Brash, brilliant, brave, beautiful – Nikki Giovanni is all that and then some. You could run through a whole dictionary of adjectives on this proud afrobella of note. She was once known as “the princess of black poetry,” but now, she’s undoubtedly the queen.
Nikki Giovanni helped to pave the way for today’s generation of young black poets, she stood strong, fought, and won her battle with breast cancer, and when her peers, students, and coworkers needed a unified voice in the face of unspeakable grief, she rose admirably to the occasion. Nikki Giovanni is a long overdue Afrobella of the Month.
One of the things I admire most about Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni is her refusal to play by the rules. She seems to revel in refreshing contradiction. She was born in 1943, in this fantastic and fun NPR interview, she laughingly describes herself as “a little old lady.” But despite any preconcieved generation gaps, she has a storied admiration of the late, great Tupac Shakur and to commemorate the spirit of the slain, controversial rapper, she proudly wears a “Thug Life” tattoo on her arm — which, in case you didn’t already know, was intended by Tupac to be an acronym. In that same NPR interview, she reveals her reason for loving ‘Pac the way she did. First she declares that it’s important to recognize genius. Then she adds, “I would always rather be with the thugs than the people talking about them.” Snaps to Bill Cosby. All kidding aside, as someone who definitely grew up as part of the hip hop generation (and as a big fan of Tupac’s), I appreciate her perspective. It makes me want to perk up my ears and listen to what else she has to say.
I think Giovanni’s admiration for Tupac can be partially attributed to her love for plain talk. She has never been a highfalutin poet-with-a-capital-P, even from youth she appreciated the magic of real, unpretentious storytelling. According to this Ohioana Authors article, family influence had everything to do with that —
“I come from a long line of storytellers,” she once explained in an interview, describing how her family influenced her poetry through oral traditions. “My grandfather was a Latin scholar and he loved the myths, and my mother is a big romanticist, so we heard a lot of stories growing up.” This early exposure to the power of spoken language would influence Giovanni’s career as a poet, particularly her tendency to sprinkle her verses with colloquialisms, including curse words. “I appreciated the quality and the rhythm of the telling of the stories,” she once commented, “and I know when I started to write that I wanted to retain that… I didn’t want to become the kind of writer that was stilted or that used language in ways that could not be spoken. I use a very natural rhythm; I want my writing to sound like I talk.”
I love that about her. She is a spoken word artist, but when Nikki Giovanni reads a poem, she doesn’t use that “I am a POET reading a POEM” voice. Y’all know what I’m talking about. She deliberately doesn’t memorize her work, so her readings have that unvarnished feeling. In this early interview, she accounts baldly for her meteoric rise to fame, traces her history as a self-published author, and ends on a very candid note — “Artists as a rule tend to think that somebody ought to do something for them. I don’t believe that. I think that as a rule it is your work, it is your responsibility to get it out.” The accessibility of her voice has taken her places that many traditional poets have not gone.
Nikki Giovanni’s poetry is universally acclaimed, but she has always spoken to African American culture. The influence of the civil rights and black power movements resounds in her first book, Black Feeling, Black Talk. Her books for children and young adults — Rosa, Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People, and Grandmothers : Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories About the Keepers of Our Traditions, all aim to celebrate the accomplishments of ordinary black people, the people who endured daily hardships to help us get to where we are today. She reveals that she feels pretty good about the progress we’ve made in this CNN interview about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Despite all of her accolades — more than 20 honorary degrees, a list of keys to the city, book awards, and various recognitions as long as your forearm, Nikki Giovanni manages to keep it real. At least, she tries to not believe her own hype. She shrugs away cancer survivor tributes in this New York Times article: ”I get so sick of these people who talk about how cancer made them better people,” she says, sitting in the dining room of her brick ranch house in Christiansburg, Va., near Roanoke. ”I don’t think I’m any nicer or kinder. If it takes a near-death experience for you to appreciate your life, you’re wasting somebody’s time.”
Despite her modesty, Giovanni is a survivor of note and her vibrancy in the face of the disease is awesome. She recounts the difficulty of losing her mother and sister in this NPR interview, where the interviewer can’t help but notice the brightness of her personality, despite the pain of her recent loss. That appears to be her way. She keeps things simple, doesn’t want to be canonized, or depicted as more-than. In this interview with Black Press USA, she speaks to that — “I’ve had people who’ve been very complimentary, yes,” Giovanni responded in a telephone interview. “And I’m glad, but, I’m not a priest; I’m an acolyte. I’m not trying to do anything to anybody but bring a point of view.
Giovanni continues to publish her point of view at a prolific rate, and she’s the rare kind of writer who appears to actually love teaching as well. She is practically an institution at Virginia Tech — she’s been teaching there since 1987. She taught shooter Seung-Hui Cho, and remembered him as “downright mean.” She admits she felt shaky about her words at the Virginia Tech Convocation, but she created a rallying cry for the Hokie Nation — in the wake of that terrible tragedy, the words “we are Virginia Tech” were heard around the world, giving reassurance to those who were shaken to the core. And isn’t that what a great poet should do? Rise to even the bitterest of occasions and give hope to those who might feel hopeless? We all can only hope for that kind of grace under pressure.
Nikki Giovanni proved the power of poetry that day, as she’s been doing every day for a long time. Like I said, she’s all that and then some. She’s complicated, bold, gritty, and honest. In one of her most famous poems, “Ego Tripping” she declares, “I am so hip even my errors are correct.” True that! Maximum respect to Nikki Giovanni, Afrobella of the Month!
Looking for a perfect holiday gift for that intellectual bella in your family? They’ll definitely be happy to unwrap a copy of Giovanni’s latest collection, Acolytes: Poems.