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SOURCE: "New Black Poetry: A Double-Edged Sword," in CLA Journal, Vol. XV, No. 1, September, 1971, pp. 37-43.
[In the following essay, Bell analyzes African-American poetry, discussing its influences and its agenda.]
Perhaps the most phenomenal cultural development in the nation during the 1960's was the renaissance in Afro-American art, especially poetry. Naturally this development, like the Vietnam War, did not come about overnight nor in a social vacuum. Rather, it was an outgrowth of the cultural frustrations and political exigencies of black Americans in their struggle for self-determination if not their very survival. More specifically, it was directly related to LeRoi Jones' baptism in blackness and his remarkable achievements in drama and poetry.
As early as 1962 in "The Myth of Negro Literature" Jones had lashed out at black writers for imitating "the useless ugly inelegance of the stunted middle-class mind," an updated version of Richard Wright's 1937 animadversions in "Blueprint for Negro Literature." But it is in subsequent poems like "Black Dada Nihilismus," "Black Art," and his third volume of verse, Black Magic: Collected Poetry 1961–1967, that Jones actually begins blazing the path toward a new aesthetic and a new nation, the frequently avowed goals of most contemporary Afro-American poets. But LeRoi Jones was not the only force responsible for the direction and flowering of recent black poetry. In 1965–1966 John O. Killens's writing workshops and conferences in New York and Tennessee provided the forum; Hoyt Fuller's 1966–1967 joint sponsorship of the OBAC writers of Chicago (the late Conrad Kent Rivers and Gerald McWhorter were the other co-sponsors) and his editorial policy in Black World (formerly Negro Digest) offered the popular vehicle; Dudley Randall's extraordinarily successful Broadside Press, founded in 1966, the commercial outlet; and Gwendolyn Brooks, the artistic encouragement necessary to foster a revolutionary generation of talented, race-conscious black poets.
Because of their scathing indictment of anything considered detrimental to the advancement of black people, some critics believe that the generating spirit of these new black poets is hatred. But I submit that their hatred is a valid though increasingly ineffective poetic stance and that on a deeper level the new black poetry is rooted in a love of black people and an affirmation of life. "You see," says poet Don Lee in the Negro Digest, "black poetry will not, necessarily, teach the people how to die, but will teach the people how to live. We must live, we must show those who control the world how to live. Re-define man and put man in his proper perspective in relation to other men and to the world." It is this tension between hatred and love, life and death that constitutes much of the vitality of the new black poetry.
This brings us to the central question of this essay: just how revolutionary is the new black poetry? In a sense, the Black Consciousness poets are bearers of the legacy of the New Negro movement of the twenties and, at the same time, rebels without a past. Generally speaking, the giants of the New Negro movement—James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown—turned to Africa and Afro-American folklore as well as England for a sense of tradition. In the immediate background of that movement were the Pan-African Congresses convened by W. E. B. Du Bois, the pioneering studies on Africa by Carter G. Woodson, and the Back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey. Equally important in giving impetus and direction to young black artists of the era was Dr. Alain Locke, a professor of philosophy at Howard University. Literary historians have...
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come to view his anthology,The New Negro (1925), as the manifesto of the movement. Containing essays by black and white scholars as well as representative selections of creative writing by young Afro-Americans, The New Negro celebrates what Professor Locke optimistically considered "the attainment of a significant and satisfying new phase of group development" by Americans of African descent.
As in the Black Consciousness movement of the sixties, the acknowledged standard bearers of the New Negro movement were the poets. Following the appearance of Jean Toomer's poetic novel in 1923, books of black poetry began pouring from the presses: Cullen's Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), Caroling Dusk (1927) and Black Christ and Other Poems (1929); Hughes' The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927); Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and God's Trombones (1927); and Brown's Southern Road (1932). The avowed intention of most New Negro artists was to write honestly—to explore, not to exploit the roots of Afro-American culture. But many of their white admirers were more interested in the exotic qualities of their work. As a result, the young black poets soon found themselves impaled on the horns of a dilemma. On one side were the white patrons and publishers encouraging them to highlight the primitiveness of Harlem life, while on the other were members of the black gentility frequently condemning them for not using their talents to portray the intellectual and social parity of the race.
At this point, it is important to remember that the thrust of the Harlem movement, as Robert Hayden has stated in the Introduction to the Atheneum reprint of The New Negro, was "more aesthetic and philosophical … than political." Langston Hughes in his well-known essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," forcefully addresses himself to this issue:
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
Toward the achievement of this freedom of expression and faith in the future, the contests and prizes sponsored by the Crisis and Opportunity, the journals of the NAACP and Urban League, were of invaluable service.
During the Depression, the Harlem Renaissance came to a close. In retrospect, the primary accomplishment of the literary movement of the twenties was to provide a national showcase for a newly awakened sense of racial pride. In the absence of a formal organization or literary school, the black poets of the day found a common bond in their race-consciousness and desire to become their own image-makers. A close examination of their poetry reveals 1) a nostalgic interest in Africa, 2) a rediscovery and reevaluation of black folk values, 3) the elevation of members of the black masses, especially the working class, as heroes, and 4) the introduction and validation of the blues, jazz, ballads, sermons and black idiom as poetic material. This is the literary legacy that the present generation of black poets has inherited. And a quick glance at the poems of LeRoi Jones, Don Lee, A. B. Spellman, Sonia Sanchez, Carolyn Rodgers, Nikki Giovanni and David Henderson confirms the current interest in Africa, Afro-American music, and the urban black idiom.
On the other hand, a serious study of the new black poetry gives evidence of an unprecedented revolutionary fervor and commitment to the concept of art as weapon. "We want 'poems that kill'," says Jones in "Black Art." "… Clean out the world for virtue and love, / Let there be no love poem written / until love can exist freely and clearly…. / We want a black poem. And a / Black World." The sound and sense of this poem is clear. Black art must be a double-edged sword: the instrument of the Day of Judgment and the new Black Jerusalem. Written back around the time of the Harlem conflagration, "Black Art" is a chillingly effective frontal attack on the myth that white is right. More importantly, in stripping away the sham of outmoded academic poetic conventions and challenging the primacy of Western values, it helped to liberate the minds and voices of many new black poets.
