Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4171
From the beginning of her career, Nikki Giovanni has combined private with public concerns, and her development has been toward the exploration of the inner life of one black female—herself—as a paradigm for black women’s aspirations in contemporary America. An individualist who early admired Ayn Rand’s concept of rational self-interest, Giovanni has a unique black identity. Her example of self-actualization embodied in her poetry has been not only influential but also inspirational, especially to black youth.
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois expressed the dilemma of the black American writer—a double consciousness of being both an American and a black. Giovanni, however, has never felt this division. In Gemini, she asserts, “I’ve always known I was colored. When I was Negro I knew I was colored; now that I’m Black I know which color it is. Any identity crisis I may have had never centered on race.” The transition from Negro to black represents for her, as for Amiri Baraka and other adherents of the Black Consciousness movement, a transvaluation: black becomes a “sacrament.” It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, making a poetry reading a “service” and a play a “ritual.” Rather than a mask that prevents the inner man from being seen, as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), color becomes a sign of worth itself. In her early poems and pronouncements, Giovanni proves herself a true Gemini, dividing the world into mutually exclusive categories. Everything is literally black or white: “Perhaps the biggest question in the modern world is the definition of a genus—huemanity. And the white man is no hueman.” Her concerns, in her first two books of poems, like the audience she both addresses and represents, are exclusively black. Her early ideas about poetry are closely connected with her ideas about race. In her essay “The Weather as a Cultural Determiner,” she elaborates on the thesis that African Americans are naturally poets: Indeed “we are our own poems”: “Poetry is the culture of a people. We are poets even when we don’t write poems; just look at our life, our rhythms, our tenderness, our signifying, our sermons and our songs.” Her poems were originally composed for polemical, not lyrical, ends—for the black community: Poetry is “just a manifestation of our collective historical needs. And we strike a responsive chord because the people will always respond to the natural things.”
Throughout Giovanni’s poetry run two main themes, revolution and love—one destructive, the other creative. Even in her earliest verse, both strands are evident: only the emphasis shifts from the former to the latter. For example, in an early poem, “Detroit Conference of Unity and Art (For HRB),” the “most valid” of the resolutions passed “as we climbed Malcolm’s ladder” was “Rap chose me.” The revolution that she calls for in Black Judgement is, on one level, literal: In “Reflections on April 4, 1968,” the date of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., even her poetic structure collapses in the face of the need for violence:
What can I, a poor Black woman, do to destroy America? This is a question, with appropriate variations, being asked in every Black heart. There is one answer— I can kill. There is one compromise—I can protect those who kill. There is one cop-out—I can encourage others to kill. There are no other ways.
The revolution is also symbolic, striking out at the poisonous racial myths that have devalued blacks in America. In “Word Poem (Perhaps Worth Considering),” she writes: “as things be/come/ let’s destroy/ then we can destroy/ what we be/come/ let’s build/ what we become/ when we dream.” The destruction here is of values and attitudes, seemingly in accord with the statement in Gemini: “Nobody’s trying to make the system Black; we’re trying to make a system that’s human so that Black folks can live in it. This means we’re trying to destroy the existing system.” Giovanni’s poems attack the American political establishment in a sweeping, generalized way; her analysis is simple— exterminate the white beast. Her real contempt is directed toward “Negroes” still in the service of white America: “The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro” is “Can you kill/ Can you kill a white man/ Can you kill the nigger/ in you.” Her “Black Judgement” is upon “. . . niggerish ways.” Aware that with children lies the future, she urges in “Poem for Black Boys” new revolutionary games:
Ask your mother for a Rap Brown gun Santa just may comply if you wish hard enough Ask for CULLURD instead of Monopoly DO NOT SIT IN DO NOT FOLLOW KING GO DIRECTLY TO STREETS This is a game you can win.
