Study Guide

Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni Essay - Giovanni, Nikki (Vol. 117)

Giovanni, Nikki (Vol. 117)

Introduction

Nikki Giovanni 1943–

(Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni) American poet, essayist, autobiographer, editor, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents an overview of Giovanni's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 19, and 64.

One of the premier twentieth-century African-American poets, Giovanni achieved such popularity in the 1960s that she has become known as "The Princess of Black Popularity." Gaining fame with her revolutionary poetry in Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968) and Black Judgement (1968), Giovanni built on this popularity through readings of her work set to gospel music, and even issued several recordings. Throughout her career, Giovanni has produced strongly oral poems, employing blues rhythms and conversational language. She has focused on themes of family, blackness, womanhood, and sex. In addition, she has written numerous essays and several critically acclaimed children's books.

Biographical Information

Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943. Her family soon moved to Lincoln Heights, Ohio, a predominantly black community. Her happy childhood, spent in part with her grandparents in Tennessee, became a major theme of Giovanni's poetry. At the age of seventeen she entered Frisk University but was asked to leave for a rules infraction. She returned in 1964 and pursued a degree in History while participating in many university activities, including the creative writing workshop led by novelist John Oliver Killens. Out of her political protest experiences of the 1960s, Giovanni wrote her first two volumes of poetry Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement. In 1968 Giovanni accepted a teaching position at Rutgers University. About this time she also gave birth to a son. Throughout the 1970s Giovanni shifted the focus of her writing away from revolutionary politics and towards personal observations and domestic experiences. She published her first children's book Spin a Soft Black Song in 1971. She won the Mademoiselle outstanding achievement award in 1971, the Ladies' Home Journal Woman of the Year Youth Leadership Award in 1972, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973 for Gemini (1971), and won the Langston Hughes Award in 1996.

Major Works

Giovanni gained widespread popularity during the 1960s for her revolutionary poems in Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement, two works which feature rhythmic, often angry verse. One of Giovanni's best-known poems, "The True Import of the Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro," is a call to African Americans to destroy both the whites who oppress them and blacks whose passivity and compliance contribute to their own oppression. "Nikki Rosa," from Black Judgement, which recounts Giovanni's childhood, is often considered the author's signature poem. Affectionately recalling her supportive family, the poet asserts that happiness is dependent on love, not material possessions, and this love is the staple of unity within the black community. Both of these works were well received both critically and publicly, launching Giovanni's career as a noted American poet. Giovanni's next two works, Re:Creation (1970) and Gemini (1971) reflected more personal themes and observations and mark a significant transition in Giovanni's style. The poems, influenced by Giovanni's love of rhythm and blues music, are less angry, reflecting black experience from a personal viewpoint rather than the collective movement. In her 1972 collection, My House, Giovanni depicted personal and public lives as complementary forces working together toward change. Giovanni shifts from this focus on society to themes of isolation in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978). Poems such as "The Rose Bush" are somber and bleak observations about estrangement and dislocation. Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) features tributes to various historical figures such as John Lennon, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. In addition, Giovanni has published several volumes of children's poetry which is at times angry, poignant, and humorous.

Critical Reception

Critics praised Giovanni's early work for its raw emotions, energy, and her commitment to black issues. However, with her publication of Re:Creation and then Gemini, formerly enthusiastic critics questioned her shift from political to personal. Critics such as Ruth Rambo McClain felt that she had abandoned the black movement. However, other critics praised the work, noting that Giovanni appeals to an audience who feels disconnected with the more radical and violent protest poetry and that her work still reflects the black experience, albeit from a more personal side. Margaret McDowell argues that critics have misunderstood Giovanni's work, stating that Giovanni "has tended to focus on a single individual, situation, or idea, often with a brief narrative thread present in the poem." Martha Cook writes, "[t]he best of [Giovanni's] poetry throughout her career has been concrete, with references to specific places, rooms, furniture, people, colors, quantities of light and dark." Cook argues that Giovanni is less successful when her poetry is more abstract. While Giovanni's emphasis on orality and the sound of language in her poetry has earned her considerable attention, some critics have questioned whether the emphasis on rhythms have undermined the structure of her poems. Criticizing Cotton Candy, William J. Harris writes, "Giovanni is a frustrating poet … She clearly has talent that she refuses to discipline. She just doesn't seem to try hard enough." He argues she is too dependent on her strong personality and ego. Other critics, however, such as Duffy, argue that this strong persona gives strength to her works.

