Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Nikki Giovanni offers autobiography as point of view instead of psychological analysis or confession. Her subtitle hints at the freedom she takes in Gemini by describing the contents as “Extended Autobiographical Statement,” thus allowing for both poetic style and subjective focus. The dedication to her son, Thomas Watson Giovanni, and the son of Barbara Crosby—who wrote the introduction— includes “their fathers,” who are never named or mentioned again, except by implication.

In the opening pages is a family snapshot; in it the child called “Kim” is seen surrounded by a beautiful family: her maternal grandmother, Louvenia Terrell Watson; her mother, Yolande Cornelia, for whom she was named; her father, Gus; Gary, her older sister and only sibling; and Aunt Gladys.

The book contains thirteen chapters; in them, Giovanni presents a selective account of her youth and young adulthood, blending family history and personal memoirs, black history, political commentary on the 1960’s, assessments of black American artists, analyses of race relations, and observations on the relationships of black women to black men. Six of these segments are topical but nevertheless autobiographical by Giovanni’s definition. She deliberately chooses to highlight persons, movements, and issues influencing her first twenty-five years and unashamedly asserts her subjective viewpoint: “I discovered I am not objective. . . . There are no objective standards when it comes to your life; this is crucial.”

The first six chapters move from vignettes of early childhood through the birth of her son in 1969 to her travels in the Caribbean, establishing authority for her later...

(The entire section is 698 words.)

Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Composed of thirteen essays, most of them autobiographical and some previously published, Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet records the coming-of-age of Nikki Giovanni as a black woman and her development and commitment as a black poet. Opinionated, honest, witty, and nostalgic, the collection offers the reader glimpses of selective moments in Giovanni’s life. One follows the footsteps of the poet from her early girlhood and adolescence to her young motherhood and artistic success. Some essays in Gemini deal with Giovanni’s relationship with her family while growing up, other essays focus on the relationship between black artists and the black community, the division of sexes between black men and black women, and the cultural differences between blacks and whites. Still others are devoted to why Giovanni becomes a writer and what her roles are as an African American female poet. The scope of her essays in Gemini is extensive.

To find out who she is in relation to her family, her community, and society at large was the focus of Giovanni’s life in her first twenty-five years. As Giovanni makes it clear in one of her essays, this search for identity did not center on race. Rather, she still constantly defines and redefines herself in her own terms. From the essays in Gemini, one finds a most contradictory personality in Giovanni. As her best friend Barbara Crosby writes in the introduction to the book: “All I know is that she is the most cowardly, bravest, least understanding, most sensitive, slowest to anger, most quixotic, lyingest, most honest woman I know. To love her is to love contradictions and conflict. To know her is never to understand but to be sure that all is life.”

Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gemini is an important book that marked a shift in Giovanni’s life and writing. If her early writings are chiefly militant and revolutionary, her collections of poetry Re: Creation (1970) and My House (1972), written and published shortly before and after Gemini, are turned more to personal feelings and experience. Many of her poems written in the 1970’s and 1980’s focus on female identity, womanhood and motherhood, and the relationship between men and women. Giovanni has high praise for black women: “We Black women are the single group in the West intact. . . . It’s clear that no one can outrun us.” Her poetry has been read by young and old, black and white. She has achieved a popularity that is rarely experienced by living poets.

Nikki Giovanni has been a prolific writer. She has published several books of poetry, extended interviews with the older African American writers, such as A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973) and A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974) that document the evolution of black artistic and aesthetic thinking; and poetry for children, including Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children (1971), Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young Readers (1973), and Vacation Time (1980).

Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In Gemini, Nikki Giovanni wrote not only autobiography, she also wrote essays concerning many of the issues that were foremost in the late 1960’s. Thus the subtitle, An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet, is entirely accurate. Gemini is both an autobiography and a statement. Giovanni wrote about events that shaped her as a poet, and then as that poet commented on such topics as black artists and the black liberation movement.

Giovanni’s family background does not suggest the revolutionary that she would become. Her parents, both graduates of Knoxville College, maintained a middle-class lifestyle. Her mother was a supervisor in Cincinnati’s welfare department, and her father was a social worker. Like other middle-class parents, they encouraged piano lessons and college. At the age of seventeen, Giovanni enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, but she was expelled when, without permission, she visited her grandparents at Thanksgiving. She returned a few years later, graduating with honors. She describes herself as an “Ayn Rand-Barry Goldwater” conservative who became radicalized, partly because of the influence of a roommate, Bertha, who introduced her to the ideas of the Black Power movement but also because of the example of her grandmother, Louvenia, who was “terribly intolerant when it came to white people.” Giovanni’s early collections of poems, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968) and Black Judgment (1968), reveal her as a revolutionary poet who could ask “Nigger can you kill?” She argued for black power and social change, advocating violence to effect that change. In the late 1970’s and subsequent years, her work focused more on the humanity of all people. During the time that Gemini was written, she was at her most radical.

The 1960’s, a time of Vietnam protest, the rise of contemporary feminism, and the Civil Rights movement, was a turbulent period. In 1968 alone, Eugene McCarthy won the primary in New Hampshire, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and street violence erupted in Chicago during the Democratic Convention. A few days after King’s assassination, Giovanni wrote the poem “Nikki-Rosa,” the title suggesting a transformation from the naïve girl Nikki to the more politicized Rosa, the name alluding to Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to give up her bus seat, thus precipitating the Montgomery bus boycott. The radical 1960’s provided both the backdrop for Gemini and the catalyst for writing it.

About half of Gemini’s thirteen chapters contain what one commonly associates with autobiography. In the first chapter, “400 Mulvaney Street,” Giovanni, a recognized poet, has been invited to give a reading in Knoxville, the city where her maternal grandparents had resided, where her parents met, where she was born, and where she lived for two of her high-school years. The visit provides an occasion for reminiscing about such things as ten-cent double features, street vendors, and Sunday chicken and biscuits. Most important are the reminiscences about her grandmother, Louvenia Terrell Watson, who, as readers learn in subsequent chapters, left her hometown of Albany,...

(The entire section is 1371 words.)

Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bonner, Carrington. “An Interview with Nikki Giovanni.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (Spring, 1984): 29-30. Covers topics ranging from contemporary writers, such as Amiri Baraka, to the feminist movement.

Cook, Martha. “Nikki Giovanni: Place and Sense of Place in Her Poetry.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. Good biographical information. Good analysis and discussion of Giovanni’s poetry collections, including a favorable assessment of Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983). Places Giovanni within the Southern literary...

(The entire section is 673 words.)