Giovanni, Nikki (Vol. 117)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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...
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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
probably talk about my hard
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.
These proud words come from Nikki Giovanni's best-known poem, Nikki-Rosa. At 28, she is one of the most talented and promising black poets. She is also one of the most visible, not only because she is beautiful but because she is a shrewd and energetic propagandist. In this interim autobiography, both poet and propagandist underscore that point about black love and happiness. Part memoir and part manifesto, it is a plain-spoken, lively, provocative, confusing book.
The memoir part deals with growing up in a tightly knit, loyal family of social workers in Cincinnati and Knoxville. As a child she had two idols, her glamorous older sister Gary and her grandmother...
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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 and proud. Miss Giovanni pursues both personal and cultural matters: loneliness, private dreams, love and survival, all with a boundless enthusiasm for the essences of black life. In the best poems, language and spirit rebound and join forces. The title poem is a celebration of African heritage and modern dignity.
I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so
tough that a star that
only glows every one
hundred years falls into
the center giving divine
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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, although in passing one wouldn't look twice. But once inside you feel there's a lot of care and love in this house. One of Nikki's poems does say that Black love is Black wealth. Our expectations were confirmed.
But what's Nikki Giovanni doing in Cincinnati: She recalls that once when she was washing her car a brother recognized her and asked in amazement, "Nikki Giovanni? What're you doing here?" Her reply: "Washing my car. Want to help?"
The true answer to his question lies deep in the love Nikki has for her family. Three years ago, after her father had a stroke, Nikki and her son, Thomas, moved from New York City to be with her parents.
"The stroke was so serious...
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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 well for themselves. She feels that her poetry is richer now because she understands more than she did when she was younger; as if to accommodate that fuller understanding, she is experimenting with longer pieces, some of 1200 to 1500 lines. Her forthcoming book is Those Who Ride The Night Winds, to be published later this year by William Morrow.
[Elder:] I was interested in your trip to Africa. Have you been there several times?
[Giovanni:] I've been there three times.
… interested particularly in terms of your poetry and if you found that it affected your poetry in ways other than as subject matter. I am thinking of perhaps more of an emphasis on orality than you were...
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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 Morrison has taken the American novel to stage five, and people are asking, 'Where are stages two and three?' She's riding the night wind. She's not playing it safe. Every time they say Toni can't write she comes out with another book…. I think Shange's for colored girls … was brilliant. I can't say enough how brilliant it is." She goes on, "Black writers are not helping each other. We don't encourage our artists to grow."
Nikki Giovanni is riding the night winds and "those who ride the night winds/must learn to love the stars/those who live on the edge must get used to the cuts." Those Who Ride the Night Winds is a book of twenty-eight new poems separated into two sections, "Night Winds" and "Day...
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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 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 early conflicting judgments, because they significantly affect her reputation to this day.
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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 more than her audacity in attempting to chat about everything and nothing, almost simultaneously. And yet it is not discursive. To call her work discursive is to suggest that at some point it is on track. There are no tracks—no destination, merely large unmapped areas of speculative discourse. But hers is perhaps a studied, or at least affected, incoherence, and for those who are admirers of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, this refusal to get to the point or stick with the subject might be to your taste. Consider her range in this entire paragraph from "In Sympathy With Another Motherless Child (One View of the Profession of Writing)":
I really don't know what to say about myself. I like music, there...
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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 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 of poems that represent Giovanni at her best, technically and thematically.
Before looking at specific themes, subjects, images, and symbols, I should survey the significant aspects of Nikki...
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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 movement of the 1960s. Her work, then as now, is all about perspective—first as a black, next as a woman, then as an American, but ultimately as a human being in a complex universe.
Talking about Shakespeare in "I Plant Geraniums," she reflects: "Shouldn't we hold him to the same standards as the Constitution and Bible and bring him 'up to date'? I think not. I think we should leave him in the brilliance of his expression. We need, we modern artists and critics, to do exactly what Shakespeare did. Write for now. Think for now."
Before the '60s, most African Americans simply accepted our invisibility as a fact of life. During the '60s, voices like Giovanni's helped blacks and whites understand black...
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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 Miguel de Cervantes' remarkable baroque novel, has been alluded to by a few scholars. In the "Introduction" to Gemini (1971), Barbara Cosby makes reference to a certain relation between the contemporary poet and the immortal knight when she describes Giovanni as "… the most sensitive, slowest to anger, most quixotic …" woman she knows. Publisher and editor Ida Lewis submits that the highly independent writer, as the self-reliant Don Quixote does, trusts her own sensibilities to define her reality. She maintains that in the frequently cited lines from the poem "nikki-rosa": "… I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / … they'll probably / talk about my hard childhood / and never understand that / all...
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Review of Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles. The Antioch Review 46, No. 3 (Summer 1988): 397.
States that Giovanni covers many subjects in a variety of tones.
Buchanan, Carol. Review of Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, edited by Nikki Giovanni. Voya 19, No. 4 (October 1996): 229-30.
Remarks favorably on the collection and praises Giovanni's commentary.
Cook, William W. "The Black Arts Poets." In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini and Brett C. Millier, pp. 674-706. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Describes Giovanni's role within the modern black poetry movement.
Cotter, James Finn. Review of Those Who Ride the Night Winds, by Nikki Giovanni. The Hudson Review XXXVII, No. 3 (Autumn 1984): 499-500.
Unfavorable review of Giovanni's poetry in Those Who Ride the Night Winds.
Millar, Neil. "Dancing Poetry, Chantable Verse." Christian Science Monitor 66, No. 110 (1 May 1974): F5.
Reviews Ego Tripping and argues that while the poems are original and zesty, some are full of hatred....
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