Poetry of denial, vilification, and decreation (what she calls her “nigger-nigger” phrase) is essentially dead-ended; the main rhetorical problem of the new black poets was how to restore value to the black experience. Giovanni has accomplished such a restoration through the affirmation of her own life and the transforming power of poetry. In Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, “The Beep Beep Poem” has a “song of herself” almost like Walt Whitman’s:
i love the aloneness of the road when I ascend descending curves the power within my toes delights me and i fling my spirit down the highway i love the way i feel when i pass the moon and i holler to the stars i’m coming through
Such elation, however, is unusual. The tone of “Nikki-Rosa,” “Mothers,” and “Legacies” is more bittersweet. Giovanni gradually realized that writing itself creates value: She says in “Boxes,” “i write/ because/ i have to.” In the 1960’s, writing appeared to be a luxury: In “For Saundra,” she notes:
maybe i shouldn’t write at all but clean my gun and check my kerosene supply perhaps these are not poetic times at all.
In the 1960’s, poetry was to be a witness of the times—“it’s so important to record” (“Records”), but her poetry proved to be her house: My House shows her assimilation and transformation of the world into her castle. In “Poem (For Nina),” she begins by asserting that “We are all imprisoned in the castle of our skins,” though her imagination will color her world “Black Gold”: “my castle shall become/ my rendezvous/ my courtyard will bloom with hyacinths and jack-in-the-pulpits/ my moat will not restrict me but will be filled/ with dolphins. . . .” In “A Very Simple Wish,” she wants through her poetry to make a patchwork quilt of the world, including all that seems to be left behind by world history: “i’ve a mind to build/ a new world/ want to play.”
In My House, Giovanni began to exhibit increased sophistication and maturity. Her viewpoint had broadened beyond a rigid black revolutionary consciousness to balance a wide range of social concerns. Her rhymes had also become more pronounced, more lyrical, more gentle. The themes of family love, loneliness, and frustration, which Giovanni had defiantly explored in her earlier works, find much deeper expression in My House. Her change from an incendiary radical to a nurturing poet is traced in the poem “Revolutionary Dreams”: from dreaming “militant dreams/ of taking over america,” she
. . . awoke and dug that if i dreamed natural dreams of being a natural woman doing what a woman does when she’s natural i would have a revolution
This changed perspective accords with the conclusion of “When I Die”: “And if ever i touched a life i hope that life knows/ that i know that touching was and still is and will/ always be the true/ revolution.” Love and sex form the subject matter of many of her poems. She will “scream and stamp and shout/ for more beautiful beautiful beautiful/ black men with outasight afros” in “Beautiful Black Men” and propose “counterrevolutionary” sex in “Seduction” and “That Day”: “if you’ve got the dough/ then i’ve got the heat/ we can use my oven/ til it’s warm and sweet.”
This bold and playful manner, however, is usually modulated by the complications of any long-term relationship between men and women. While she explains in Gemini: “to me sex is an essence. . . . It’s a basic of human relationships. And sex is conflict; it could be considered a miniwar between two people,” marriage is “give and take—you give and he takes.” In “Woman,” her acknowledgment of the difficulty of a black man maintaining his self-respect in America has led to her acceptance of his failings: “she decided to become/ a woman/ and though he still refused/ to be a man/ she decided it was all/ right.”
Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day
The title poem of Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, like many others in the collection, bespeaks the tempering of her vision. When Giovanni published this volume, critics viewed it as one of her most somber works. They noted the focus on emotional ups and downs, fear and insecurity, and the weight of everyday responsibilities. The title poem tells of “the gray of my mornings/ Or the blues of every night” in a decade known for “loneliness.” Life is likened to nebulous cotton candy: “The sweet soft essence/ of possibility/ Never quite maturing.” Her attitude tired, her potential stillborn, she is unable to categorize life as easily as before, “To put a three-dimensional picture/ On a one-dimensional surface.”
One reason for her growth in vision seems to be her realization of the complexity of a woman’s life. The black woman’s negative self-image depicted in “Adulthood” was not solved by adopting the role of Revolutionary Black Poet. In “Woman Poem,” “Untitled,” “Once a Lady Told Me,” “Each Sunday,” and “The Winter Storm,” the women with compromised lives are other women. In “A Poem Off Center,” however, she includes herself in this condition: “maybe i shouldn’t feel sorry/ for myself/ but the more i understand women/ the more i do.” A comparison of “All I Gotta Do” (“is sit and wait”) to “Choice,” two poems alike in their subject matter and their syncopated beat, shows that a woman’s only choice is to cry.
