Nikki Giovanni 1943–
(Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni) American poet, essayist, children's author, and editor.
A strong yet controversial figure in American poetry, Giovanni came into prominence amid the social upheavals of the late-1960s and early-1970s. Though originally recognized mainly for its militant, revolutionary, Black-Power stance, Giovanni's poetry explores a full range of themes—from childhood and family to sexuality and romantic love—and draws images and rhythms from sources as varied as the Bible, hymns, rhythm-and-blues, jazz, popular music, and colloquial speech. Never quite becoming a manifesto, but being much more than mere reporting, Giovanni's poems are highly personal statements of rage and love, capable of tenderness, humor, and irony. Energetically individualistic—even to the point of contradiction—Giovanni's poetry attempts to transmit the voice of an active witness, a witness who not only observes but also creates—and is created by—life's changing circumstances.
Born to middle-class parents in Knoxville, Tennessee, Giovanni soon moved with her family to the predominantly black community of Lincoln Heights, Ohio. In her work, Giovanni typically portrays childhood as a positive experience, reflecting the fact that, in her various reminiscences, she remembers her own childhood as "groovy," a time spent in a nurturing environment with a supporting family. Growing up, Giovanni was especially devoted to, and spent a great deal of time with, her maternal grandmother, Louvenia Terrell Watson, a proud and outspoken woman who, early in her life, moved to Tennessee from her home in Albany, Georgia, fearing a possible lynching due to anti-white views she had expressed. Though assertiveness, pride, and a deep concern for the lives of women—the intellectual and emotional heirlooms Watson passed on to Giovanni—became consistent features in her poetry, Giovanni's social and political views—typified in her reading of the radical individualist, Ayn Rand, and in her support of Barry Goldwater—were generally conservative. These views underwent massive transformation during Giovanni's studies at Fisk University where Giovanni not only accepted the radicalism she encountered in some of her classmates, but she herself became active, spearheading the effort for the reinstatement of the campus chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Though she received her bachelor's degree in history, Giovanni also participated in the literary scene at Fisk, attending a creative writing workshop taught by
novelist John Oliver Killens and editing a campus literary magazine. In 1969, after further schooling and social and political activism, Giovanni took a teaching position at Rutgers University, and, following the immense success of her first two books, began giving readings and lectures on college campuses nationwide. This allowed her to engage in conversations with key figures in African-American literature, including James Baldwin and Margaret Walker. Giovanni has received many awards, including Mademoiselle's "Highest Achievement Award" and numerous honorary doctorates. Giovanni quickly came to be called "The Princess of Black Poetry." In 1969, Giovanni also gave birth to her son, Thomas, an event which—like the extensive travel Giovanni engaged in the early 1970's—some critics argue had a profound effect on her poems, broadening their scope, making them less angry and more domestic. Giovanni is currently a Professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Released during the late-1960s and early-1970s when the quest for civil rights and Black liberation was being supplanted by the drive for revolution and Black power, Giovanni's early volumes of poetry—Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968), Black Judgement (1968), and Re: Creation (1970)—gained immediate recognition and notoriety for their overtly militant, revolutionary content and tone; however, these volumes also include intimate poems of joy and of sorrow, hinting at thematic and emotive possibilities which grow and develop in subsequent volumes. Life changes, especially the birth of her son, and intensified introspection brought about by work on the autobiographical essays of Gemini (1971), led Giovanni to My House (1972), a volume which highlights the existence of a private and as well as a public, political life. Written mostly as lyrical monologues from various personae, the poems of My House are divided into two sections: "The Rooms Inside," which focuses on personal relationships, and "The Rooms Outside," which focuses on people as they struggle in physical and emotional realms outside of the homelike and familial. The Women and the Men (1975) continues Giovanni's interest in relationships, but also signals an increased, conscious interest in revisiting and revising her own past, including her earlier, militant tendencies. Giovanni's work finally goes full circle, for although remembrance becomes elegy in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978), a volume focusing on the missed possibilities and the transitory nature of life, many of the poems in Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) manage to tap out in a new form—short paragraphs punctuated with ellipses—meditative lyrics praising those who, like Giovanni, took risks and sought change.
Although it was immensely popular when it first appeared, Giovanni's poetry has long been a subject of much critical dispute. Even though early critics—very often supporters of Black liberation and/or Black power movements—generally liked Giovanni's poetry even in spite of what some saw as political naivete or narrowness, they increasingly were alienated by what was perceived to be Giovanni's gradual shift from the political to the romantic; however, critics without a direct stake in the social movements of the 60s and 70s generally praised what they perceived to be the increased scope and humanity Giovanni's poems from the mid-70s. Artistically, although critics acknowledge the fact that Giovanni has composed some strong, lyrical poems, many believe the poems suffer from not following through, from not attaining a full-enough realization. More recent criticism attempts to make way for new readings of Giovanni's work by freeing her writing from outmoded political contexts and oppressive aesthetic assumptions.