Many of these essays are autobiographical, and most contain biographical elements. Nikki Giovanni identifies her intellectual origins as like those of Alex Haley, listening to her grandparents talk evenings on their porch in Knoxville, Tennessee. She tells about her family, about growing up in Ohio and Tennessee, raising her son, returning to her family home after her father’s stroke, accepting and then fighting to keep a professorship at Virginia Polytechnic.
Only two of the essays speak directly about her practice and aims as a writer, “Meatloaf: A View of Poetry” and “APPALACHIAN ELDERS: The Warm Hearth Writer’s Workshop.” But ideas about her art appear in many pieces, including especially her reviews of Spike Lee’s MALCOLM and of the works of Toni Morrison.
Her title, RACISM 101, suggests that the book will be a primer on American racism, but this is not quite the case. Her observations of American culture often focus on problems of racial justice. In “Remembering Fisk . . . Thinking about Du Bois,” she excoriates black conservatives for adopting a form of individualism that denigrates their cultural roots: “No one chooses misery, and our efforts to make this a choice will be the damnation of our souls.” Her title piece offers practical advice to black students on Virginia Polytechnic’s predominantly white campus. Two other topics that recur in these pieces are the positions of black women and the praise of black achievers.
From her “Author’s Note” to the “Postscript,” Giovanni’s collection is unified by her voice, which is intimate, down-home, friendly, eloquent, tough, and-especially when it is a matter of justice-uncompromising. Readers who know her poetry will recognize her voice here.