Africa and black music
Two other themes in her poetry also ally Giovanni with the new black poets—Africa and black music. The romantic and exotic Africa of the Harlem Renaissance writers appears only in “Ego-Tripping,” where Africa is personified as a beautiful woman. Her own African experience has produced poems that give a balanced recognition of the African’s separate identity. In “They Clapped,” African Americans are treated like any other tourists and African life is seen realistically.
they stopped running when they learned the packages on the women’s heads were heavy and that babies didn’t cry and disease is uncomfortable and that villages are fun only because you knew the feel of good leather on good pavement.
Her conclusion—“despite the dead/ dream they saw a free future”—opens the way for a new hope in Africa: “i dream of black men and women walking/ together side by side into a new world/ described by love and bounded by difference.”
Black music forms the basis of many of her poems: Aretha Franklin emerges as her personal idol, lines from popular songs are woven into “Revolutionary Music” and “Dreams,” and several of her poems are based on traditional black American music. She has written a blues tune, “Master Charge Blues,” in which a modern woman lets her credit card cure her troubles, and a song that could be set to music, “The Only Song I’m Singing.”
The use of the ballad stanza in “On Hearing ’The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’” is effective in building a narrative about white and black art: The girl with flaxen hair gets a song; the black woman does not because her man is tired after working. Her most successful adaptation of musical form comes in “The Great Pax White,” which recalls gospel music. Here Pax Whitie (a bitter parody of the Pax Romana) is described first in an inversion of the words beginning Saint John’s gospel: The word “was death to all life.” Western history, its wars and brutality, is recounted with two alternating calls and responses: “ain’t they got no shame?” and “ain’t we got no pride?” Her historical account is heavily ironic:
So the great white prince Was shot like a nigger in texas And our Black shining prince was murdered like that thug in his cathedral While our nigger in memphis was shot like their prince in dallas.
The irony here and in other political poems, such as “Oppression,” would be directed in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day toward herself in “Being and Nothingness” and “The New Yorkers.”
As Giovanni’s poems turned toward human relationships, there was a marked increase in her lyricism and especially in her use of imagery, both decorative and structural. Her lover’s hands are compared to butterflies in “The Butterfly”; she feels like a falling leaf after a night of passion in “Autumn Poems”; getting rid of a lover is just so much “Housecleaning.” “Make Up” sustains the image of cosmetics to talk about the life of pretense that a woman must live. On the whole, her verse descends from William Carlos Williams and Hughes, but her voice is her own. While she is not a stylistic innovator, nor a stunning image-maker, she has an ingratiating style, one that proceeds from the energy of her personality, and an increasingly sure command of phrasing.
In “The Wonder Woman (A New Dream—for Stevie Wonder),” Giovanni reviewed her life up to 1971: “i wanted to be/ a sweet inspiration in my dreams/ of my people but the times/ require that i give/ myself willingly and become/ a wonder woman.” If her subsequent history has fallen short of this ideal, it is still her strong clear voice that one remembers after reading her poetry; her poems are ultimately the self-expression of a black woman who has discovered that “Black love is Black wealth” and who has brought many people, both black and white, to poetry.
Giovanni devoted a great deal of her writing to children’s poetry in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. She describes her writing for children as an opportunity to “share a bit of the past with children. Black kids deserve to hear their history. My kids books are serious but not dour.” Her movement toward this type of poetry reflected her time spent as a mother and enjoying her extended family. More than anything, the poems in her children’s collection Vacation Time showcased her growing lightness of spirit and inner stability. Similarly, Those Who Ride the Night Winds revealed a new and innovative form and brought forth Giovanni’s heightened self-knowledge and imagination. In Those Who Ride the Night Winds, she echoed the political activism of her early verse as she dedicated various pieces to Phillis Wheatley, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. A decade passed between the publication of Those Who Ride the Night Winds and her 1994 title Knoxville, Tennessee, a time during which she devoted energy to public causes and arts development, wrote essays, and contributed to edited texts.
