Poem Guide

Nikky Finney: “The Afterbirth, 1931”

“somethin’ wasn’t right:” How Finney captures an American nightmare.

Nikky Finney’s “The Afterbirth, 1931” appears in Rice, a beautifully designed book filled with daring poems of painful eloquence. Rice was Finney’s second book, arriving 10 years after her 1985 debut, On Wings Made of Gauze. As part of the promotional drive, Finney distributed small burlap bags full of rice. Ultimately, however, it was the poetry, power, and beauty that impressed me most, and the poem “The Afterbirth, 1931” remains a haunting presence in my imagination.

“The Afterbirth, 1931” is a long narrative poem that tells the story of the birth of Finney’s father. But it also tells the story of the death of his mother, and much more. Finney uses language to elevate story into something profoundly musical and epic, both a confession and a lament. The poem reveals that the tragedies of race in America (and everywhere else) are never clean and clear matters of good versus evil, but complex realities that ultimately reveal the flawed nature of all humans and our profound vulnerability in the face of bigotry.

Here’s the story: a woman in the 1930s—a black woman; a black, ambitious woman from an ambitious black family with hopes of moving toward the middle class, a family committed to seeing that its children are educated and are able to seize hold of the elusive American Dream; a black woman from Carolina stock—a descendant of the recently enslaved living among elders who were themselves slaves—is in labor, ready to give birth to her child:

We were a Colored Clan of Kinfolk
Who threw soil not salt
Over our shoulders
Who tendered close the bible
Who grew and passed around the almanac at night
So we would know
What to plant at first light

The family has known the rituals of black folks for years, the rituals of birthing, the rituals that would bring clear-eyed women to the beds of the pregnant, women with the capacity to guide a child into the world while preserving the womb and the body of the pregnant woman. They know that this is what poor people have done for decades, for centuries even, in America’s South because they have had to.

Black soil and sweet brown sorghum
From the every morning biscuits
Mama Susan fixed
Dripping and mixing
Up under our fingernails
A secret salve
Just like any other
Living simple
And keeping to our proud selves
Quite aware of night riders
Quite aware of men with
Politicious smiles
Cologned with kerosene and match

Aware of just whose feet
Walked across our tin roofs at night

We were such light sleepers
Such long distance believers

We were a family pregnant
Whose water had broke

But these are modern people, and they have seen that those who can afford it, those white folks who can afford it and those black folks who want to afford it, have had doctors visit the woman to bring the baby forth, and they think that perhaps this is what ambitious black folk should do.

And for once there was ham money
‘Bacca money
So we thought to do better by ourselves
To begin our next row
We would go and get him
Because he was medically degreed in baby bringing
Because he was young and white and handsome
And because of that
Had been neighbor to more knowledge
Than us way back behind
The country’s proud but inferior lines

And because he came with his papers in his pocket
So convincing so soon
After his ivy graduation
Asking us hadn’t we heard
Telling us times had changed
And the midwife wasn’t safe anymore
Even though we had all been caught
By tried and true Black Grannies
Who lay ax blade sharp side up
And water pan underneath the bed
To cut the pain
To cool the fever

We were a Pregnant Clan of Kinfolk
Caught with water running down our legs
Old family say they remember
Going to fetch him
Telling him that it was time
That he should come now
But he didn’t show right away
Not right away
But came when he wanted
The next day
After his breakfast

But what more
Could we colored country folk ever want
Even if we had to watch the road all night for him
Even if we had to not let her push too hard
When he finally came
He had his papers on him
Something with one of those pretty shiny seals
Old family say they can remember
Somethin’ just wasn’t right
But we opened the screen for him anyway
And tendering close what the Good Book
Had told us all our lives to do

Everything goes horribly wrong in the middle of the poem. We read this unfolding story with a knowing sense of dread, and a feeling of despair at our helplessness, their helplessness, the helplessness of a people wanting better but somehow forgetting the meaning of better.

A young white doctor is summoned. He arrives drunk and enacts a careless rite, maiming the mother, leaving her with the afterbirth still in her womb, where it cankers.

Then we made him a path
Where he put his hand up then inside
My grandmother’s womb
Her precious private pleasing place
Somewhere he probably didn’t want to touch

Then he pulled my daddy through
Somebody he probably didn’t care to reach for
And from the first he pulled him wrong
And wrong
Shattered his collarbone
And snapped his soft baby foot in half
And smashed the cartilage in his infant hand

Their own sun baked arms
Old timey family
Remember him well
Say they knew somethin’ wasn’t right
As he came through the door
A day later
His breakfast digested now
Somethin’ just wasn’t right
How he had two waters on him
One sweet one sour-mash
One trying to throw snow quilt over the other
As he un-carefully
As drunkenly
He with his papers on him still
Stood there turning a brown baby into blue
And right before our eyes

Hope and Pray
Hope and Pray

Then he packed his bag and left
With all of his official training
And gathered up gold stars left
The Virginia land of Cumberland County

He left and forgot
He left and didn’t remember
The afterbirth inside
Carlene Godwin Finney

To clabber
Close down
Her place
Her precious private pleasing place
To fill the house to the rafters
Up past the dimpled tin roof
With a rotting smell
That stayed for nine days
That mortgaged a room
In our memories
And did not die with her

We were a Brown and Pregnant Family
And he would’ve remembered his schoolin’
And left his bottle
Recollected his manners
And brought his right mind
Had another klan called him to their bedside
He would’ve come right away
He would’ve never had liquor on his breath
If the color of my daddy’s broken limbs
Had matched the color of his own but