Looking neither to white critics nor posterity for fame and fortune, these poets raise their voices in song for the black man on the street. Their spirits have been tempered by the eloquent defiance and charisma of Malcolm X, the self-reliance and religious faith of the Nation of Islam, the rising star of the independent nations of Africa and the incisive psychological studies on the nature of oppression by Frantz Fanon. Their aesthetic theories and the rudiments of their craftsmanship have been developed in the writing workshops of John Oliver Killens, Hoyt Fuller, LeRoi Jones, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Their poems, essays and fiction are published by small black presses like Broadside, Third World and Jihad and appear in the pages of the Journal of Black Poetry, Black World, Black Expression, Nommo, Black Dialogue and Liberator. In contrast to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, they are largely supported by the grass-roots elements of black urban communities in Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, New York and Newark. For instance, Don Lee has published his four books of poetry exclusively with black presses without advertising in the mass media yet his sales hover around the 100,000 mark. For these economic and political reasons as well as those related to their preoccupation with racial themes the most popular new poets are members of the Black Consciousness movement.
The service that Alain Locke's anthology performed for the New Negro movement, LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal's Black Fire (1968) accomplished for the Black Consciousness movement. A collection of essays, poems, short stories and plays by over seventy black writers, Black Fire is, as its book jacket states, "a naked indictment of American prejudice and a flaming prophecy of future turmoil … addressed primarily to black people and the Third World of Africa, Asia and Latin America." At the same time, Black Fire is a soul-bearing "search for a definition of the black sensibility" and an expression of love for black people.
Most of the new black poetry, then, is a celebration of blackness, both physical and spiritual. In "my beige mom," for instance, Ed Spriggs sings of his "tall, strong-boned / beige & bruised" mother, whose inherited strength he lays "at the third world's door." In the title poem of Mari Evans' I Am A Black Woman the black woman speaker looms majestically "tall as a cypress" in defiance of historical circumstances, proudly proclaiming to the world: "Look / on me and be / renewed." The symbolic strength of the black matriarch is also the redemptive force of Lance Jeffers' "My Blackness is the Beauty of this Land," but this time the central figure is a "drawling black grandmother" whose love and hate "shall civilize this land" and be its salvation. In "to all sisters" Sonia Sanchez strikes a different chord as she croons "there ain't / no MAN like a / black man. / he puts it where it is / and makes u / turn in / side out." And for the girl whose Afro "without words speaks of black and blues and boogaloo" Bob Bennet says, "(She is my sister: I am her brother) / Without romance there is love."
And so it goes, with older poets like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall, Margaret Walker and Mari Evans influencing and being influenced by the looser style and self-assertiveness of the younger generation of prophets of a new world order. The sections on "The Blackstone Rangers" in Miss Brooks' In the Mecca and "A Black Oneness, A Black Strength" in Miss Evans' I Am A Black Woman immediately come to mind as exquisite examples of the new wine of Black Consciousness in the old bottles of traditional yet more relaxed forms. Moreover, in such memorable lines as Lucille Clifton's "My Mama moved among the days / like a dreamwalker in a field," Audre Lorde's "Earth is still sweet, for autumn teachers bearing / And new sun will warm our proud and cautions feet," and Etheridge Knight's "I do not expect the spirit of Penelope / To enter your breast, for I am not mighty / Or fearless …" we discover poetic sensibilities that are as refreshingly responsive to the human soul as those of their literary progenitors.
Thus, contrary to the opinion of some older critics, the new black poets do not march in lock step to the same revolutionary tune. More important than the obscenity, name-calling, guns and bombs of the new black poetry is its Soul Power. Soul, writes Lerone Bennett in The Negro Mood, is
a distinct quality of Negro-ness growing out of the Negro's experience and not his genes. Soul is a metaphorical evocation of Negro being as expressed in the Negro tradition. It is the feeling with which an artist invests his creation, the style with which a man lives his life. It is, above all, the spirit rather than the letter: a certain way of feeling, a certain way of expressing oneself, a certain way of being.
This is the potent black myth that energizes the slender volumes of verse by Don Lee, Carolyn Rodgers, Nikki Giovanni, Keorapetse W. Kgositsile and a host of other black poets. This does not mean that they have all mastered their craft or that they all strive for the same levels of black consciousness. They are all committed to the struggle for black liberation, yet differences in emphasis and approach characterize their best poems. From the subtle touch of Mari Evans to the hard-hitting street idiom of Sonia Sanchez, we see the handwriting on the wall and hear the trumpeting voices of prophets of a new world order. Ironically, the techniques of new black poetry that some critics decry as gimmickry and others consider exclusively black in origin—unconventional capitalization, line and word spacing, abbreviations, unclosed parentheses and quotation marks, esoteric images and the like—are actually derivative of E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson á la LeRoi Jones. But regardless of whether they self-consciously turn to Western or African sources, these mythmakers and visionaries of a better tomorrow should be heard in full. Then and only then can we meaningfully evaluate the role they have played in broadening the scope of poetry, revitalizing the American language and bringing about a spiritual if not political regeneration of the nation.
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Nikki Giovanni 1943–
(Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni) American poet, essayist, autobiographer, editor, and author of children's books.
The following entry presents an overview of Giovanni's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 19, and 64.
One of the premier twentieth-century African-American poets, Giovanni achieved such popularity in the 1960s that she has become known as "The Princess of Black Popularity." Gaining fame with her revolutionary poetry in Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968) and Black Judgement (1968), Giovanni built on this popularity through readings of her work set to gospel music, and even issued several recordings. Throughout her career, Giovanni has produced strongly oral poems, employing blues rhythms and conversational language. She has focused on themes of family, blackness, womanhood, and sex. In addition, she has written numerous essays and several critically acclaimed children's books.
Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943. Her family soon moved to Lincoln Heights, Ohio, a predominantly black community. Her happy childhood, spent in part with her grandparents in Tennessee, became a major theme of Giovanni's poetry. At the age of seventeen she entered Frisk University but was asked to leave for a rules infraction. She returned in 1964 and pursued a degree in History while participating in many university activities, including the creative writing workshop led by novelist John Oliver Killens. Out of her political protest experiences of the 1960s, Giovanni wrote her first two volumes of poetry Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement. In 1968 Giovanni accepted a teaching position at Rutgers University. About this time she also gave birth to a son. Throughout the 1970s Giovanni shifted the focus of her writing away from revolutionary politics and towards personal observations and domestic experiences. She published her first children's book Spin a Soft Black Song in 1971. She won the Mademoiselle outstanding achievement award in 1971, the Ladies' Home Journal Woman of the Year Youth Leadership Award in 1972, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973 for Gemini (1971), and won the Langston Hughes Award in 1996.
