Nikki Giovanni Giovanni, Nikki - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Black Judgement 1968

Black Feeling, Black Talk 1968

Re: Creation 1970

Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement 1970

The Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis 1970

Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children 1971

My House: Poems 1972

Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young Readers 1973

The Women and the Men 1975

Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day 1978

Vacation Time: Poems for Children 1980

Those Who Ride the Night Winds 1983

The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni 1995

The Sun Is So Quiet: Poems 1996

Other Major Works

Night Comes Softly: An Anthology of Black Female Voices [editor] (sketches) 1970

Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet (essays) 1971

Truth Is on Its Way (recording) 1971

A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni [with James Baldwin] (interviews) 1973

Like a Ripple on a Pond (recording) 1973

A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker [with Margaret Walker] (interviews) 1974

The Way I Feel (recording) 1975

Legacies: The Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (recording) 1976

The Reason I Like Chocolate (recording) 1976

Images of Blacks in American Culture: A Reference Guide to Information Sources [editor, with Jessie Carney Smith] (handbook) 1988

Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles (essays) 1988

Appalachian Elders: A Warm Hearth Sampler [editor, with Cathee Dennison] (sketches) 1991

Grand Mothers: A Multicultural Anthology of Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories About the Keepers of Our Traditions [editor] (reminiscences) 1994

Racism 101 (essays) 1994

Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking at the Harlem Renaissance Through Poems (essays) 1996

Suzanne Juhasz (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'A Sweet Inspiration … of My People': The Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni," in Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition, Harper and Row, 1976, pp. 144-75.

[In the following excerpt, Juhasz reads Giovanni's poetry as a record of her attempts to meld her roles as a black, a woman, and a poet by defining those roles "in terms of two primary factors … : power and love. "]

In 1972 I heard Gwendolyn Brooks read her poetry at Bucknell University, a small, private, expensive upper-middle-class school in central Pennsylvania. The Black Student Alliance had turned out in full force (some seventy-five people) to pay...

(The entire section is 6410 words.)

William J. Harris (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sweet Soft Essence of Possibility: The Poetry of Nikki Giovanni," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984, pp. 218-28.

[In the following essay, Harris regards Giovanni as "a good popular poet" whose work responds to the complex events of her time yet sometimes suffers from a lack of a more complete realization.]

Even though Nikki Giovanni has a large popular audience, she has not gained the respect of the critics. Michele Wallace calls her "a kind of nationalistic Rod McKuen"; Eugene Redmond claims her poetry "lacks lyricism and imagery"; Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) insists she lacks the sophistication of thought...

(The entire section is 3826 words.)

Nikki Giovanni with Claudia Tate (interview date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983, pp. 60-78.

[In the following interview, Giovanni discusses her work's development, considers the effects of race and gender on writing, and provides insight into her own creative process.]

Nikki Giovanni began her literary career as a poet in the late sixties during the so-called "Black Revolution," and much of her verse at that time encouraged social and political activism among Black Americans. Her later work also addresses contemporary issues, but the focus falls instead on human relationships rendered from the vantage point of a mother, a lover, and a women. Giovannni's language remains...

(The entire section is 8227 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Fowler, Virginia C. Nikki Giovanni. New York: Twayne, 1992, 192 p.

Substantial overview of Giovanni's poetry from its beginnings through Those Who Ride the Night Winds.

Giddings, Paula. "Nikki Giovanni: Taking a Chance on Feeling." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, pp. 211-17. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.

Overview of earlier work which critiques Those Who Ride the Night Winds as being overly-simplistic for the older Giovanni.

Giovanni, Nikki. "An Answer to Some Questions on How I...

(The entire section is 353 words.)