Nikki Giovanni

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What is the meaning of the poem "Dreams" by Nikki Giovanni?

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"Dreams" by Nikki Giovanni resonates with the theme of dreams that is found across the Civil Rights Movement. This is most prominently heard in Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech, “I have a dream…” Dreams have held a special place in the hearts of Black Americans who have been struggling to survive and striving for racial equality. With nearly every law written to demonize, incarcerate, and exclude Black Americans, dreaming and hope can be nearly all that is left. Giovanni says,

before i learned

black people aren’t

suppose to dream

Here she is likely referencing the “American dream.” This is the belief that hard work will allow anyone to rise in the ranks of American society. Embedded in this idea is a meritocratic ideology that all people are treated equally in this country. However, as many activists in the Civil Rights Movement have pointed out, this is not so. Black Americans have been systematically excluded from the American dream. Hard work has not led to good fortune for far too many. Not only that, but Black Americans who have dared to dream and attempted integration were punished for doing so. Giovanni finishes her poem by saying,

i became more sensible

and decided i would

settle down

and just become

a sweet inspiration

Like in many of her poems, Giovanni finds light in darkness. Despite all the unattainable dreams of her youth and the prejudice she faces, she has found peace. This inward reflection is something that no amount of oppression can take away from her. Furthermore, Giovanni has achieved this dream having been awarded the Langston Hughes Medal and NAACP Award. She has served as an inspiration for many.

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Nikki Giovanni, born in 1943, is an African-American poet who first gained prominence during the 1960's, a decade in which African-Americans struggled to gain civil rights and also explored their own cultural identity.

In her poem titled "Dreams," Giovanni begins by describing her youthful dreams.

She wanted to be a "raelet."  The Raelets were a group of female singers who backed up the great African-American vocalist and keyboard artist, Ray Charles.  More specifically, she wanted to be Marjorie Hendricks, a key member of the Raelets.

Later, her dreams change:

then as i grew and matured
i became more sensible   
and decided i would   
settle down
and just become
a sweet inspiration
 
The "sweet inspiration" could refer to Giovanni's activities in the Civil Rights movement, in which she inspired people to stand up for their rights.  It could also refer to her poetry, and to her work as a professor at several universities in which she inspired young artists.  
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