poem prioritizes the voice and actions of the speaker. The two historical figures (Wilma Rudolph and Althea Gibson) loom over the poem, serving as guidance for the speaker.
This poem follows the narration of a black woman, initially becoming undone and nostalgic, attempting to win over their lover’s affection. The speaker relies on external things like cheap blinds, record player, liquor, and clothes that don’t resemble them for distraction. It isn’t until they reflect on the night before, where a mirror forced them recognize the parts of themselves that would never be unrecognizable.
I have focused on poems that prioritize the memory of deceased black women, but this one focuses on a speaker forced to remember themselves. It could be a cliché lesson except this speaker’s self-realization is rooted in the legacy of black women who were not only excellent athletes and civil rights activists, but women who since childhood fought to achieve their goals.
This poem deals not with the death of black women, but with the way black women’s legacy leaves traces of itself in the lives of black women still trying to make meaning in a world that won’t allow them to ever stop moving. For me, this poem isn’t a mantra on moving forward, but one that lands on how a black woman looks to those before her for learning how to move in the world once recognizing herself. It’s about black women anchoring themselves to other black women who exceeded obstacles.
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