Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2021
Giovanni’s poetry is largely the chronicle of the development of a black poet, and each volume reflects her concerns and sensibilities at various phases of her development. The poems are always written in free verse and employ plain, simple, direct language with a strong rhythmic sense and an often playful, yet meaningful, manipulation of words. All of these are characteristics of the revolutionary black poetry of the 1960’s and 1970’s that sought to speak directly to the black community to motivate black people to become liberated.
Giovanni’s first two books of poems, Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement, both published in 1968 (and combined into a single volume in 1970), contain poems that speak primarily from a revolutionary stance. The poems, like their author, are young, angry, and assertive, and their very titles are often suggestive of their subject matter. “Black Separatism,” “Black Power,” “Of Liberation,” “Revolutionary Music,” and “Beautiful Black Man” are examples of some of the more revolutionary poems of Giovanni’s early period. The two poems that show her at her most bitter point are “Poem (No Name No. 2)” and “The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro.” These poems point to Giovanni’s rejection of safe, comfortable middle-class values in favor of the revolutionary values associated with black liberation. These and other poems written in a similar vein brought Giovanni to the forefront of the Black Arts cultural revolution of the 1960’s, and she became one of its most ardent and celebrated spokespersons.
While Giovanni’s early poems tend to fall into the revolutionary category, from the beginning she has also been concerned with family, love, childhood, experiences, and friendship. Poems such as “Nikki-Rosa” and “Knoxville, Tennessee” speak of the importance of family but also insist on the importance of self-definition, another concern that is found often in Giovanni’s work. This self-definition, or concern for the individual, having been announced in the early collections and developed more fully in Gemini, is at the center of the 1972 collection My House and figures importantly in each subsequent work—most notably in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978) and Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983).
In her prose works, particularly the autobiographical statement Gemini and a later volume of miscellaneous essays titled Sacred Cows . . . and Other Edibles (1988), Giovanni employs the characteristic crisp, direct, simple language and the often playful style and conversational tone that are found in her poems. In fact, her poems are often so prosaic and her prose so poetic that if one were to hear instead of read Giovanni’s work, one would hardly be able to tell the difference in genre.
Whatever mode of expression Giovanni elects to use, the thing that is the most obvious is the artist’s sincerity. Giovanni not only believes in her ideas, but she also is fiercely committed to her craft; moreover, she wants her readers to believe and be committed as well. Thus, reading Giovanni is often like reading a big sister or a best friend—one trusts her judgment, shares her vision, and appreciates her wisdom and concern.
“The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro”
First published: 1968 (collected in Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement, 1970)
Type of work: Poem
The speaker in the poem challenges black people to reject complacency for revolution.
“The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro” challenges black people to reject their middle-class complacency and adopt an angry revolutionary spirit in the quest for liberation of the black community. The title establishes the polarization of opposing attitudes among black people during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s—on one hand, “Black,” or those of a more revolutionary bent and, on the other hand, “Negro,” or those with a more bourgeois mentality. Here Giovanni insists that the revolutionary approach is the only one that will guarantee a meaningful future for black youth, who will be the beneficiaries of their efforts to liberate the black community from domination and possibly annihilation.
How does one adopt a revolutionary stance? By becoming angry enough to kill, according to Giovanni, but while the possibility exists for literally killing someone, what she really means is killing in the sense of rejecting values, habits, and actions that have kept black people enslaved. These include certain religious practices, economic habits, and behavioral characteristics that black people must “kill” if they are to be free from continued oppression by the white majority.
The poem is effective in its badgering repetition of “Can You Kill”; similarly, the harsh, often revolting language underscores the urgency of the poet’s message, which she states succinctly in the last two lines: “Learn to kill niggers/ Learn to be Black men.”
First published: 1968 (collected in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1998, 2003)
Type of work: Poem
The poet reflects on what it means to grow up black.
“Nikki-Rosa,” like many of Giovanni’s poems, is full of the poet’s personal experiences. This poem talks about growing up black and the pleasures and pains inherent in the process. The poem was perhaps prompted by the tendency of white biographers of black people to point out only what seems to be wrong in black families and in black communities. The tone is reflective and critical but not bitter, although Giovanni very matter-of-factly observes that
I really hope no white person ever has causeto write about mebecause they never understand.
Giovanni flatly rejects white interpretations of black life because they come from different frames of reference with different values and simply are incapable of truly assessing what it is to grow up as a black child in a black family in a black community. Giovanni concludes:
Black love is Black wealth and they’llprobably talk about my hard childhoodand never understand thatall the while I was quite happy.
Here Giovanni establishes her reverence for black folk culture. Furthermore, in addressing a number of realities for poor people, ranging from alcoholism and domestic violence to having no indoor toilets to bathing in galvanized tubs, Giovanni asserts that “it isn’t poverty that concerns you/ . . . but only that everybody is together.” The theme of the communal nature of black communities as something to be celebrated and preserved resounds in much of Giovanni’s work.