Giovanni gained widespread popularity during the 1960s for her revolutionary poems in Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement, two works which feature rhythmic, often angry verse. One of Giovanni's best-known poems, "The True Import of the Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro," is a call to African Americans to destroy both the whites who oppress them and blacks whose passivity and compliance contribute to their own oppression. "Nikki Rosa," from Black Judgement, which recounts Giovanni's childhood, is often considered the author's signature poem. Affectionately recalling her supportive family, the poet asserts that happiness is dependent on love, not material possessions, and this love is the staple of unity within the black community. Both of these works were well received both critically and publicly, launching Giovanni's career as a noted American poet. Giovanni's next two works, Re:Creation (1970) and Gemini (1971) reflected more personal themes and observations and mark a significant transition in Giovanni's style. The poems, influenced by Giovanni's love of rhythm and blues music, are less angry, reflecting black experience from a personal viewpoint rather than the collective movement. In her 1972 collection, My House, Giovanni depicted personal and public lives as complementary forces working together toward change. Giovanni shifts from this focus on society to themes of isolation in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978). Poems such as "The Rose Bush" are somber and bleak observations about estrangement and dislocation. Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) features tributes to various historical figures such as John Lennon, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. In addition, Giovanni has published several volumes of children's poetry which is at times angry, poignant, and humorous.
Critics praised Giovanni's early work for its raw emotions, energy, and her commitment to black issues. However, with her publication of Re:Creation and then Gemini, formerly enthusiastic critics questioned her shift from political to personal. Critics such as Ruth Rambo McClain felt that she had abandoned the black movement. However, other critics praised the work, noting that Giovanni appeals to an audience who feels disconnected with the more radical and violent protest poetry and that her work still reflects the black experience, albeit from a more personal side. Margaret McDowell argues that critics have misunderstood Giovanni's work, stating that Giovanni "has tended to focus on a single individual, situation, or idea, often with a brief narrative thread present in the poem." Martha Cook writes, "[t]he best of [Giovanni's] poetry throughout her career has been concrete, with references to specific places, rooms, furniture, people, colors, quantities of light and dark." Cook argues that Giovanni is less successful when her poetry is more abstract. While Giovanni's emphasis on orality and the sound of language in her poetry has earned her considerable attention, some critics have questioned whether the emphasis on rhythms have undermined the structure of her poems. Criticizing Cotton Candy, William J. Harris writes, "Giovanni is a frustrating poet … She clearly has talent that she refuses to discipline. She just doesn't seem to try hard enough." He argues she is too dependent on her strong personality and ego. Other critics, however, such as Duffy, argue that this strong persona gives strength to her works.
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SOURCE: "Hustler and Fabulist," in Time, Vol. 99, No. 3, January 17, 1972, pp. 63-4.
[In the following review of Gemini, Duffy argues that Giovanni has crafted both a memoir and a manifesto about her life.]
I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they'll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.
These proud words come from Nikki Giovanni's best-known poem, Nikki-Rosa. At 28, she is one of the most talented and promising black poets. She is also one of the most visible, not only because she is beautiful but because she is a shrewd and energetic propagandist. In this interim autobiography, both poet and propagandist underscore that point about black love and happiness. Part memoir and part manifesto, it is a plain-spoken, lively, provocative, confusing book.
The memoir part deals with growing up in a tightly knit, loyal family of social workers in Cincinnati and Knoxville. As a child she had two idols, her glamorous older sister Gary and her grandmother Louvenia. Nikki did all Gary's fighting for her for the excellent reason that Gary was a musician who argued that if her hands were "maimed," the families of her music teachers might starve. Protecting Louvenia was a harder assignment. Nikki's childhood ended the day she realized that her grandmother was dying. Uprooted from her old house by a spurious urban-renewal scheme in Knoxville, Louvenia had lost the will to live. She was "gone, not even to a major highway but to a cutoff of a cutoff."
On the subject of her childhood, Miss Giovanni is magical. She meanders along with every appearance of artlessness, but one might as well say that Mark Twain wrote shaggy-dog stories. The little figure in the center—"big, brown eyes, three pigtails and high-top shoes"—is a classic American child, pelting rocks at her enemies from the roof, lining up for all-day movies, eating her liverwurst on raisin bread with mayonnaise.
The later chapters are less autobiography than polemic. The tone swings wildly from bitterness to defiance, from humor to cant, from wisdom to frenzy. The gentlest statement about whites is that "all white people need to be taken out of power, but they all clearly are not evil." The only white leaders to whom any quarter is offered are the dead Kennedy brothers and John Lindsay.
If Nikki Giovanni has ever suffered personally from the color of her skin, she does not admit it. An honor graduate of Fisk (in history) who nearly went into social work too, she has instead taught creative writing at Rutgers and become a major figure in the black oral poetry movement. Hers is a committed social rage. She is capable of scalding rhetoric, but the artist in her keeps interrupting. For one thing, she is a natural fabulist. A tirade on colonialism turns into a series of irresistible parables about the wise and natural black man faced with the petty, scheming honky. Also, she cares too much about language not to kid her own fire breathing, at least occasionally: "I'm essentially a hustler because I'm essentially Black American and that carries essentially a hustling mentality (if you can essentially follow that)."
One feels that Gemini will not be her last autobiography. For one thing, she is determined to keep publishing. One of her few deep criticisms of a black is directed at Novelist Ralph Ellison, because he has published no novel since The Invisible Man in 1952. "He can put us down and say we are not writers, who are persistently exposing our insides and trying to create a reality."
That is Nikki Giovanni's approach. She keeps sending out bulletins—in poetry, prose, children's books—whether they are neat or messy, rash or reasoned. But one senses a dynamic intelligence behind the shrillest page of Gemini. It is a report about a life in progress that demands to be seen.
