Originally published in the 1968 poetry collection Black Judgement, Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Knoxville, Tennessee” has had many incarnations. In 1994, it was published as a children’s book complete with full-color illustrations by Larry Johnson. A delightful and nostalgic visit to a summertime memory, the poem evokes the voice of a child in the midst of this reverie. The poem is generally not complicated by literary references or stodgy style but leans heavily upon an innate rhythm that seems to rise from the child’s own heartbeat. Originally written for an adult, African-American audience, the poem has found a much wider readership. Its simplicity draws readers into a world where the most important decision to make is whether to have more “barbecue” or keep some room for the “homemade ice-cream.”
In each line of this poem, the speaker identifies something about summer. It is clear by the simplicity of language and affections that this speaker is not an adult but perhaps a child. It seems to be told from the point of view of a young person who is both nostalgic about a past summer spent and also looking forward to the return of summer’s delights.
In these lines, the speaker focuses on the taste sensations of summer and the quality of abundance. The presence of the family patriarch is perhaps the only slightly political statement in the whole poem. This poem can be determined as political if one considers the times in which the author was writing this poem and the feeling that black men were under siege. Otherwise, having a “daddy” who has a “garden” could not be more natural to a child’s memories.
Now, the speaker evokes a higher sensation, perhaps an almost spiritual quality to the memory by asking the reader to consider the “gospel music” and the tight-knit community centered on the “church.” The fact that these lines fall in the center of the poem suggests that perhaps this is the heart and soul of the speaker’s memory. The importance of this vision of a “homecoming” cannot be overlooked and can perhaps tell the reader that the speaker is not always in this earthly paradise.
Finally, the speaker makes the connection to the place itself. The place is identified by “mountains,” which often represent truth or vision. That the speaker goes to this place with a grandmother re-enforces the idea that wisdom is somehow shared by osmosis. The way that the speaker connects to the time and place is like the feeling of a good dream and perhaps that is why the reader is taken to the end of the day, to “sleep.”