Principal Works

Black Feeling, Black Talk (poetry) 1968
Black Judgement (poetry) 1968
Night Comes Softly: An Anthology of Black Female Voices (editor) 1970
Re:Creation (poetry) 1970
Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Children (poetry) 1971
Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet (autobiography) 1971
Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children (poetry) 1971
My House (poetry) 1972
A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikkt Giovanni (essays) 1973
A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (essays) 1974
The Women and the Men (poetry) 1975
Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (poetry) 1978
Vacation Time: Poems for Children (poetry) 1980
Those Who Ride the Night Winds (poetry) 1983
Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles (essays) 1988
Racism 101 (autobiographical essays) 1994
The Genie in the Jar (poetry) 1996
The Sun Is So Quiet: Poems (poetry) 1996
Love Poems (poetry) 1997

Criticism

Bernard W. Bell (essay date September 1971)

SOURCE: "New Black Poetry: A Double-Edged Sword," in CLA Journal, Vol. XV, No. 1, September, 1971, pp. 37-43.

[In the following essay, Bell analyzes African-American poetry, discussing its influences and its agenda.]

Perhaps the most phenomenal cultural development in the nation during the 1960's was the renaissance in Afro-American art, especially poetry. Naturally this development, like the Vietnam War, did not come about overnight nor in a social vacuum. Rather, it was an outgrowth of the cultural frustrations and political exigencies of black Americans in their struggle for self-determination if not their very survival. More specifically, it was directly related to LeRoi Jones' baptism in blackness and his remarkable achievements in drama and poetry.

As early as 1962 in "The Myth of Negro Literature" Jones had lashed out at black writers for imitating "the useless ugly inelegance of the stunted middle-class mind," an updated version of Richard Wright's 1937 animadversions in "Blueprint for Negro Literature." But it is in subsequent poems like "Black Dada Nihilismus," "Black Art," and his third volume of verse, Black Magic: Collected Poetry 1961–1967, that Jones actually begins blazing the path toward a new aesthetic and a new nation, the frequently avowed goals of most contemporary Afro-American poets. But LeRoi Jones was not the only force responsible for the direction and flowering of recent black poetry. In 1965–1966 John O. Killens's writing workshops and conferences in New York and Tennessee provided the forum; Hoyt Fuller's 1966–1967 joint sponsorship of the OBAC writers of Chicago (the late Conrad Kent Rivers and Gerald McWhorter were the other co-sponsors) and his editorial policy in Black World (formerly Negro Digest) offered the popular vehicle; Dudley Randall's extraordinarily successful Broadside Press, founded in 1966, the commercial outlet; and Gwendolyn Brooks, the artistic encouragement necessary to foster a revolutionary generation of talented, race-conscious black poets.

Because of their scathing indictment of anything considered detrimental to the advancement of black people, some critics believe that the generating spirit of these new black poets is hatred. But I submit that their hatred is a valid though increasingly ineffective poetic stance and that on a deeper level the new black poetry is rooted in a love of black people and an affirmation of life. "You see," says poet Don Lee in the Negro Digest, "black poetry will not, necessarily, teach the people how to die, but will teach the people how to live. We must live, we must show those who control the world how to live. Re-define man and put man in his proper perspective in relation to other men and to the world." It is this tension between hatred and love, life and death that constitutes much of the vitality of the new black poetry.

