A University of South Carolina poet, professor and daughter of the state’s first black Supreme Court justice is using her work to call attention to the plight of a Missouri soldier found dead in Iraq in 2005.
The military ruled that LaVena Johnson, 19, committed suicide.
Her family —and poet Nikky Finney —are convinced that she was raped, then murdered.
“I was just overwhelmed with wanting to do something to help, to be a microphone in some way,” Finney said.
The result is a four-page poem that has not been published and continues to evolve as Finney travels across the country giving readings.
Her work recently was mentioned in the Economist, which provided this excerpt: “The dotted line you signed, LaVena, should have included the report/that your father didn’t know about … With your hand over your heart,/repeat after me: Every woman/entering these gates has a higher/chance of being raped than being killed/by enemy fire.”
Finney, who won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011, said when she performs the poem, she often follows it with a 5-minute documentary “The Silent Truth,” which already has gotten more than 100,000 hits on YouTube. The video relates Johnson’s parents’ perspective on their daughter’s death. They hope the government reopens the case.
Her work comes as Congress continues to grapple with how the military handles sexual assaults in its ranks —a debate being led by female lawmakers such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., co-chairwoman of the Congressional Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus.
Tsongas’ website notes that this May’s annual report on sexual assault in the military not only documents increasing incidence of sexual assault in the military but also “a staggering amount of instances of perceived retaliation against victims of sexual assault.” The report recounted 26,000 cases of sexual assault and added that 62 percent of victims who reported being sexually assaulted also reported that they experience retaliation.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said sexual assault is a horrible crime in any context, and he hopes proposals already on the table will help address the problem.
“Thankfully, the House of Representatives has already passed legislation, with wide bipartisan support, that addresses sexual assault within our armed services,” he said. “This issue deserves our full attention and I’m optimistic that the Senate will have the opportunity to have the same discussion in the near future.”
While Finney’s poem is drawing attention to this larger problem, she said she also is committed to help push through red tape “and stubbornness” to get the finding of suicide removed from Johnson’s file, “then after that, we’ll see.”
“Things build,” she added. “I want Dr. Johnson and his wife Linda to know that they are not alone, that this is not something that has been swept under any rug in the lives of the people who understand and believe this not just to be a tragedy, but a crime. Many of us are going to continue to pass on information about this until something is done.”
While Finney has chosen letters, not law, as her career, she has been inspired by her parents, including her father, Ernest, who became South Carolina’s first black circuit judge in 1976 and served on the state’s Supreme Court from 1985 to 2000.
“I was born and raised during the civil rights era, and both my mom and my dad taught me that you had a responsibility no matter what you did with your life, to speak out and make sure you are not just concerned with your own life but the life of your community and the growth and betterment of your state and your nation,” she said.
The audience usually reacts in two ways. Finney said many tell her they never have heard of Johnson’s case, and there also is an outpouring of emotion.
“That’s what art and poetry is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be provocative. It’s supposed to make you think,” she said. “It’s also supposed to be beautiful. I don’t want to be an artist known for rants. That’s not art. That’s what you do in your journal. I want to make something beautiful out of something difficult.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.