First published: 1972 (collected in My House, 1972)
Type of work: Poem
The poet stresses individuality and self-expression.
“My House” is the title poem of Giovanni’s 1972 book of poems and concludes the collection with a forthright statement of the poet’s freedom to live by her own rules. Furthermore, she is willing and capable of accepting the responsibilities for her choices, as is clear when Giovanni asserts that “i run the kitchen/ and i can stand the heat.”
On the surface, “My House” seems to be hodge-podge, a haphazard collection of comments on everything from love to individuality to the inadequacy of the English language to express emotions. A more careful reading, however, uncovers a more conscious blend of seeming incongruent parts, akin to the quilting motif used in the poem, into a bold statement of independence. This concern for individual worth and self-expression that characterizes the poems in My House becomes even more pronounced in subsequent works, For example, in “My House,” Giovanni adopts a stance shared by many later feminists, that of challenging the idea of the male as name-giver. This challenge is evident when the speaker asserts:
i mean it’s my houseand i want to fry pork chopsand bake sweet potatoesand call them yams.
Precisely put, since this is her house, she will accept no compromise; thus, she asserts the validity of a female name-giver, and, by extension, the validity of an Afrocentric perspective in American culture (varieties of what are commonly called “sweet potatoes” in American culture are known as “yams” in African cultures). Here again, Giovanni offers a revolutionary interpretation of black life in the United States. She underscores this interpretation emphatically as she vows to
smile at old men and callit revolution cause what’s realis really real.
“My House” is one of Giovanni’s most popular poems and shows her at once at her most playful and most serious self.
“I Wrote a Good Omelet”
First published: 1983 (collected in Those Who Ride the Night Winds, 1983)
Type of work: Poem
The speaker is delightfully confused after a wonderful experience with love.
“I Wrote a Good Omelet” also shows Giovanni at her playful best. The speaker has had a spectacularly jolting encounter with love and has everything confused. She tells the reader, “I goed on red . . . and stopped on green . . . after loving you.” In short, things were never the same but were filled with ecstasy, passion, and delight.
Stylistically, “I Wrote a Good Omelet” is representative of the entire collection Those Who Ride the Night Winds. In this book, the poems are longer, more prosaic, and frequently punctuated with ellipses. Furthermore, they mark a continued growth in the poet, at once becoming more introspective and showing an even more pronounced spirit of the individual than previous poems.
First published: 1971
Type of work: Autobiography
Giovanni presents memories and observations of the first twenty-five years of her life.
Gemini, so titled because of the sign of the zodiac under which Giovanni was born, is subtitled An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet. As such, Gemini is not a strictly chronological autobiography in the usual sense; rather, it is a collection of carefully selected and arranged recollections and observations that helped her develop into the black revolutionary poet that she was at the time of its writing. Published when Giovanni was twenty-eight, most of the pieces had indeed been written several years earlier, when she reflected on having turned twenty-five.
The book is divided into thirteen sections and covers everything from a history of her grandparents, John Brown and Louvenia Watson, to an appreciation of actress, singer, and black icon Lena Horne to an appraisal of the early black novelist and short-story writer Charles Waddell Chesnutt to a review of a book on black music by black writer Phyll Garland that Giovanni finds severely limited. Through these comments, and especially in the last section, “Gemini—A Prolonged Autobiographical Statement on Why,” Giovanni grapples with various aspects of her thoughts and feelings in an attempt to explain and justify her stance as a revolutionary. She is never apologetic; rather, she speaks her mind very matter-of-factly in the characteristic Giovanni manner.
One important revelation in Gemini is her commitment to preserving family history. This is established in the first section of the book, “400 Mulvaney Street,” a short account of her maternal grandparents with a special emphasis on the grandmother, Louvenia Terrell Watson, herself something of a revolutionary, who influenced Giovanni tremendously. Giovanni intimates later in Gemini that her grandparents migrated to Knoxville, Tennessee, from Georgia to escape the consequences of her grandmother’s outspokenness, but as she reflects on how Mrs. Watson lived and died, Giovanni resolves that “Tommy, my son, must know about this. He must know we come from somewhere. That we belong.”
Another section of Gemini that is especially important is “Don’t Have a Baby till You Read This,” about Giovanni’s decision to have a child without being married and the accompanying responsibilities and adjustments. Family had always been important to Giovanni, and while she concluded that marriage was an unattractive prospect, she did want to experience motherhood—thus the decision to have a child, born Thomas Watson Giovanni in 1969. The numerous adjustments the entire family must make are often comic, but more important, Tommy becomes the absolute central focus of Giovanni’s life and occupies an important station in the larger family as well. Giovanni’s devotion to her son is admirable.
Gemini alternates between superficial observation and whimsical comment on one hand to deep philosophical analysis on the other. Like her poems, though, Gemini contains the same unquestionable sincerity, the same clarity of vision, and the same precision of statement. Most important, Gemini goes a long way toward explaining the revolutionary psyche and simplifying many of the artistic complexities of a fine poet.