This brings us to the central question of this essay: just how revolutionary is the new black poetry? In a sense, the Black Consciousness poets are bearers of the legacy of the New Negro movement of the twenties and, at the same time, rebels without a past. Generally speaking, the giants of the New Negro movement—James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown—turned to Africa and Afro-American folklore as well as England for a sense of tradition. In the immediate background of that movement were the Pan-African Congresses convened by W. E. B. Du Bois, the pioneering studies on Africa by Carter G. Woodson, and the Back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey. Equally important in giving impetus and direction to young black artists of the era was Dr. Alain Locke, a professor of philosophy at Howard University. Literary historians have come to view his anthology, The New Negro (1925), as the manifesto of the movement. Containing essays by black and white scholars as well as representative selections of creative writing by young Afro-Americans, The New Negro celebrates what Professor Locke optimistically considered "the attainment of a significant and satisfying new phase of group development" by Americans of African descent.

As in the Black Consciousness movement of the sixties, the acknowledged standard bearers of the New Negro movement were the poets. Following the appearance of Jean Toomer's poetic novel in 1923, books of black poetry began pouring from the presses: Cullen's Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), Caroling Dusk (1927) and Black Christ and Other Poems (1929); Hughes' The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927); Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and God's Trombones (1927); and Brown's Southern Road (1932). The avowed intention of most New Negro artists was to write honestly—to explore, not to exploit the roots of Afro-American culture. But many of their white admirers were more interested in the exotic qualities of their work. As a result, the young black poets soon found themselves impaled on the horns of a dilemma. On one side were the white patrons and publishers encouraging them to highlight the primitiveness of Harlem life, while on the other were members of the black gentility frequently condemning them for not using their talents to portray the intellectual and social parity of the race.

At this point, it is important to remember that the thrust of the Harlem movement, as Robert Hayden has stated in the Introduction to the Atheneum reprint of The New Negro, was "more aesthetic and philosophical … than political." Langston Hughes in his well-known essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial...

(The entire section is 2344 words.)

Martha Duffy (review date 17 January 1972)

SOURCE: "Hustler and Fabulist," in Time, Vol. 99, No. 3, January 17, 1972, pp. 63-4.

[In the following review of Gemini, Duffy argues that Giovanni has crafted both a memoir and a manifesto about her life.]

         I really hope no white person
         ever has cause
      to write about me
      because they never understand
      Black love is Black wealth
         and they'll
      probably talk about my hard
         childhood
      and never understand that
      all the while...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Nancy Rosenberg (review date 5 May 1974)

SOURCE: "A Tree Grows in Print," in New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1974, p. 38.

[In the following review, Rosenberg praises Giovanni's style and skill in Ego-Tripping.]

In a previous book, Spin a Soft Black Song, Miss Giovanni used warm, unaffected language to describe being young and black. In Ego-Tripping, which has George Ford's illustrations reflecting strength and good feeling, the poems are directed at older readers able to handle heavier subjects and more ambitious poetry. Several are familiar from anthologies and previous works while others are published here for the first time. They are sly and seductive, freewheeling and winsome, tough, sure...

(The entire section is 245 words.)

Stephanie J. Stokes (essay date August 1981)

SOURCE: "My House," in Essence, Vol. 12, No. 4, August, 1981, pp. 84-8.

[In the following essay based on an interview with Giovanni, Stokes remarks on Giovanni's home and family.]

"Now don't expect to find me in a fancy mansion," Nikki Giovanni said when told the Essence crew was on its way to Cincinnati to share a day in her busy life. "But if you want someone who lives like everyone else, then you're coming to the right place."

We couldn't imagine Nikki's house as anything less than wonderful. Sure, she lives in an average, middle-class Black community called Lincoln Heights. And yes, her house looks much like others on her block; it's nice,...

(The entire section is 1689 words.)

