Nikki Giovanni Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Giovanni has been aptly called a child of the 1960’s and a woman of the 1970’s; however, the most frequent title bestowed upon her is the Princess of Black Poetry. From articulating concerns of the black liberation movement to championing the individual, Giovanni has emerged as a keen interpreter of modern times.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

When Nikki Giovanni began, in journal publications and readings, to appear on the literary scene in the late 1960’s, she was hailed as one of its most noted black poets. Critics praised her work for its themes of militancy, black pride, and revolution. The majority of poems in her volumes, however, address themes such as love, family, and friendship. Her militant poems received more attention, however, and they reflected Giovanni’s own activism. It is then, arguably, not accurate when critics argue that Giovanni abandoned the cause of black militancy when, in the 1970’s, her poems became more personal. The change was not as marked as some believed.

Giovanni’s work took on a different perspective in 1970, when she became a mother. That year she published Re:Creation, whose themes are black female identity and motherhood. In My House, Giovanni more clearly addresses issues of family, love, and a twofold perspective on life, which is revealed in the two divisions of the book. With poems about the “inside” and “outside,” Giovanni acknowledges the importance of not only the personal but also the world at large. Another dimension of this two-part unity is seen in The Women and the Men. Giovanni’s poetry, over time, also seems to have undergone another change—an increased awareness of the outside world. Giovanni’s poetry since 1978 reflects her interest in the human condition. The poems become more meditative, more /introspective, and eventually more hopeful as they focus upon life’s realities. Examined as a whole, Giovanni’s work reveals concerns for identity, self-exploration, and self-realization. These concerns also appear in her works of other genres: recorded poetry, read to music; children’s poetry, which she wrote to present positive images to black children; and essays. Giovanni’s most consistent theme is the continual, evolving exploration of personal identity and individualism amid familial, social, and political realities.