Nikki Giovanni 1943–
(Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni) American poet, essayist, children's author, and editor.
A strong yet controversial figure in American poetry, Giovanni came into prominence amid the social upheavals of the late-1960s and early-1970s. Though originally recognized mainly for its militant, revolutionary, Black-Power stance, Giovanni's poetry explores a full range of themes—from childhood and family to sexuality and romantic love—and draws images and rhythms from sources as varied as the Bible, hymns, rhythm-and-blues, jazz, popular music, and colloquial speech. Never quite becoming a manifesto, but being much more than mere reporting, Giovanni's poems are highly personal statements of rage and love, capable of tenderness, humor, and irony. Energetically individualistic—even to the point of contradiction—Giovanni's poetry attempts to transmit the voice of an active witness, a witness who not only observes but also creates—and is created by—life's changing circumstances.
Born to middle-class parents in Knoxville, Tennessee, Giovanni soon moved with her family to the predominantly black community of Lincoln Heights, Ohio. In her work, Giovanni typically portrays childhood as a positive experience, reflecting the fact that, in her various reminiscences, she remembers her own childhood as "groovy," a time spent in a nurturing environment with a supporting family. Growing up, Giovanni was especially devoted to, and spent a great deal of time with, her maternal grandmother, Louvenia Terrell Watson, a proud and outspoken woman who, early in her life, moved to Tennessee from her home in Albany, Georgia, fearing a possible lynching due to anti-white views she had expressed. Though assertiveness, pride, and a deep concern for the lives of women—the intellectual and emotional heirlooms Watson passed on to Giovanni—became consistent features in her poetry, Giovanni's social and political views—typified in her reading of the radical individualist, Ayn Rand, and in her support of Barry Goldwater—were generally conservative. These views underwent massive transformation during Giovanni's studies at Fisk University where Giovanni not only accepted the radicalism she encountered in some of her classmates, but she herself became active, spearheading the effort for the reinstatement of the campus chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Though she received her bachelor's degree in history, Giovanni also participated in the literary scene at Fisk, attending a creative writing workshop taught by
novelist John Oliver Killens and editing a campus literary magazine. In 1969, after further schooling and social and political activism, Giovanni took a teaching position at Rutgers University, and, following the immense success of her first two books, began giving readings and lectures on college campuses nationwide. This allowed her to engage in conversations with key figures in African-American literature, including James Baldwin and Margaret Walker. Giovanni has received many awards, including Mademoiselle's "Highest Achievement Award" and numerous honorary doctorates. Giovanni quickly came to be called "The Princess of Black Poetry." In 1969, Giovanni also gave birth to her son, Thomas, an event which—like the extensive travel Giovanni engaged in the early 1970's—some critics argue had a profound effect on her poems, broadening their scope, making them less angry and more domestic. Giovanni is currently a Professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Released during the late-1960s and early-1970s when the quest for civil rights and Black liberation was being supplanted by the drive for revolution and Black power, Giovanni's early volumes of poetry—Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968), Black Judgement (1968), and Re: Creation (1970)—gained immediate recognition and notoriety for their overtly militant, revolutionary content and tone; however, these volumes also include intimate poems of joy and of sorrow, hinting at thematic and emotive possibilities which grow and develop in subsequent volumes. Life changes, especially the birth of her son, and intensified introspection brought about by work on the autobiographical essays of Gemini (1971), led Giovanni to My House (1972), a volume which highlights the existence of a private and as well as a public, political life. Written mostly as lyrical monologues from various personae, the poems of My House are divided into two sections: "The Rooms Inside," which focuses on personal relationships, and "The Rooms Outside," which focuses on people as they struggle in physical and emotional realms outside of the homelike and familial. The Women and the Men (1975) continues Giovanni's interest in relationships, but also signals an increased, conscious interest in revisiting and revising her own past, including her earlier, militant tendencies. Giovanni's work finally goes full circle, for although remembrance becomes elegy in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978), a volume focusing on the missed possibilities and the transitory nature of life, many of the poems in Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) manage to tap out in a new form—short paragraphs punctuated with ellipses—meditative lyrics praising those who, like Giovanni, took risks and sought change.
