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Nikki Giovanni speaking at Emory, 2008
June 7, 1943|
Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Occupation||Writer, poet, activist, educator|
Yolande Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni, Jr. (born June 7, 1943) is an American poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. One of the world's most well-known African-American poets, her work includes poetry anthologies, poetry recordings, and nonfiction essays, and covers topics ranging from race and social issues to children's literature. She has won numerous awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award. She has been nominated for a Grammy Award for her poetry album, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. Additionally, she has been named as one of Oprah Winfrey's 25 "Living Legends".
Giovanni gained initial fame in the late 1960s as one of the foremost authors of the Black Arts Movement. Influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement of the period, her early work provides a strong, militant African-American perspective, leading one writer to dub her the "Poet of the Black Revolution." During the 1970s, she began writing children's literature, and co-founded a publishing company, NikTom Ltd, to provide an outlet for other African-American women writers. Over subsequent decades, her works discussed social issues, human relationships, and hip-hop. Poems such as "Knoxville, Tennessee" and "Nikki-Rosa" have been frequently re-published in anthologies and other collections.
Giovanni has taught at Queens College, Rutgers, and Ohio State, and is currently a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. Following the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, she delivered a chant-poem at a memorial for the shooting victims.
Yolande Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni, Jr. was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Yolande Cornelia, Sr. and Jones "Gus" Giovanni. Soon after her birth, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where her parents worked at Glenview School. In 1948, the family moved to Wyoming, and sometime in those first three years, Giovanni's sister, Gary, began calling her "Nikki." In 1958, Giovanni moved to Knoxville, TN to live with her grandparents and attend Austin High School. In 1960, she began her studies at her grandfather's alma mater, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee as an "Early Entrant" which meant that she could enroll in college without having finished high school first. She immediately clashed with the Dean of Women, Ann Cheatam, and was expelled after neglecting to obtain the required permission from the Dean to leave campus and travel home for Thanksgiving break. Giovanni moved back to Knoxville where she worked at a Walgreen's Drug Store and helped care for her nephew, Christopher. In 1964, Giovanni spoke with the new Dean of Women at Fisk University, Blanche McConnell Cowan ("Jackie"), who urged Giovanni to return to Fisk that fall. While at Fisk, Giovanni edited a student literary journal (titled Èlan), reinstated the campus chapter of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and published an essay in Negro Digest on gender questions in the Movement. In 1967, she graduated with honors with a B.A. in History.
Soon after graduation, she suffered the loss of her grandmother, Louvenia Watson, and turned to writing to cope with her death. These poems would later be included in her anthology, Black Feelings, Black Talk. In 1968, Giovanni attended a semester at University of Pennsylvania and then moved to New York City. She briefly attended Columbia University and privately published Black Feeling, Black Talk. In 1969, Giovanni began teaching at Livingston College of Rutgers University. She was an active member of the Black Arts Movement beginning in the late 1960s. In 1969, she gave birth to Thomas Watson Giovanni, her only child. In 1970, she began making regular appearances on the television program Soul!, an entertainment/variety/talk show which promoted black art and culture and allowed political expression. Soul! hosted important guests like Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Gladys Knight, Miriam Makeba, and Stevie Wonder. (In addition to being a "regular" on the show, Giovanni for several years helped design and produce episodes.) She published multiple poetry anthologies, children's books, and released spoken word albums from 1973-1987.
Since 1987, she has taught writing and literature at Virginia Tech, where she is a University Distinguished Professor. She has received the NAACP Image Award several times, received twenty honorary doctorates and various other awards, including the Rosa Parks and the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters. She also holds the key to several different cities, including Dallas, Miami, New York City, and Los Angeles. She is a member of the Order of the Eastern Star (PHA), she has received the Life Membership and Scroll from the National Council of Negro Women, and is an Honorary Member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Giovanni was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early 1990s, and underwent numerous surgeries. Her book Blues: For All the Changes: New Poems, published in 1999, contains poems about nature and her battle with cancer. In 2002, Giovanni spoke in front of NASA about the need for African Americans to pursue space travel and later published Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems which dealt with similar themes.
She has also been honored for her life and career by the History Makers along with being the first person to receive the Rosa L. Parks Women of Courage Award. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor from Dillard University in 2010. In 2015, Giovanni was named one of the Library of Virginia's "Virginia Women in History" for her contributions to poetry, education, and society.
Seung-Hui Cho, the mass murderer who killed 32 people in the April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, was a student in one of Giovanni's poetry classes. Describing him as "mean" and "menacing", she approached the department chair to have Cho taken out of her class, and said she was willing to resign rather than continue teaching him. She stated that, upon hearing of the shooting, she immediately suspected that Cho might be the shooter.
Giovanni was asked by Virginia Tech president Charles Steger to give a convocation speech at the April 17 memorial service for the shooting victims (she was asked by Steger at 5pm on the day of the shootings, giving her less than 24 hours to prepare the speech). She expressed that she usually feels very comfortable delivering speeches, but worried that her emotion would get the best of her. On April 17, 2007, at the Virginia Tech Convocation commemorating the April 16 Virginia Tech massacre, Giovanni closed the ceremony with a chant poem, intoning:
We know we did nothing to deserve it. But neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS. Neither do the invisible children walking the night awake to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory. Neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water....We are Virginia Tech.... We will prevail.— cquote
Her speech also sought to express the idea that really terrible things happen to good people: "I would call it, in terms of writing, in terms of poetry, it's a laundry list. Because all you're doing is: This is who we are, and this is what we think, and this is what we feel, and this is why - you know?... I just wanted to admit, you know, that we didn't deserve this, and nobody does. And so I wanted to link our tragedy, in every sense, you know - we're no different from anything else that has hurt...."