The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni and Love Poems
During the 1980’s and the 1990’s—Giovanni’s “middle years”—her work continued to reflect her changing concerns and perspectives. The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, which spanned the first three decades of her career, was lauded by critics as a “rich synthesis [that] reveals the evolution of Giovanni’s voice and charts the course of the social issues that are her muses, issues of gender and race.”
Her collection titled Love Poems has an interesting pop-culture twist to it. Ever an unwavering supporter of Black youth, Giovanni was devastated by the murder of rap singer Tupac Shakur in 1997 and had the words “Thug Life” tattooed on her left forearm in his honor. She then dedicated Love Poems to Shakur. “A lover whose love was often misunderstood,” begins the dedication. Giovanni noted in an interview that she was frustrated with those who would confuse the message and the messenger:Rap is expressing the violence that’s there, and we weren’t even looking at that until rap came up and talked about it. It gave voice to the conditions that people are living under.
While there are somber, sociopolitical pieces here—the burning of black churches and the role of “gansta rap”—most of the poems find Giovanni upbeat and domestic. Most of the poems are about friendship and sexuality, children and motherhood, loneliness and sharing, “beautiful black men” and “our faith and our energy and loving our mamas and ourselves and the world and all the chances we took in trying to make everything better.” Her celebration of creative energy and the family spirit of African American communities dominates this collection.
As the twentieth century came to a close, readers found a bit of the younger, more political Giovanni in several of the poems of her collection Blues. While sociopolitical commentary in poetry often fails because it loses touch with humanity, Giovanni continues to keep focus on people: Here she spars with ills that confront Americans but places a human face on every struggle. A real estate developer is destroying the woodland adjacent to Giovanni’s home in preparation for a new housing development (“Road Rage”); a young basketball star (“Iverson”), harassed for his youth and style, finds a compassionate but stern sister in Giovanni; and President Bill Clinton is subject to Giovanni’s forthright opinions (“The President’s Penis”). Giovanni writes in this collection with an authority informed by experience and shared with heart-stealing candor.
Pop culture and pleasure find a place in the collection as well. She writes about tennis player Pete Sampras and her own tennis playing; pays tribute to Jackie Robinson, soul singer Regina Belle, the late blues singer Alberta Hunter, and Betty Shabazz, the late widow of Malcolm X. She also writes fondly of her memories of going to the ballpark with her father to see the Cincinnati Reds.
Her battle with illness is captured in “Me and Mrs. Robin,” which deals with Giovanni’s convalescence from cancer surgery and the family of robins she observed with delight and sympathy from her window. However, this gentle poem also revisits the real estate developer, who, the poem notes, has destroyed trees and “confused the birds and murdered the possum and groundhog.” As she identifies with an injured robin, Giovanni’s language invokes a gnostic cosmogony: God takes care of individuals; Mother Nature wreaks havoc left and right. “No one ever says ’Mother Nature have mercy.’ Mother nature don’t give a damn,” Giovanni says; “that’s why God is so important.”
The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1998
The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1998 provides the reader with a comprehensive portrait of a significant poet. The poems, spanning three decades, are arranged chronologically and serve as a testament to Giovanni’s growth as a poet and activist. In the interview by singer and poet Jill Scott included in this volume, Giovanni states, “The collection really shows my growth, my understanding. . . . [and] I want to keep growing.” The interview captures the unique, powerful voice of Giovanni, reinforcing her focus on African Americans as her inspiration. The poems in the collection are arranged chronologically. Other features include a biographical time line, annotations to the poems, and indexes of titles and first lines. The introduction by Virginia C. Fowler was published previously in The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni. This collection reveals the essence of the poet as insightful observer, viewing the endurance of African Americans through both a universal and personal lens.
Giovanni began writing Acolytes “with my feet propped on my [terminally ill] mother’s hospital bed.” She clearly identifies with the acolytes. Defining herself as a follower, she articulates the toll of loss and the importance of courage and faith. Moreover, she celebrates inspirational people, including civil rights leader Parks in “The Rosa Parks” and “The Seamstress of Montgomery” and poet Gwendolyn Brooks in “Remembering Gwen.”
