“The poem understands we cannot put a floor on poverty until we are willing to put a ceiling on wealth.”
With a career that spans one of the most dynamic periods in African American history, Nikki Giovanni has used her poetry and her prose to provide windows into the African American experience. “It’s not a ladder we’re climbing, it’s literature we’re producing… We cannot possibly leave it to history as a discipline nor to sociology nor science nor economics to tell the story of our people.” The literature that she produced finds its foundation in African American history, the African American family, and the interactions between the genders. And from that basis, Giovanni has constructed a literary edifice that will stand the test of time.
Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr. was born to Yolande Cornelia, Sr. and James “Gus” Giovanni in Knoxville, Tennessee on June 7, 1943. Giovanni’s older sister Gary gave her the nickname “Nikki” when Giovanni was a toddler. Within a few months of Giovanni’s birth, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and ultimately settled in the African American suburb of Lincoln Heights. Giovanni and her sister often spent their childhood summers in Knoxville (in her poem “Train Rides – In Praise of Black Men,” Giovanni offers a beautiful remembrance of those train trips from Cincinnati to Knoxville and of the Black porters who watched over the sisters along the way), and in 1958, on one of those summer trips, Giovanni asked her grandparents if she could stay in Knoxville in order to complete her high school education there.
Giovanni attended Fisk University, her grandfather’s alma mater. During her tenure at Fisk, Giovanni edited the university’s literary journal, participated in the school’s First Writer’s Conference, and helped to re-establish Fisk’s chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Giovanni graduated from Fisk in 1968 with a degree in History. Regarding the relationship between history and writing, Giovanni said the following: “When I went to college, I became a history major because history is such a wonderful story of who we think we are. English is much more a story of who we really are.” Giovanni went on to graduate work at both the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
Following the death in 1967 of her grandmother, who had cultivated Giovanni’s appreciation for storytelling as well as her desire to fight injustice, Giovanni wrote the poems that would be included in her first published volume, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967). The tragic deaths of figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy inspired her poetry in the next book, Black Judgment (1968), which includes the critically acclaimed poem “Nikki-Rosa.” In these early works (including Re: Creation ) Giovanni, the “Princess of Black Poetry,” captured and expressed the rage and disappointment felt by many within the African American community during that turbulent time. These works were also tied to the broader Black Arts Movement, which offered an unapologetic Black cultural aesthetic and is often regarded as the artistic arm of the Black Power Movement.
In 1971, Giovanni published her autobiography, Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet; the book was a finalist for the 1973 National Book Award in Biography. She also wrote her first children’s book in 1971, Spin a Soft Black Song and released “Truth Is On Its Way,” a spoken word album that she recorded with New York Community Choir. Perhaps her most widely known poem, “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why),” is in a volume written for children, Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young People (1973). In that poem, Giovanni extols the wonders of the ancient world, highlighting historical figures such as Nefertiti, Hannibal, and Jesus Christ. “My oldest daughter is nefertiti/the tears from my birth pains/created the nile.” Giovanni continued to write nearly as much for children as she wrote adult poetry.
There were subtle shifts in the tone of Giovanni’s writing over the years, and those shifts seemed to reflect the changes that she was experiencing in her life. She noted that “[i]f you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” It is clear, with the proliferation of writing the Giovanni produced, that she was deeply empathetic to the world around her. If one looks at Giovanni’s works from Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978) to Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) to Blues: For All the Changes (1999) to Bicycles: Love Poems (2009), a reader will recognize that the revolutionary aspects of Giovanni’s poetry have been buttressed by deep introspection, historical reasoning, and a desire for more love. “I share with the painters the desire/To put a three-dimensional picture/On a one-dimensional surface (“Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day”).”
Giovanni started her teaching career in 1969 at Queens College, later taking a position at Livingston College of Rutgers University. She also served as a Visiting Professor at The Ohio State University and as a Professor of Creative Writing at Mount Saint Joseph’s College. Since 1987, Giovanni has been teaching at Virginia Tech where she currently serves as University Distinguished Professor. In 2007, following the tragic massacre at Virginia Tech, Giovanni delivered the convocation speech at the memorial service. The piece she wrote, “We Are Virginia Tech” included these lines, “We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly,/we are brave enough to bend to cry, and we/are sad enough to know that we must laugh/again.”
Giovanni has received a multiplicity of awards and honors, including an honorary membership into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, keys to several cities, honorary doctorates, designations as “Woman of the year” in various magazines including Ebony and Mademoiselle, and a Life Membership and Scroll from The National Council of Negro Women.
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