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Black Feeling, Black Talk (poetry) 1968Black Judgement (poetry) 1968Night Comes Softly: An Anthology of Black Female Voices (editor) 1970Re:Creation (poetry) 1970Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Children (poetry) 1971Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet (autobiography) 1971Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children (poetry) 1971My House (poetry) 1972A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikkt Giovanni (essays) 1973A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (essays) 1974The Women and the Men (poetry) 1975Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (poetry) 1978Vacation Time: Poems for Children (poetry) 1980Those Who Ride the Night Winds (poetry) 1983Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles (essays) 1988Racism 101 (autobiographical essays) 1994The Genie in the Jar (poetry) 1996The Sun Is So Quiet: Poems (poetry) 1996Love Poems (poetry) 1997
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SOURCE: "A Tree Grows in Print," in New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1974, p. 38.
[In the following review, Rosenberg praises Giovanni's style and skill in Ego-Tripping.]
In a previous book, Spin a Soft Black Song, Miss Giovanni used warm, unaffected language to describe being young and black. In Ego-Tripping, which has George Ford's illustrations reflecting strength and good feeling, the poems are directed at older readers able to handle heavier subjects and more ambitious poetry. Several are familiar from anthologies and previous works while others are published here for the first time. They are sly and seductive, freewheeling and winsome, tough, sure and proud. Miss Giovanni pursues both personal and cultural matters: loneliness, private dreams, love and survival, all with a boundless enthusiasm for the essences of black life. In the best poems, language and spirit rebound and join forces. The title poem is a celebration of African heritage and modern dignity.
I was born in the congo I walked to the fertile crescent and built the sphinx I designed a pyramid so tough that a star that only glows every one hundred years falls into the center giving divine perfect light I am bad
She can chide herself for "radical dreams," joke about more common ones, admit with wry humor
… as i grew and matured i became more sensible and decided i would settle down and just become a sweet inspiration
Throughout the book Miss Giovanni shares her razor-sharp perceptions with energy and passion.
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SOURCE: "My House," in Essence, Vol. 12, No. 4, August, 1981, pp. 84-8.
[In the following essay based on an interview with Giovanni, Stokes remarks on Giovanni's home and family.]
"Now don't expect to find me in a fancy mansion," Nikki Giovanni said when told the Essence crew was on its way to Cincinnati to share a day in her busy life. "But if you want someone who lives like everyone else, then you're coming to the right place."
We couldn't imagine Nikki's house as anything less than wonderful. Sure, she lives in an average, middle-class Black community called Lincoln Heights. And yes, her house looks much like others on her block; it's nice, although in passing one wouldn't look twice. But once inside you feel there's a lot of care and love in this house. One of Nikki's poems does say that Black love is Black wealth. Our expectations were confirmed.
But what's Nikki Giovanni doing in Cincinnati: She recalls that once when she was washing her car a brother recognized her and asked in amazement, "Nikki Giovanni? What're you doing here?" Her reply: "Washing my car. Want to help?"
The true answer to his question lies deep in the love Nikki has for her family. Three years ago, after her father had a stroke, Nikki and her son, Thomas, moved from New York City to be with her parents.
"The stroke was so serious that there was some question as to whether he was going to live," Nikki explains. "I thought, 'If he dies, somebody's going to have to be here with my mother. If he doesn't, somebody's going to have to be here with him.' So the decision wasn't difficult and didn't bother me. I like New York but I don't feel like 'Oh God, I've made this great sacrifice for these people.' If I did I wouldn't have come." Nikki's father is now convalescing in California with Nikki's older sister, Gary. And Nikki is enjoying living in her old hometown.
The day we spent with Nikki, she had just returned from a 90-day lecture tour. Yet the hectic pace had not diminished her energy one bit. She washed clothes, answered correspondence, took her latest memorabilia went to the framer, went to the bookstore, the cleaners and the post office. When 11-year-old Tommy came home from school, she played football with him, then cooked dinner.
Most days she works on a new volume of poetry and a book of "nonpoetic faction." She also writes free-lance for newspapers and magazines. "I'm a writer that likes to be topical," she explains. "Some poems are topical, but the nature of poetry is not topical; it's emotional. So I like journalism too. I'm not very good at who, what, when, where and how; I'm more interested in discussing 'What does it really mean?'"
One writing obligation Nikki doesn't overlook is answering her loads of mail. She comments that she often gets requests to provide more information about her poems. Not one to live in the past by explaining how or why she wrote her poems, Nikki says, "I'm not the critic. If I have to give information that will enable someone to write a critique, then I should write the critique. And if I have to write the critique, then I've failed in 14 books to make a statement."
"I don't think I have to backtrack," she adds. "I definitely stand behind all my poems. There's not one that I can say I regret. My poetry is as much a part of me as kindergarten—I'm not denying it, but I'm not going back."
She has gone back to living in her parents home, however, and that has required some adjustments. "No matter what the situation is or what the financial arrangements are you are always their child," she says. "If you're in your parents' house or they're in yours, it's still a parent-child relationship. When I get tired of being a child, I go to the small apartment I maintain in New York. But essentially, I don't have any problems living with my parents."
Actually, Nikki has made a special place for herself, a kind of apartment, right in her parents' basement. It's a gold mine of wall-to-wall bookshelves, Afro-American memorabilia and antique furniture. The books and records are in alphabetical order. The memorabilia is framed and hung or neatly displayed. Everything is organized and has its own place. When Nikki describes how the basement used to look, with a large cocktail bar and room for dancing, the renovation seems especially astounding.
"I like to do renovations," Nikki says, sitting in her library retreat. "So I looked around this house and thought. 'Well, we have a lot to do here.' I thought it would take about a year. It turned out to be a three-year job."
The project took longer than she had anticipated because the workers she called were slow to start. "In Manhattan, if you call for something you get it right away," she explains. "I called here and the guy said. 'Well, I'll have to call you back in about a week.' The slowness took an adjustment." As a result, Nikki took on many of the jobs herself. "I have a girlfriend who's forever in awe of me because of the things that I do" she says, smiling. "I'm amazed that women sit around and don't do things, saying. "I have to wait on my husband.'"
In her renovation, Nikki considered the needs of everyone living in the house. "I wanted to make a home that everyone could function in. My father likes to sit on the front porch and holler at his neighbors, so we made the front porch larger. I took the garage and turned it into a gazebo for Tommy and his good friend Brian. Since they're into records now, in the summer I put a record player in the driveway and they dance outside. I like to barbecue and sit in the backyard, so I put up an awning. And so that I wouldn't have to walk my dogs, I built a fence for them to have the run of the yard. I've enjoyed playing with the house. It's fun."