Although it was immensely popular when it first appeared, Giovanni's poetry has long been a subject of much critical dispute. Even though early critics—very often supporters of Black liberation and/or Black power movements—generally liked Giovanni's poetry even in spite of what some saw as political naivete or narrowness, they increasingly were alienated by what was perceived to be Giovanni's gradual shift from the political to the romantic; however, critics without a direct stake in the social movements of the 60s and 70s generally praised what they perceived to be the increased scope and humanity Giovanni's poems from the mid-70s. Artistically, although critics acknowledge the fact that Giovanni has composed some strong, lyrical poems, many believe the poems suffer from not following through, from not attaining a full-enough realization. More recent criticism attempts to make way for new readings of Giovanni's work by freeing her writing from outmoded political contexts and oppressive aesthetic assumptions.
Black Judgement 1968
Black Feeling, Black Talk 1968
Re: Creation 1970
Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement 1970
The Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis 1970
Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children 1971
My House: Poems 1972
Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young Readers 1973
The Women and the Men 1975
Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day 1978
Vacation Time: Poems for Children 1980
Those Who Ride the Night Winds 1983
The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni 1995
The Sun Is So Quiet: Poems 1996
Other Major Works
Night Comes Softly: An Anthology of Black Female Voices [editor] (sketches) 1970
Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet (essays) 1971
Truth Is on Its Way (recording) 1971
A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni [with James Baldwin] (interviews) 1973
Like a Ripple on a Pond (recording) 1973
A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker...
(The entire section is 231 words.)
SOURCE: "'A Sweet Inspiration … of My People': The Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni," in Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition, Harper and Row, 1976, pp. 144-75.
[In the following excerpt, Juhasz reads Giovanni's poetry as a record of her attempts to meld her roles as a black, a woman, and a poet by defining those roles "in terms of two primary factors … : power and love. "]
In 1972 I heard Gwendolyn Brooks read her poetry at Bucknell University, a small, private, expensive upper-middle-class school in central Pennsylvania. The Black Student Alliance had turned out in full force (some seventy-five people) to pay tribute to this most famous of black poets, the "poet laureate of Chicago." The reading was about blackness, both in the subject matter of the poems and in the ambience of the event itself. The black students were dressed in their finest, not in the jeans they daily wore (the uniform of the white middle-class students to whose school they had been brought), proclaiming that this was their poet and their evening, that tonight we whites were the guests. It was a moving experience, but it was also a full room with poor ventilation, and in spite of myself I grew drowsy. Then Brooks read a poem that woke me abruptly, electrifying me and the rest of the audience with its urgency, its humor, and, above all, its sound. I admit to having thought: now...
(The entire section is 6410 words.)
SOURCE: "Sweet Soft Essence of Possibility: The Poetry of Nikki Giovanni," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984, pp. 218-28.
[In the following essay, Harris regards Giovanni as "a good popular poet" whose work responds to the complex events of her time yet sometimes suffers from a lack of a more complete realization.]
Even though Nikki Giovanni has a large popular audience, she has not gained the respect of the critics. Michele Wallace calls her "a kind of nationalistic Rod McKuen"; Eugene Redmond claims her poetry "lacks lyricism and imagery"; Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) insists she lacks the sophistication of thought demanded of one with pretensions of a "political seer" and finally, Amiri Baraka and Saunders Redding, united on no other issue, declare in their different styles that she is simply an opportunist. These critics illustrate the problem of evaluating Nikki Giovanni dispassionately. Her limitations notwithstanding, there is a curious tendency of normally perceptive critics to undervalue her, to condescend to her rather than to criticize her.
When Michele Wallace compares Giovanni to McKuen, she is suggesting that both are popular poets. This is true enough, but still there is a crucial difference between them: McKuen is a bad popular poet; Giovanni is a good one. He is a bad popular poet because he presents conventional sentiments...
(The entire section is 3826 words.)
SOURCE: "Groundwork for a More Comprehensive Criticism of Nikki Giovanni," in Studies in Black American Literature, Vol. 2, Penkeville Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 135-59.
