Nikki Giovanni

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1436

Nikki Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 7, 1943, the younger of two daughters of Gus and Yolande Giovanni. As a child, Giovanni moved with her parents to the black middle-class suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, where her mother worked as a supervisor for the Welfare Department and her father worked as a social worker. Some of her most memorable times, however, were the summers she spent back in Knoxville with her maternal grandparents, John Brown and Louvenia Terrell Watson. Many of these experiences figure importantly in some of Giovanni’s poems, most notably “Knoxville, Tennessee” (1969).

As a young girl, Giovanni began to display certain traits that would characterize her and her poetry after she became an adult—brashness, assertiveness, and outspokenness among them. These traits can perhaps be seen most clearly in Giovanni’s fierce determination to protect her older sister, Gary, whom she idolized. Furthermore, these traits may have been inherited from, or at least encouraged by, her grandmother, Louvenia Watson, herself assertive and outspoken, as one learns in Giovanni’s autobiographical statement, Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet (1971). As Giovanni grew older, these traits merged into the one which brought her to the attention of both the literary world and the political establishment during the 1960’s: militance.

Upon graduating from high school in 1960, Giovanni entered Fisk University, a historically black college located in Nashville, Tennessee, but was dismissed from the school in February, 1961, because her attitude was not consistent with that expected of Fisk women. She returned to Fisk in 1964, where she excelled as a scholar, became active in student literary circles, and became involved in campus politics, soon establishing at Fisk a chapter of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), a prominent organization in the Civil Rights movement. This was the first display of the revolutionary spirit for which she would become well known in the following years.

Also at Fisk, Giovanni became editor of Élan, the campus literary publication, and participated in the Fisk Writers’ Workshop. This workshop for younger writers was directed by John Oliver Killens, an important African American novelist and critic. Through such activities, Giovanni began to develop her feelings and talents as a poet of intense sensitivity. Further, her interest in the various struggles of black people for social, political, cultural, and economic liberation became much more pronounced.

Giovanni graduated from Fisk magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history during the winter commencement exercises held in early February, 1967. Following graduation she returned to Cincinnati but within a few weeks received the news of her beloved grandmother’s death in Knoxville. This event profoundly affected Giovanni, immediately making her ill and also triggering a more far-reaching and longer-lasting anger that would characterize the majority of her early poetry.

From her grandmother’s death, Giovanni became more aware of the plight of powerless people in the United States. Her grandmother had been forced to move from her home at 400 Mulvaney Street when an urban renewal project relocated her neighborhood to make way for new commercial development. Although the new house had more amenities—a bigger back yard, the reader is told in Gemini—Louvenia Watson was never happy because the house was not “home.” She had simply had to leave behind too many memories, and she withered and died as a result of this displacement.

During the late spring and early summer of 1967, Giovanni became involved in organizing Cincinnati’s black community and established the first Black Arts Festival in that city. Through this activity her black awareness became more keenly pronounced, and though she would have preferred to continue her activities in the black community, Giovanni’s mother, supported by her father, delivered the ultimatum that she either go to work or go to graduate school. Neither option was attractive to Giovanni at the time, but she entered the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. Later she attended Columbia University in New York and began teaching at Queens College, also in New York. During this period, Giovanni received several grants, notably from the Ford Foundation and the National Foundation for the Arts.

In 1968, Giovanni published Black Feeling, Black Talk, her first book of poems. This was followed by Black Judgement (1968), which was combined with its predecessor into a single volume, Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement in 1970. These poems are mostly characterized by Giovanni’s black revolutionary ideas and spirit, and they quickly established her as one of the most able spokespersons of the Black Arts cultural movement. Another event that underscored Giovanni’s new independence and her revolutionary stance was her decision to have a child, though yet unmarried, an unpopular choice even during the turbulent 1960’s. Her son, Tommy, was born in Cincinnati on August 31, 1969, while Giovanni was visiting her parents during Labor Day vacation. Tommy soon became the center for most of the poet’s artistic and spiritual concerns.

In 1970, Giovanni published her third book of poems, Re: Creation, which continued in the revolutionary vein, and followed in a rather rapid succession the combined volume of her first two works, her autobiographical statement, Gemini, and a book of poems for children, Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children, both issued in 1971 and both dedicated to her son.

Giovanni’s national reputation and popularity were further established in 1971 when the record album Truth Is on the Way was released; it featured Giovanni reading her poems to the background of black gospel music, itself an up-and-coming art form, sung by the New York Community Choir under the direction of Benny Diggs. The album was a monumental success, and Giovanni began to be in great demand throughout the country, especially on college campuses. In addition, she was recognized in many national magazines, including Ebony, Jet, and Mademoiselle, and was awarded numerous distinctions, including the key to the city of Gary, Indiana. In April, 1972, an honorary doctorate degree was conferred upon her by Wilberforce University in Ohio, the nation’s oldest historically black college.

Also in 1972, the immensely popular book of poems My House: Poems appeared, and its enthusiastic reception further enhanced the poet’s reputation. In 1973, Giovanni issued a new collection of poems for children, many previously published, under the title Ego-Tripping, and Other Poems for Young People. This book increased Giovanni’s popularity among younger readers and gained for her continued respect among other readers as well.

During 1973 and 1974, the transcriptions of two important exchanges between Giovanni and older established black writers were published. The first, a conversation with James Baldwin, the novelist and essayist, had actually taken place late in 1971. It was published in 1973 as A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni and was a spirited exchange of ideas between the two writers on a number of topics of interest to black people, including black male/female relationships, black literature and the black liberation movement, and religion and the black community.

The second exchange was with the poet and novelist Margaret Walker, published in 1974 as A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, and it contained much more intense and heated discussions on the present and future states of black people in the United States and the role of black literature in the black liberation movement, among other topics. Giovanni emerged from these discussions as the clear spokesperson for new trends in black literature; she gained, in addition, much admiration and respect from an older generation of writers.

Giovanni continued publishing her steady stream of poetry collections into the twenty-first century, which saw the publication of The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1998 (2003). She also published books of essays and other prose as well as several more collections of poetry for children, including Just for You! The Girls in the Circle (2004).

Giovanni is a perennial favorite on the college lecture circuit and delights in sharing her thoughts and insights with others, especially the young. In addition, she is in great demand as a teacher, having taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Rutgers University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Her awards include numerous honorary doctorates as well as the Jeanine Rae Award for the Advancement of Women’s Culture (1995); the Langston Hughes Award (1996); the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award (1998 and 2003); the Tennessee Governor’s Award (1998); the Virginia Governor’s Award for the Arts (2000); and the first Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award (2002). A University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech since 1999, she continues to write, speak, and publish regularly and is one of the most popular poets of her generation.

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