RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Over the past few months, we've been talking about how we find ourselves in such uncertain times. Some think it's because of the divisions among us.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah. Last week, we spoke with Shadi Hamid. He's the author of "Islamic Exceptionalism." And he argues that the divisions are deep and that they are also growing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
SHADI HAMID: So I think as human beings what we basically want is meaning. And because - for those of us who have lost religion, especially in the West becoming more secularized, there is this gap where religion used to be.
GREENE: That's Shadi Hamid. He's one of the many thinkers we've included in our series, The History Of Our Time.
Today, we hear from Nikky Finney.
MARTIN: Finney is a poet who works to find meaning in everyday life, as poets do. She strives to narrow divisions, but she's finding that harder to do today. Nikky Finney grew up African-American in the Deep South in the 1960s and '70s in what she calls dangerous times. I asked her how today compares.
NIKKY FINNEY: Dangerous times 10, actually.
MARTIN: What is more dangerous about this time?
FINNEY: When someone picks up a water hose and points it at a group of people standing in a park or walking across a bridge and that water hose pushes them back, knocks them down, breaks their arm, the television takes that image across the country and across the world. You know that somebody needs to take the water hose out of the hand of the person who is pointing it at those people who are fighting for justice and for freedom.
One of the things that is so frightening about this time for me is the illusion. I can't find you in the crowd with your dislike for me like I used to. The governor of South Carolina back in the day in the 19th century would say, we're going to go and we're going to kill all black people. We're going to kill as many black people as we can.
MARTIN: It was overt.
MARTIN: And now it's hidden.
FINNEY: And now it's hidden under different kinds of clothing, which is why the conversation about race, the conversations that we have not - never had in this country are so important to have.
MARTIN: Today, African-Americans aren't facing down the water hoses but rather forces Nikky Finney says are far more insidious. She cites the killing of unarmed black men who have been shot by police, yet jury after juries fail to convict those shooters.
FINNEY: Someone asked me, well, why is the country not up in arms? Why aren't black people up in arms? Do you know - after 400 years, what do you do with the psychic destruction that after 400 years of watching lynching happen and watching murders in the street and watching children in the civil rights movement get hit by water cannons?
When you watch this over and over again, appear in different forms, you know, don't think we aren't reacting. We are reacting. You know, black and brown people have two and three jobs. We can't always be in the street joining other forces. We have to go to work. We have to feed our kids.
MARTIN: How much is this about not understanding each other's experience?
FINNEY: Much of it. Much of it is about the lack of empathy that we used to talk about and we used to teach our kids from kindergarten, you know, up until they left our nest. We used to talk about how you won't be a whole human being unless you understand, you know, what it means to walk in somebody else's shoes.
Now, everybody didn't get that lesson. I understand that. But I know that when I was growing up, that there were people who were told that. And we don't talk about that anymore. We don't value it in the way that we should.
MARTIN: Nikky Finney says it's become more difficult to see each other because we spend so much time staring at screens. And she describes our reliance on digital devices like phones as dangerous. I asked her why.
FINNEY: We embrace it wholeheartedly. We don't take it off and put it in a box and lock it away when we don't need it. We don't listen to the thump, thump of our heartbeat every day to realize we are human. And what does being human mean? So we need the opportunity to use it. But what we are not doing is allowing our humanity to guide it.
MARTIN: Everything you're describing - our inability to connect with what it means to be human, the inability to walk through life and notice things, this is your currency as a poet. This is what you do. So...
MARTIN: ...Do you find this to be a disheartening time to be a writer, to be a poet, to be someone who is all about that?
FINNEY: No, absolutely not. I can't - I can hardly sleep. I can hardly do anything else but write about this because this is the time to be an artist. This is the time to be alert. This is the time to have all my senses in Olympic training mode. Because we - if we are not going to speak into this wind, this particular dangerous times 10 wind, then we are not artists.
MARTIN: Nikky Finney is the author of four books of poetry and professor of creative writing at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Thank you so much for talking with us.
FINNEY: You're welcome. Thank you so much for calling.
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