[In the following essay, McDowell argues for a more comprehensive criticism of Giovanni's work, claiming that it is generally misinterpreted and poorly assessed due to earlier criticism biased by "the critics' misperceptions, their insistence on half-truths, or their … political and personal convictions."]
The nature of Nikki Giovanni's poetry cannot be fully understood nor its significance in recent literary history be established unless critics provide more perceptive interpretations and assessments of her work than they have done in the first fifteen years of her career. Such informed appraisals are long overdue, and her reputation has suffered from the neglect of her work by serious critics. Those who would contribute now to more comprehensive and open-minded judgments of her work will undoubtedly wish to consider the early contradictory appraisals of her poetry to ascertain what is genuine in them as a basis for this more comprehensive undertaking. I shall summarize, accordingly, the extreme reactions which Giovanni's poetry evoked primarily during the first five years of her career (1969–1974). And I will speculate on possible explanations for these contradictory responses and mediate among the...
(The entire section is 8935 words.)
SOURCE: An interview in Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983, pp. 60-78.
[In the following interview, Giovanni discusses her work's development, considers the effects of race and gender on writing, and provides insight into her own creative process.]
Nikki Giovanni began her literary career as a poet in the late sixties during the so-called "Black Revolution," and much of her verse at that time encouraged social and political activism among Black Americans. Her later work also addresses contemporary issues, but the focus falls instead on human relationships rendered from the vantage point of a mother, a lover, and a women. Giovannni's language remains startling, energetic, enraged, and loving….
[TATE]: The black revolutionary fervor of the sixties seems to be gone. We no longer even hear the rhetoric. Does this suggest that the revolution is over?
[GIOVANNI]: I bought three new windows for my mother's basement. Have you ever bought windows for your mother's basement? It's revolutionary! It really is.
I have a problem I think I should share with you. For the most part this question is boring. We're looking at a phenomenon as if it were finished. Everyone says, "Well, what happened to the revolution?" If you want to deal with states [dialectical transitions] you have to deal with Marx. But I'm not into that. From where I am, I see a...
(The entire section is 8227 words.)
SOURCE: "Nikki Giovanni: Place and Sense of Place in Her Poetry," in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 279-99.
[In the following essay, Cook discusses the theme of place in Giovanni's poems, arguing that Giovanni's most important poems are not the early, militant poems, but those which are greatly concerned with place, home and family.]
Nikki Giovanni's poetry has been most often viewed by literary critics in the tradition of militant black poetry; the first serious critical article on her work, in fact, is R. Roderick Palmer's "The Poetry of Three Revolutionists: Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni" (College Language Association Journal, September 1971). More recent critics, especially Suzanne Juhasz in her Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition (1976), have emphasized the developing feminism in Giovanni's poems. No critic has yet focused on what I see as the key to reading Giovanni, her position in the rich tradition of Southern poetry, proceeding unbroken from Richard Lewis in the eighteenth century through Poe, Henry Timrod, and Sidney Lanier, on through the Fugitives and Jean Toomer, down to James Dickey and Ishmael Reed today. By focusing specifically on the sense of place, a vital element in Southern literature, I have identified a group ofpoems that represents Giovanni at her best,...
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Fowler, Virginia C. Nikki Giovanni. New York: Twayne, 1992, 192 p.
Substantial overview of Giovanni's poetry from its beginnings through Those Who Ride the Night Winds.
Giddings, Paula. "Nikki Giovanni: Taking a Chance on Feeling." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, pp. 211-17. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.
Overview of earlier work which critiques Those Who Ride the Night Winds as being overly-simplistic for the older Giovanni.
Giovanni, Nikki. "An Answer to Some Questions on How I Write: In Three Parts." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, pp. 205-10. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.
Provides insight into Giovanni's creative process and habits.
Lee, Don L. "Nikki Giovanni." In Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960's, pp. 68-74. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971.
Reviews Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement, appreciating many of the poems but finding the longer, militant poems overly-simplistic.
McLain, Ruth Rambo. Review of Re: Creation. Black World XX, No. 4 (February 1971): 62-4.
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