As Nikki talks about the birthday party she threw for her father, the small field she's clearing for her son and his friends to play soccer and the relationship between her mother and Tommy, a smile of satisfaction crosses her face.
"I don't think I have a lifestyle," she says, turning serious. "I have a life. It's not a style. Lifestyles are transitory. For example, one moved to Paris if one happened to be a Black artist in the thirties or forties. Or one moved to California in the late fifties, early sixties. I'm sure that's charming, but that's not what I am about. I'm about my life."
Nikki's life doesn't include role playing or following a formula. "I'm not into roles," she states firmly. "When I lecture, the kids keep asking, 'What's the role of the woman? What's the role of this or that?' This is no job. This is our life. It's reality, and I think you do what has to be done. Some people wait for the sink to be fixed, because, after all, they're a woman and they don't do that. That means nothing. Working together to build a common homestead—that works.
"I think all the concern about the family in the eighties is slightly overblown," Nikki adds. "Or maybe I'm in an awkward position because I am personally fond of my family. I think we get along—although not without effort. I mean, a family member's like any other friend. That's where people miss. They expect a family to take the worst of them and their friends to get the best. They don't work at a good relationship. I think familial relationships are very delicate and should be treated as you would any other love affair.
"I've been seeing articles that ask, What's causing the breakup of the family? Well, it's not surprising it's breaking up—the nuclear family doesn't work. Many of us are divorced already. Many of us will be stepparents. Some of us will rear our brothers or live with aunts and uncles. Some of us are adopted. And we make this big deal. 'Oh, this is a different child. It's adopted.' If you tell me you're family, I take your word for it."
Nikki lives by her philosophy. It was her choice 11 years ago to have a baby and not marry the child's father. To her, the concept of extended family is real. And even though her parents have been married 43 years, she's not interested in living her life based on theirs.
"I don't think anybody should stay on the job that long. Just for the exercise of it there should be a separation. I'm glad my parents like each other.
"I just think that we're responsible for our own happiness." Nikki adds that one way to start being responsible is to change the wording of the marriage ceremony toward an equitable living situation. "In the old days," she muses, "it was 'I now pronounce you gender and role.'"
"This is not my soapbox," she adds. "I'm not saying that I won't wake up ten years down the pike and say, I really think I want to get married.' I'll be as happy to get married as I am to be single now."
i mean i want to keep you warm and my windows might be dirty but it's my house and if i can't see out sometimes they can't see in either i'm saying its my house and i'll make fudge and call it love and touch my lips to the chocolate warmth and smile at old men and call it revolution cause what's real is really real and i still like men in tight pants cause everybody has some thing to give and more important need something to take and this is my house and you make me happy so this is your poem
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Review of Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles. The Antioch Review 46, No. 3 (Summer 1988): 397.
States that Giovanni covers many subjects in a variety of tones.
Buchanan, Carol. Review of Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, edited by Nikki Giovanni. Voya 19, No. 4 (October 1996): 229-30.
Remarks favorably on the collection and praises Giovanni's commentary.
Cook, William W. "The Black Arts Poets." In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini and Brett C. Millier, pp. 674-706. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Describes Giovanni's role within the modern black poetry movement.
Cotter, James Finn. Review of Those Who Ride the Night Winds, by Nikki Giovanni. The Hudson Review XXXVII, No. 3 (Autumn 1984): 499-500.
Unfavorable review of Giovanni's poetry in Those Who Ride the Night Winds.
Millar, Neil. "Dancing Poetry, Chantable Verse." Christian Science Monitor 66, No. 110 (1 May 1974): F5.
Reviews Ego Tripping and argues that while the poems are original and zesty, some are full of hatred.
Ostriker, Alicia. "Of Being Numerous." Partisan Review XXXIX, No. 2 (Spring 1972): 270-75.
Discusses the revolutionary nature of the poems in Black Feeling, Black Talk, and Black Judgement.
Smith, Dale Edwyna. "The Mother Tongue." Belles Lettres 10, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 68-70.
Reviews the work of several African-American writers and praises Giovanni's Racism 101.
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SOURCE: "A MELUS Interview: Nikki Giovanni," in MELUS, Vol. 9, No. 3, Winter, 1982, pp. 61-75.
[In the following interview, Giovanni discusses her travels to Africa, the role of the writer in society, and writers she admires.]
Throughout her career, Nikki Giovanni's poetry has been valued, at least in part, as a touchstone to the latest political and artistic ideas in Black American writing. She, however, never considered herself a spokesperson for any group. She says she is a "we" poet whose work might reflect the thoughts of others but judges it the height of "arrogance" to assume one is the "voice" of a people; people, she is confident, can speak perfectly well for themselves. She feels that her poetry is richer now because she understands more than she did when she was younger; as if to accommodate that fuller understanding, she is experimenting with longer pieces, some of 1200 to 1500 lines. Her forthcoming book is Those Who Ride The Night Winds, to be published later this year by William Morrow.
[Elder:] I was interested in your trip to Africa. Have you been there several times?
[Giovanni:] I've been there three times.
… interested particularly in terms of your poetry and if you found that it affected your poetry in ways other than as subject matter. I am thinking of perhaps more of an emphasis on orality than you were conscious of previously.
No. No more than Mexico or Europe, or, probably, the moon. No. Of course, you are always conscious, just because of the nature of the African continent, that you are on the oldest continent and the richest, and that you're with the first people on earth who were, in fact, civilized, but you don't all of a sudden say, "Oh, now I'm a part of that; there's a tradition here." No, I don't think so.
First of all, it would be very difficult for me to be anything other than western, you know, because I am. I'm not wedded to tradition. I think that when we consider poetry, period, the nature of poetry, if we go pre-biblical, of course, we are going to get right into the African experience. And, of course, the oral arts in Africa are at an extremely high level. So you do have this involvement with the spoken word. I think that that is important, but I also think it's important to be able to write something down, so I don't have any conflict. It doesn't make my day, and it doesn't break it.
Has your attitude toward your relationship to Africa changed over the years, after your firsthand experience there?
