Following the birth of her son, Tommy, in 1969, Nikki Giovanni began writing children’s poetry after having a successful, productive career as a poet and essayist. Her first such work was Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children (1971), which like her adult collections of poetry focuses on African American pride and aestheticism. Directed at much younger readers than Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People, this collection embraces the natural rhythm of language and its appeal to children in dance and song. Illustrating the bonding of mother and child, many of the poems center on the spoken and unspoken connections between the two. As in all her work, the sense of pride in the accomplishments of black leaders and the anger juxtaposed with humor that together seem to foster survival are blended into the poetry through dialogue. This is exemplified in “trips” in which a mother says, “GET UP FROM THERE YOU GONNA BE DIRTY,” as her young child thinks to himself, “i want to tell her if you was/ my size the dirt would catch you up faster too.”
Having been a significant voice during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s Giovanni—“the Princess of Black Poetry,” as she has often been called—captures the nature of the changes that have taken place in herself and in society. Often mirroring these conflicts and the consequences of misdirected anger, her poetry attempts to provide direction for young people through the building of self-esteem and black pride, both for the individual and for all African Americans. Her poetry chronicles the progress of African Americans, often including the names of prominent black leaders in the arts and the Civil Rights movement.
With each collection of children’s poetry, the poet examines the complexities of growing up black in predominantly white America. For example, in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978), the tone is compromising and the spirit appears dampened. As in her other collections, the reader encounters the theme of loneliness; however, the poetry also focuses on disillusionment. Yet, inevitably in her work, disillusionment is merely another part of life, of living, that must be met honestly and realistically. Through her art, Giovanni gives her young readers the tools to confront and to combat an imperfect world, even during the most difficult of times, by emphasizing the universality of human experience as expressed through poetry.