Standing Up for the Brave Hampton Seven

Revolution #026, December 12, 2005, posted at

The following statement is from Nikky Finney, poet and professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky.

Dear Hampton University,

I am a poet. I am a writer. I am a Black woman. I am a Full Professor in the English Department at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. I am a southern girl raised in a traditional Black middle class family. I travel and read my work to students all across the country. I believe fiercely in speaking out and activism. I believe in listening and kindness. My parents were Civil Rights Activists. I learned from them. I refuse to forget those lessons. I flew to Washington DC on September 24, 2005 to protest the war in Iraq. I flew to Washington on October 30, 2005 to walk and weep from one end of the Capital Rotunda to the other in honor of the life of Rosa Parks. I was invited to Hampton University to speak and share my work on Thursday, November 18, 2005. I flew to Hampton with great hope and happiness and truth in my heart. Speaking to Black youth is what I live for. It is what feeds me.

I have spoken at universities around this country for the past 20 years. I am never more satisfied, never more full and alive with promise and hope than when I am speaking to young Black people. I had never spoken at Hampton University before, even though I have had family members matriculate and graduate from its hallowed halls for the last 100 hundred years. I had never been invited before. When I arrived my poster was on every wall and door on campus. I was so proud. That night the chapel was filled with hungry curious minds and hearts. I stood in the auditorium and spoke about Rosa Parks and the honor and responsibility of protesting what is not right in the world. I read poetry in an auditorium filled with students sitting on the edge of their seats. It was a powerful almost religious experience for me. Afterwards they asked me brilliant heartfelt questions. My eyes kept filling with water because I felt like I was home. I felt like I had worked so hard and honed my sacred craft to be in that moment with them. I was so glad to be there. We kept each others company for hours. Someone had to ring the bell to get the building emptied out for the night. I answered anything and everything they could ask. I refused to get tired. I took some of the student poetry home with me under my wings. I promised I would go through some of their work and give them some feedback, just like thirty years before, when someone had gone through my work for me to help me up the ladder. I believe life is a relay. I believe you have to give back.

Tonight when I got home from work I found an email about Hampton University that has broken my heart and made me furious. I read it once, I read it twice and read it a third time. I am swimming in disbelief. Hampton University cannot be doing this. Preparing to kick out students over a unauthorized flyer? And all of this was going on while I was standing there reading my truth in the middle of the unknowing air. No one said a word to me about this while I was there on campus for two days. No one. I even agreed to go to an English class that next (Friday) morning where I spoke to freshman about reading and learning and honoring themselves and their thoughts and feelings. I did a student radio interview where I talked about the power of breath and language. Still, no one said a word to me about what was going on. I spoke of standing up for self and speaking out for self and being responsible for reaching out for knowledge and not just waiting for it to be handed to you. What were those students thinking as I spoke? I had no idea that Hampton University had issued archaic Byzantine orders for these brave courageous students. If I had known all of this I would not have accepted the invitation to come. Or, would I have accepted the invitation and brought up my support of the students in the middle of my metaphor and simile hour? I would have said something in support of voice and truth and passion. I would have stood up for those brave Hampton Seven. I am standing up now for them.

I am stunned and spinning in the middle of my house as I write this. Where would we be without protest and Rosa Parks and WEB DuBois and all the writers and artists and college students who have been on the front lines since the beginning of time? What is Hampton University afraid of? Truth? Vision? Intellectual Independence? Imagination? Control of ideas?

Why not ban me from returning to the campus with my truth and aerospace verbs lifting into the air but don't you dare ban these students who were doing what they felt in their hearts and minds was right. Don't set up this Gestapo like standard right in the middle of the trailblazing art of Elizabeth Catlett and John Biggers and Hampton University history.

All students of all color and culture must have campuses where they can discuss and disseminate, disagree and study, information without the "Father's Seal of Approval." This is about Freedom. Freedom is something Black folks know something about. This is also about Fear. Fear is something Black people know something about. Shame on you Hampton University. You have given into your fear. University life and College life and the hemisphere of the Academy is about the life of the mind not the mind of the master. You are making a grave mistake by using the Master's tools to rebuild the Freedman's House. This is not the past. This is the future. Here, now.

(Please, somebody within the sound of my voice pass this missive along to somebody else. Please. Let those seven brave souls hear from me--and you.)

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