I really don't think I have a relationship with Africa. I think I have a relationship with my mother, my son, a number of other things; I don't think I have a relationship with the continent. I enjoy traveling in Africa. I'm so happy: from the first time I went in 1972, until now, it's much cheaper to go, and one is more capable of going. And you don't really have to go through Europe; you can actually go from New York to Dakar without having to stop over, make what amounts to a courtesy stop in Europe. And I think that probably anybody who likes to travel would choose to travel to Africa at some point. I think to not go is a great loss. You are, as I said, on the richest continent, and you are among the first of civilized man. And I think that's an important part of your experience. I also feel, though, it's equally important to do other parts of the earth. I'm really looking forward to going to Antarctica. It's environmentally sound. I don't want you, or anyone, to think that I am denigrating Africa. Some people say, "Well, why doesn't she have a relationship with Africa?" or "why doesn't she have her day made by going?" What I'm just trying to say is that you have to recognize, first of all, in 1982, Earth is a very small planet, and what we do is involve ourselves so that we are properly educated. I would still be remiss in my intellectual growth if I only did Africa. I would certainly be remiss if I did not do it. But it is not sufficient unto itself. We have to move around and utilize the best of all cultures.
I happen to be in an art that is almost overwhelmingly African because the poets started there. The first codification, of course, that western man recognizes is the Bible, and of course, we're still on the African continent—never understood how that became the Middle East, when the map says to me that it is Africa. You can see that, and we're very proud of it, but we also recognize that there are changes that have been made in the profession, and that those changes also are necessary to the life of the profession, in order for art to be serious, if I can use that—there must be a better word—to be viable. It had to remain alive; it has to remain adaptive to whatever forms. I have, of course, recorded some of my poetry: to gospel music in one case, and contemporary music, and some other albums just as a straight reading. It would be ridiculous, the only word I can think of, that I would live in an electronic age and not choose to electronically transmit my voice. That doesn't mean that I'm going to have the number-one-best-selling record. It's not likely at all; if I did, it would certainly be a fluke. But you do seek to use the tools that are available to you at that time. Always. You can't be so, I think the term is, purist. You get those people that say, "I would never print a book," and I'm sure that when the printing press came, "that's not the way you do it." And people continue to think that. I think that our obligation is to use whatever technology is available, because whether or not art is able to be translated tells us something about whether or not it's, in fact, living, whether or not it's part of us.
Whether it can be translated from one form to another, you mean?
To some degree. That's not the test of it, but to some degree. We were talking about a Shakespeare or a Don Quixote, particularly Don Quixote, but it has lasted so long. Not to denigrate Don Quixote, but essentially it's your basic soap opera. Every evening, the Spanish Court would gather, and somebody would read it. Well, it had to be interesting; it had to be true; it had to be something that people could connect to. And that's what you try to do. Now, I don't know that Don Quixote would make a great movie. Of course we did make it into a play, and I think we've done variations on the theme. I'm saying that you don't write for one medium to turn it into another. What I'm trying to say is that, as we are evolving, as the species evolves, we try to make use of all media. So if I were a poet when Gutenberg invented his press, I would say, "let me recite this, and you write it down, and we'll get it printed. And we'll see what this becomes," because you don't want to ignore the possibilities.
And if I understand you correctly, what you see remaining is that human quality that you said is essential for vital art to continue.
Well, people have made changes. You take a poem like the Iliad which was composed over some 400 years by a variety of people. We give Homer credit because Homer started it, and I'm sure Homer is delighted to take credit for it. But it kept evolving, because it was a poem being recited. And just a mere translation, just coming from Greek into anything else, just coming from Athens into Sparta would change it as much as coming from New York into Atlanta. So that what you have is something that, in fact, is alive. And it is alive because it has met the test of people.
It's curious, isn't it, that something like the Aeneid or the Odyssey, maybe even something like Don Quixote, meets the definition of what we now call "folk art," in the very real sense. And yet, "folk art" is not considered serious. Folk art is not important; it's not high art. What do you think happened in the course of our, as a people, listening to poetry, participating in poetry, that changed somebody's mind, anyway, about what was serious and what was not?
The rise of the merchant class. I really do. They did a lot for art. I don't take that away, because they were essentially an unlettered group, and what they did was to go out and purchase it, and at some points they were purchasing that which they understood. And as we got into "keeping up with the Joneses," it would almost be: "Well, my poet read this poem last night"; "Well, my poet read this poem!" Neither one of them gave a damn…. But what we got into was more and more exotic, and the poets began, of course, to read for each other: "Anybody can do what you did. Let me show you what I've done."
We were talking about V. And I have nothing against V and that kind of exotic novel, that most people won't read. They won't have the patience or, really, the interest in wading through it. But you take something that almost every kid on Earth reads, science fiction, which is not considered literature. If we charted science fiction on the New York Times best-seller list, I'm sure they would have the first nine without looking back. Or your mysteries. Which is somehow, again, not considered literature. So then, we also got the rise of the merchants who made money off the poets who were making money off of the merchants. So you got into this publisher class, right? Again, I'm kind of simplifying it. But, then, the publishers were saying, "okay, then, now we shall determine what is real art." And of course that would be determined by how difficult it is to meet the test of people. Because, therefore, they would have to buy the book. You're forced to.
And of course there's a marvelous story by an Ohio writer, Charles Chesnutt, whom you probably know, "Baxter's Procrustus." And, of course, Baxter bought this book and raved and raved and raved about it, and finally one day the guy opened it, and of course there was nothing inside. And I think to some degree, publishers have played that game historically. And I think to some degree, it is being played now. The publishers, of course, having kept up with the technology, are now playing the game on even a cheaper level, because what they're saying is not that we're bringing you something uniquely different that you cannot understand, but that we're bringing you crap, and what we're going to do is make use of the electronic media to make you want it.
I looked at Sy Hirsch sitting on the Today show the other morning. He's got a piece in the Atlantic on Kissinger. Now that happens to have some worth. I don't want you to think that I don't think Sy Hirsch has any worth. It's just that he had to go to the electronic media to sell the competition, really. We can keep saying, television doesn't have to be in competition, but television is in competition with books. And what you're saying is, "we're conceding that you have my audience, and now can I have a piece of it back?" And I just find it fascinating. We sell crap all day long, though. Sy Hirsch would be one of the better examples.
Whom do you read now, who is obviously not crap? Whom do you really like?