With these eighty new poems and short prose pieces, she clearly provides connections within the literary canon of African American works through allusions to Brooks, Hughes, Baraka, and Richard Wright, among others. Always the Princess of Black Poetry, she reaffirms the connectedness among artists and revels in the ability to unite and inspire others. In “Paint Me Like I Am,” she encourages others to grow, to create: “We owe it to ourselves to re-create ourselves/ and find a different if not better way to live.”
With its twenty-seven prose pieces, the collection’s focus is on narration, with storytelling the primary strategy and gathering and inspiring people toward a common purpose the main goal. In the prose piece “We Gather,” she says, “We are gathered to fulfill a covenant . . . a vow. . . .” Each piece seems to amplify her views on writing, imprisonment, slavery, loss, and other poets. In one, she rejoices in domesticity because it brings about order as does poetry to language. In “Saturday Days,” she says that she likes housekeeping because order “brings peace and comfort.”
Giovanni uses personal insight and experiences to guide her writing, and her poems embody what she advises other writers, as stated in a 2000 interview: “The authority of the writer always overcomes the skepticism of the reader. If you know what you’re talking about, or if you feel that you do, the reader will believe you.” Whether it is preparing leaders, as described in “Sanity (To Be Continued),” or defining them, as in “A Library,” her authoritative voice shines through—and her readers believe her and in her.
In Bicycles, Giovanni uses a bicycle as a metaphor for love, which also “requires trust and balance.” She captures the diverse types of love, including romantic love, love between friends, and self-love. She also describes the loss of love, as in “A Substitute for You”: “I’m just saying/ What we had is gone// I need a substitute/ for you.” Through sixty-five poems, she identifies the dynamics of personal relationships and honestly and with humor chronicles their ups and downs.
A companion to Love Poems, this collection pairs bicycles—vehicles for movement and change—with love. “Bicycles,” the title poem, illustrates the metaphoric relationship in the lines: “Midnight poems are bicycles/ Taking us on safer journeys.” The concept of love as a journey is also depicted in “Letting the Air Out” (subtitled “Of My Tires”) and many other poems.
The sensual nature of romantic love is dramatized in “I Like the Dance.” The poem succinctly captures the sensual sway of love through dance, as in the “gentle sway” and “. . . the way I feel/ in your arms.” Similarly, in “Your Shower,” the persona, or poetic voice, moves over the body of the loved one with sexual intensity and playfulness: “Tickle my way/ Down to your lips.”
Equally important is self-love. As exemplified in several poems, including “Dinner at Nine” and “My Muse,” the importance of loving oneself is essential to happiness. In “Dinner at Nine,” by the way the solitary diner interacts with her surroundings, the focus is shown to be not on others, but on the woman diner herself, yet when her order is ready, the waiter appears confused: “When my order arrives/ The waiter doesn’t understand/ Why there is only/ me.” Giovanni is clearly comfortable in her position as poet, and “My Muse” confirms her delight in her role: “I am my own/ Muse.” She is her own inspiration without reservation and without conceit.
Love, however, is not without consequence or self-discovery. In “My Beer,” she identifies that love is not without conflict and strife: “If I could learn to like beer// I could change my life/ I’d have somewhere/ To put my tears/ When we fight.” In “Love (and the Meaning of Love),” she incorporates the way in which reasoning often precludes love: “I understood/ Why we shouldn’t// So you declined/ And we didn’t.” In “Deal or No Deal,” she infuses humor into the gambling nature of love by using pop culture, specifically an allusion to a popular game show. In fact, as the poem concludes, to play the game of love, one must be willing “To make a fool/ Of yourself.”
In her final poem of the volume, “We Are Virginia Tech,” she pays reverence to those killed in the April 16, 2007, shooting at the college where she has taught since 1987, and urges strength and courage for those who remain. The persistent repetition of the title phrase reinforces the importance of community. Ultimately, she challenges the college community to prevail, to be open to possibilities, “To invent the future// Through our blood and tears/ Through all this sadness.”