She thought that ending with a thrice-repeated "We will prevail" would be anticlimactic, and she wanted to connect back with the beginning, for balance. So, shortly before going onstage, she added a closing: "We are Virginia Tech."  Her performance produced a sense of unity and received a fifty-four second standing ovation from the over-capacity audience in Cassell Coliseum, including then-President George W. Bush.
The Civil Rights Movement and Black Power movements inspired her early poetry that was collected in Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967), which sold over ten thousand copies in its first year, Black Judgement (1968), selling six thousand copies in three months, and Re: Creation (1970). All three of these early works aided in establishing Giovanni as a new voice for African Americans.(30) In "After Mecca": Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement, Cheryl Clarke cites Giovanni as a woman poet who became a significant part of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement. Giovanni is commonly praised as one of the best African-American poets emerging from the 1960s Black Power and Black Arts Movements. Her early poetry that was collected in the late 1960s and early 1970s are seen as radical as and more militant than her later work. Her poems are described as being "politically, spiritually, and socially aware". Evie Shockley describes Giovanni as "epitomizing the defiant, unapologetically political, unabashedly Afrocentric, BAM ethos". Her work is described as conveying "urgency in expressing the need for Black awareness, unity, [and] solidarity." Giovanni herself takes great pride in being a "Black American, a daughter, mother, and a Professor of English". (29)  She has since written more than two dozen books, including volumes of poetry, illustrated children's books, and three collections of essays. Her work is said to speak to all ages and she strives to make her work easily accessible and understood by both adults and children. (29) Her writing has been heavily inspired by African-American activists and artists. Issues of race, gender, sexuality, and the African-American family also have influenced her work. Her book Love Poems (1997) was written in memory of Tupac Shakur, and she has stated that she would "rather be with the thugs than the people who are complaining about them." Additionally, in 2007 she wrote a children's picture book titled Rosa, which centers on the life of Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks. In addition to this book reaching number three on the New York Best Seller list, it also received the Caldecott Honors Award along with its illustrator Brian Collier, receiving the Coretta Scott King award. (29)
Giovanni is often interviewed regarding themes pertaining to her poetry such as gender and race. In an interview entitled "I am Black, Female, Polite", Peter Bailey questions her regarding the role of gender and race in the poetry she writes. The interview looks specifically at the critically acclaimed poem, "Nikki-Rosa", and questions whether it is reflective of her own childhood experiences as well as the experiences in her community. In the interview, Giovanni stresses that she did not like constantly reading the trope of the black family as a tragedy and that "Nikki-Rosa" demonstrates the experiences that she witnessed in her communities. Specifically the poem deals with black folk culture, and touches on such issues as alcoholism and domestic violence, and such issues as not having an indoor bathroom. (30)
Giovanni's poetry in the late 1960s and early 1970s addressed black womanhood and black manhood amongst other themes. In a book she co-wrote with James Baldwin entitled A Dialogue, the two authors speak blatantly about the status of the black male in the household. Baldwin challenges Giovanni's opinion on the representation of black women as the "breadwinners" in the household. Baldwin states, "A man is not a woman. And whether he's wrong or right.... Look, if we're living in the same house and you're my wife or my woman, I have to be responsible for that house.". Conversely, Giovanni recognizes the black man's strength, whether or not he is "responsible" for the home or economically advantaged. The interview makes it clear that regardless of who is "responsible" for the home, the black woman and black man should be dependent on one another. Such themes appeared throughout her early poetry which focused on race and gender dynamics in the black community.
Giovanni tours nationwide and frequently speaks out against hate-motivated violence. At a 1999 Martin Luther King Day event, she recalled the 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard: "What's the difference between dragging a black man behind a truck in Jasper, Texas, and beating a white boy to death in Wyoming because he's gay?"
Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) acknowledged black figures. Giovanni collected her essays in the 1988 volume Sacred Cows ... and Other Edibles. Her more recent works include Acolytes, a collection of 80 new poems, and On My Journey Now. Acolytes is her first published volume since her 2003 Collected Poems. The work is a celebration of love and recollection directed at friends and loved ones and it recalls memories of nature, theater, and the glories of children. However, Giovanni's fiery persona still remains a constant undercurrent in Acolytes, as some of the most serious verse links her own life struggles (being a black woman and a cancer survivor) to the wider frame of African-American history and the continual fight for equality.
Giovanni's collection Bicycles: Love Poems (2009) is a companion work to her 1997 Love Poems. They touch on the deaths of both her mother and her sister, as well as the massacre on the Virginia Tech campus. "Tragedy and trauma are the wheels" of the bicycle. The first poem ("Blacksburg Under Siege: 21 August 2006") and the last poem ("We Are Virginia Tech") reflect this. Giovanni chose the title of the collection as a metaphor for love itself, "because love requires trust and balance."
In Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid (2013), Giovanni describes falling off of a bike and her mother saying, "Come here, Nikki and I will pick you up." She has explained that it was comforting to hear her mother say this, and that "it took me the longest to realize – no, she made me get up myself." Chasing Utopia continues as a hybrid (poetry and prose) work about food as a metaphor and as a connection to the memory of her mother, sister, and grandmother. The theme of the work is love relationships.
In 2004, Giovanni was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards for her album The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. This was a collection of poems that she read against the backdrop of gospel music.(29) She also featured on the track "Ego Trip by Nikki Giovanni" on Blackalicious's 2000 album Nia. In November 2008, a song cycle of her poems, Sounds That Shatter the Staleness in Lives by Adam Hill, was premiered as part of the Soundscapes Chamber Music Series in Taos, New Mexico.
She was commissioned by National Public Radio's All Things Considered to create an inaugural poem for President Barack Obama. Giovanni read poetry at the Lincoln Memorial as a part of the bi-centennial celebration of Lincoln's birth on February 12, 2009.
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