I happen to like my fellow Ohio authors. I'm particularly fond of Toni Morrison, of course, because Toni continues to confound people by continuing to strike a different pose every time. Everybody says, "well, okay, so you wrote The Bluest Eye …"; well, everybody was looking for her next book, and they thought, "well, this is going to be the formula, and she's gonna put it out," and she came back with Sula. "Oh, well, that must be an accident." Then she came back with Song of Solomon, and we don't understand. So, she's in danger right now, because Tar Baby, which is, absolutely, I think, an incredible novel, is now being considered trivial, because nobody can write four brilliant books. That is not possible; therefore, it couldn't be brilliant. I mean that's the way the critics have been sort of going at that, and, of course, the Black press has been going at her with that, and this is not each and every, but the Black intellectuals are saying "well she just writes best sellers." Well, that's not really true at all. What she does is write extremely well. I talked to Toni recently, and I said, "we're living in the age of Toni Morrison." And I'm not, have no interest really in trying to flatter her, but the reality is that Toni writes so well that the rest of us who write will have to come up to that. And I think it is frightening to, especially, that group of white men—the Philip Roths, Norman Mailers—who have dominated literature for some unknown reason, because it certainly was not based on talent, that ail of a sudden, they're coming up against a Black woman from the Midwest who is clearly, clearly brilliant. And if we were going to compare Toni to somebody in terms of literature, we would probably have to go to South America, the One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez. You get into that level. Americans and Europeans have considered themselves quite fine with the novel. I think that they're really devoid of ideas.
And, again, some of the lovelier novels that have been written lately have been done, in fact, by women, not only Toni, but a woman, Elizabeth Forsyth Hale, A Woman of Independent Means. It's gotten ripped off eight thousand different ways: "A woman of substance," "A woman in a corner pigging"; they picked it off. It was a collection of letters about a woman, from her first camp letters. Her great-granddaughter found her trunk, and she had kept all these letters. It's nothing but literature; that's one of the problems. You can't turn it into a movie; it won't be a hit song; you have to read the book. But it's absolutely, absolutely gorgeous. And, of course, it had a very difficult time finding a publisher, because nobody understood it.
Judith Krantz was, I think, lucky if you can use that term, because Ordinary People was quite an extraordinary novel, and it just so happens that Bob Redford is literate, which many, many people are not. And it seemed that he thought, "well, I should make a movie out of it," which, of course, helped to move that along. But, you know, that came over the transom. That was, "I wrote this book. Would you consider it?" And now, "we don't know you: where's your agent?" And you wonder what we're losing. A Woman of Independent Means went out of print. It only sold everything, right? I think the publisher must have put out about 1500 copies, and they went, whoosh, and all of a sudden he says, "Oh thank God I got out of that!" It was the independent book sellers, who I think are very, very important to all of us. Independents were saying, "but we're recommending this book, and we can't get it." And he's saying, "there's no market for a middle book." A book either, right now, gets at least $250,000 to a half-million dollars in advance, you know, in terms of a paperback, or there's no room. So, you have a book that's coming in at a $20,000 advance, and they don't know what they're going to do with it. So, finally, it got picked up, because somebody, some place—I'm sure it's some little old gray-haired lady—read it and said, "well why don't we buy this?"
Which poets do you read?
Most of us, most of the time. It's probably not fair to say it like this, but I don't really think that I read poetry for the pleasure of it. I'm interested in the profession. So I don't look at poetry the way I do the novel, for example, because I'm not basically a novel reader. So, it has to be something to really capture me. I read mostly nonfiction.
A particular category?
I thought you were going to say that.
Yes, I really have a great love of history and, of course, as you can see, politics. I do a lot with history and politics, which are not all that different.
I bear special affection for the poetry of Anne Sexton. I think "Her Kind" is just one of the most outstanding single poems I've ever read. And I like a young poet, who in my opinion does not write enough, named Carolyn Rodgers, a Chicago poet. But for the most part, you read most poets because you should have some awareness of the profession.
I don't know if you know this or not, but you 're being taught in a course at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville as an Appalachian writer.
Oh, that's fine. I was born in Knoxville. I think that's marvelous.
Do you ever think of yourself that way? You 're being taught by a novelist named Wilma Dykeman, who is herself an Appalachian writer.
No, I didn't know that. I think that's great. You know, Agee is from Knoxville also, James Agee. Knoxville, for a little city, has produced a number of people that have done—I think—extremely well. I don't have any problem with being an Appalachian. I don't think of myself—I'm not particularly outdoorsy. We were talking about my nephew earlier. That would make his day, because he is off backpacking to Montana or something. I basically consider myself pretty urban, but because of birth I'm a Southerner, or in this particular case, I'm an Appalachian, actually, because the Tennesseeans are very different from the rest of the South. Well, Tennessee is the Volunteer State, because Tennessee went with the Union. So you go up into the mountains, and you've got a whole other situation altogether. So you had West Virginia seceding from Virginia, you know; you get into that kind of thing. I think it's interesting.
I think that birth largely has to be considered an accident; I don't know another way around it. It's just a way of identifying. If it's not going to be positive, then it's pointless, because nobody chose the circumstances under which they were born, nor the place, nor the parents to whom they were born, nor their gender, nor any of that. So if it's not going to be a positive identification, then you really should let it go.
And yet it's so hard to let go for many people, isn't it?
Well, there is something you can do about it; you can change your behavior, if not your attitude. But I think, yes, we as a species need to let go, because it's enough that we do in life what we are responsible for. Somebody said, "we were calling you into account. Certainly we should not call you into account for your race, or your age, or your gender. You had nothing at all to do with that. You just happened to have survived. And the only reason we can complain about that is that you are alive. Because, if you weren't we wouldn't." On the other hand, I certainly see no reason that we should reward you, particularly for any of those three things. It's unacceptable that we continue to reward men for having been male. They didn't sit up in babyland and say, "well I think I'll be a boy, or I think I'll be a girl." It doesn't work out that way, so that we cannot continue to punish and reward people based upon something that they have absolutely no control over. It's illogical, just one of the things that human beings need to learn, and I should imagine at some point we will let go.
I hope so, but we were speaking earlier about the illogicality of human beings.