Nikki Giovanni with Arlene Elder (interview date Winter 1982)

SOURCE: "A MELUS Interview: Nikki Giovanni," in MELUS, Vol. 9, No. 3, Winter, 1982, pp. 61-75.

[In the following interview, Giovanni discusses her travels to Africa, the role of the writer in society, and writers she admires.]

Throughout her career, Nikki Giovanni's poetry has been valued, at least in part, as a touchstone to the latest political and artistic ideas in Black American writing. She, however, never considered herself a spokesperson for any group. She says she is a "we" poet whose work might reflect the thoughts of others but judges it the height of "arrogance" to assume one is the "voice" of a people; people, she is confident, can speak perfectly...

(The entire section is 7065 words.)

Nikki Giovanni with Carrington Bonner (interview date Spring 1984)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Nikki Giovanni," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 29-30.

[In the interview below, Giovanni offers her views on modern culture and writing.]

Nikki Giovanni wants to make it clear: "I did not perform in South Africa. I think that's ridiculous. I mean what would I do: sing, dance, recite 'Nigger Can You Kill'? It's either a misunderstanding or a lie, whichever comes first. It's just ridiculous. My books are banned in South Africa."

The princess of Black poetry has returned to the road, on tour in the midst of controversy, and is offering thoughts. Commenting on Black writers she says, "Toni...

(The entire section is 1449 words.)

Margaret B. McDowell (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Groundwork for a More Comprehensive Criticism of Nikki Giovanni," in Studies in Black American Literature, Volume II: Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism, edited by Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot, Penkevill Publishing Co., 1986, pp. 135-60.

[In the following essay, McDowell argues that critics have failed to adequately analyze the whole of Giovanni's poetry.]

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...

(The entire section is 8884 words.)

Don McDermott (review date April 1988)

SOURCE: "Unedibles," in Cimarron Review, Vol. 83, April, 1988, pp. 94-5.

[In the following review of Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles, McDermott criticizes Giovanni's monotony and lack of wit.]

On February 19th William Morrow and Company will publish what it defines as a collection of essays by Nikki Giovanni, but this designation seems a bit inaccurate. The term "essay" suggests an attempt to order and shape material to a particular topic or collection of closely related topics. Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles is almost exclusively an exercise of glib incoherence. What is recommended by her publisher as her irreverence, her shameless-ness, is nothing...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

Martha Cook (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Nikki Giovanni: Place and Sense of Place in Her Poetry," in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge, University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 279-300.

[In the essay below, Cook considers the influence of the Southern writing tradition on Giovanni's writing.]

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." More recent critics, especially Suzanne Juhasz in her Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American...

(The entire section is 8510 words.)

Phyllis Crockett (review date 13 February 1994)

SOURCE: "A Free Spirit of the '60s," in Washington Post Book World, February 13, 1994, pp. 4-5.

[In the following review of Racism 101, Crockett argues that Giovanni accurately reflects African-American views on race.]

Poet Nikki Giovanni is caught up in the past and the future at the same time. In Racism 101, her latest collection of largely autobiographical essays, she describes herself as a '60s woman and a Star Trek fanatic. These two obsessions are like highway markers on her life's path, pointing the way to where she's been and where she's headed. Giovanni first captured the nation's attention as one of the most powerful voices in the black culture...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

Effie J. Boldridge (essay date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: "Windmills or Giants? The Quixotic Motif and Vision in the Poetry of Nikki Giovanni," in The Griot, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 18-25.

[In the following essay, Boldridge explores the relation between Miguel de Cervantes's character Don Quixote and Giovanni's world view.]

Of the generation of black poets that emerged in the volatile sixties, as Paula Giddings notes, Nikki Giovanni is among that select group "whose career has defied the odds." Certainly, her writing has been the subject of ongoing, extensive critical commentary. Among the many topics noted in this body of work, the kinship between Nikki Giovanni and Don Quixote, the legendary protagonist of...

(The entire section is 4709 words.)