We were a Colored Clan of Kinfolk
We should’ve met him at the door
Should’ve told him lean first into the rusty screen
Made him open up his mouth and blow
Breathe out right there
Into all of our brown and lined up faces
In wait of his worthiness

Then just for good measure
Should’ve made him blow once again
Into Papa Josh’s truth telling jar
Just to be sure
Should’ve let Mama Sally
Then Aunt Nanny
Then lastly Aunt Mary
Give him the final once over
And hold his sterile hands
Down to the firelight to check
Just like she checked our own every night
Before supper
Before we were allowed to sit
At her very particular table

We could’ve let Aunt Ira clutch him by his chin
Enter and leave through her eyes
Just like how she came and went through us
Everyday at her leisure

She would’ve took care to notice
As she traveled all up and through him
Any shaking any sweating
And caught his incapable belligerent incompetence
In time

Oh Jesus

We should’ve let Grandpop Robert
Have him from the first
Should’ve let him pick him up
By the back of his pants
And swirl him around
Just like he picked us up
And swirled us around
Anytime he caught us lying or lazy
Or being less than what we were

We should’ve let Grandpop
Loose on him from the start
And he would’ve held him up
High eye to the sun
And looked straight through him
Just like he held us up
And then we would have known first
Like he always knew first
And brought to us
The very map of his heart
Then we would have known
Just what his intentions were
With our Carlene

Before we knew his name
Or cared about his many degrees
Before he dared reach up then inside
Our family’s brown globe
While we stood there
Some of us throwing good black soil
With one hand
Some of us tending close
The Good Book with the other
Believing and trusting
We were doing better
By this one
Standing there

Waterfalls running
Screaming whitewater rapids

Down our pants legs
Down our pantaloons
To our many selves

All the while
Praying hard
That maybe we were wrong
(please make us wrong)
One hundred proof
smelled the same as

I first read “The Afterbirth, 1931” in manuscript form; I had managed to get a copy of the manuscript from Nikky Finney’s mother, whom I worked with in Sumter, South Carolina. The way in which Finney managed the difficult emotions and ideas at the heart of the piece moved me powerfully. While I was fittingly alarmed that such an event could happen, she helped me understand how ordinary such an incident could be in the life of aspiring African Americans in the South in the 1930s.

Finney’s management of this story reminds us that sometimes a poem is about a moment, and that there is something noble about a poet who is hell-bent on offering some “meaning.” When moved by such a poem, some people suddenly become suspicious, skeptical, and cynical. They fear being manipulated, duped somehow by the emotion of the piece.

Finney’s careful use of language and her deft management of this long form remind us that she is as much engaged in the act of turning experience into something beautiful as she is in sharing a family story of historical and personal import. “The Afterbirth, 1931” is never maudlin, never trite, never sentimental or indulgent, but we understand that it comes from deeply felt emotion married to an unflinching intellectual scrutiny of experience. It is a tough, troubling look at race in America and the way that the politics and social pressures of the Jim Crow South affected the black American family. As with the best poems of protest, “The Afterbirth, 1931” is at once public and personal—a work that teaches us something about the way race has worked in America over the years. Nikky Finney continues to write compelling and necessary poems, and she remains one of the few American poets that you can depend on to take on the challenge of offering commentary on the evolving political realities of our society with poetry of the highest order. I call it a challenge because such poetry stands in danger of being polemical and wooden in the hands of a less gifted poet. In Finney’s hands, we get poems such as “The Afterbirth, 1931,” poems that deliver.

Originally Published: October 8th, 2007

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...

  1. October 10, 2007
     Evie Shockley


    Thanks so much for devoting your time to this piece on Nikki Finney's powerful work. She is a force of nature and one of the most careful, loving, and ethical poets I know. It's wonderful of you to bring her work to the audience for your blog!



  2. October 15, 2007
     Poet Hound

    Thanks for this wonderful piece. I had not heard of her before and will be looking for her work to read more of her.

  3. October 24, 2007
     alicia whinnery

    this was a wonderful page i must say some of these poems were not very approriate but i liked them anyway they were very themiatic!

  4. October 26, 2007

    Just these excerpts make me want to

    pick up Yeats' sword and charge the

    pearly gates for some hard answers.

    Bless Nikky Finney for this good work.

  5. October 31, 2007
     Inua Ellams

    this is incredible.

    I am considering an epic poem myself,

    and will return to this before I begin to write

    I love the repetition and the 'truth' of the moment, also the description of family members by what they would have done...

    thanks for sharing.

  6. December 15, 2007
     Malika Booker

    I have rediscovered rice and am pulling it out to consume it yet again. You helped me to remember how Nikki Finney moved me to tears with this piece of work. It is great to see it analysed so eloquently as an important piece of literary writing, a necessary jigsaw in the us literary cannon, as well as within a cultural and historical frame work. Thanks Kwame.

  7. January 21, 2008
     Lauren Harrison

    I am overcome with such a tapestry of emotions. This piece and your analysis of it are truly moving. Its richness can be read on the page and read aloud. I did both. Each, was a separately illuminating experience that seduced tears.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  8. December 13, 2008

    Having had Nikky Finney as a professor I can attest to her many talents as a writer. She is also one of the best professors I have ever had and someone who truly enjoys teaching. Her classes were always my favorite and her passion for poetry is contagious.

  9. March 8, 2009
     Sara Morrissey

    After reading this poem, the author was very descriptive about many of the real things that happened during that time. Theres lots of emotion from the speaker, especially the feeling of helplessness to just be able to have better but being held back by the whole discrimination that went on during that time.