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,...
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