The rather interesting thing to me—I am a "Trekkie"—is that either we're going to come to a basic new understanding of what it is to be a human being, or we're going to destroy ourselves. So, I'm not blasé, but we would have to move away from a lot of things and pretty much all at once. We're talking race, gender, and age. It's not my fault I was born in the United States, and I shouldn't be disproportionately rewarded as to the world's minerals because of that. If that's the case, then everybody, all the little babies sitting up in baby heaven, will say, "well, I'm not gonna do Southeast Asia; I'm not gonna do Latin America. I want to go to the United States where I can disproportionately use up resources." It just doesn't happen. And I think it's time that we shut down the industrial age. We are really quite capable right now. We're moving into robotics and cybernetics, and it's time that we let go. I'm not picking on the industrial age, but that's when you've got your little machine, and then you run out, and you get your colonies so that you can take their raw materials, and then you can send the manufactured goods back. And all of that is just tiresome. It's moved us along, and I don't have a quarrel with history, otherwise you'd spend all of your time debating whether or not your mother should have had you. But if it did move us along, it cannot now. What it does, it leads to irreconcilable conflicts which frequently erupt into some level of war, which increases the possibility of a great error.
Of total destruction?
Oh sure. Which would not surprise me. I'm much too cynical and much too aware of the nature of human beings to be surprised, but it would be a disappointment, because it is not necessary. For what we are trying to hold on to and what that offers us, as opposed to what we can possibly become, it's just not necessary to hold on to the 15th century the way that we're doing it.
Do you think it's possible for writers to express their convictions strongly enough or imaginatively enough to change the mind of anybody?
I don't think that writers ever changed the mind of anybody. I think we always preach to the saved. Someone from the Post asked me, how would I describe myself, and I said, "I'm a preacher to the saved." And I don't think that anybody's mind has ever been changed. It has been enhanced by an already-meeting-of-the-minds. When the reader picks up the book and proceeds to begin a relationship, it will proceed based upon how that book and that reader are already in agreement. Because almost nobody really reads anything that they are totally … I mean, I couldn't read a position paper about the Ku Klux Klan.
You mean, you, literally, could not get through it?
I wouldn't even try. Why? Because I already know. To me it's like reading—which I guess I shouldn't say to you like this—, but it's like reading anti-abortion literature. I'm totally in opposition to their position. Unless I can read a headline that says they bring something new to the table, then no, I'm not going to do that, because I already know where they are, and what I'm going to do is look for a strengthening of my position, where I am. And everybody does that.
And again, I'm out of the tradition of the sixties that sort of crazily believed that there would be the poem that would free everybody. You would say to those people, "listen, fellows, that's not going to happen." The big term, of course, was "sell out," and everybody that didn't do what certain groups wanted—you know, Leroi Jones and all of them—everybody that didn't sort of hew the Black aesthetic line had "soldout." No. There will never be the poem that will free mankind. We would be fools … anybody that thinks that is a fool. And I don't really know another term for that.
Anybody that thinks any one thing or one person can make a difference in your life…. If we could crucify Jesus, you know, whom we recognize in the western world as being the Son of God, then you know we would shoot down everybody. Now there are people who charismatically do make a difference. We were talking about holding two [opposing] thoughts, but I do that a lot. There are people who charismatically embody an age. But they didn't create the age. They personified it, and people often overlook that. They really think somebody … they really think Disraeli made [his age]. He didn't. He was the one who could personify it. Or Jack Kennedy. Now, I happen to like the Kennedys. I find them interesting people to read about. But Jack didn't make the sixties. Nor did Martin Luther King. We honor them, and we recognize them, because they personify the best within us. But they didn't create it. It was the little old ladies that said. "I'll walk," that made Martin Luther King. It was the kind that said, "even after his death we're antiwar. We're going to move even this image that we will maintain, but we're going to move it and make it much more." People overlook that, because they think that you could do something. They'll tell you, "Fidel Castro liberated Cuba." I'll be damned if he did, whatever you feel about Cuba. Fidel personifies that liberation. Therefore, to the Cuban people, it would probably be a loss had he been killed, say twenty years ago. I'm sure that they're ready to accept it now, not because Fidel was a loss, though of course it would be a loss to whomever loved him, but because he was the embodiment.
The same thing with our community. It was so unnecessary to shoot down Martin Luther King. And what happened there was that a man lost his life, but it was a message. And what it said was, "since we can't shoot a million people, we'll shoot this one, so that the million people will know that this is where we are." And of course what you got from that was a perfectly logical response: "Mother Fucker, since you did that, we will get you." So that you got, of course, the riots coming. There was no question that the Black community was going to respond to the white community. You sent the message, and we sent the answer. So that everybody said, "okay, well, tell you what, since I can't bring back my cities, and you can't bring back King, why don't we try peace." And you just wish that people would function on that a little bit, and earlier. We recognize that at some point if the message is sent, and an answer is sent, that we still have to come back to peace.
Sounds to me, and correct me if I misunderstood you, that in all that, the role of the writer is very much like that of the historian rather than the prophet. Or possibly, the prophecy comes in—and I used the word, "role," again, I realize, the function of the writer—is that the writer recognizes what you just expressed and communicates the meaning of some chaotic event or historical circumstance in whatever way he does it, and people read that because they recognize the writer as someone in whom they trust and believe, and possibly as a result of reading the meaning of what has happened, they are going to understand a little bit more of what's going to take place next, or, they will understand a little bit more of the consequences of behaviour the next time something comes up. Not that they necessarily agree with what the writer said, but they understand a little bit more. And that's about all the writer can expect?
About all the writer can expect is to be read. That would probably be what most of us get. I think the word I was looking for is "vitality." You were using "role" and changed it to "function." But I think that the vitality of the writer, for those of us who are contemporary writers, who are writing contemporaneously—because some of us are literary writers who are not,—is that we are just a little bit of both. We're a little bit of a prophet, and we are a little bit of the historian. And we're saying, "this is the meaning that we find. You have to take what you can." We are not Marx; we're not sitting there saying, "A is A." We're not Ayn Rand either. We're sitting there saying, "I saw this through my eyes."
The word that you used that I do like is, "trust." There are certain writers that no matter what they have to say, no matter how much in agreement you would be with them, you simply don't trust the writer. I hate a damned liar. I really don't care what you have to say, or how awful you might think it is, or how awful I might think it is, but I hate a damned liar. Once you have given up that, once you have given up your basic integrity, then you have given up that, once you have given up your basic integrity, then you really have nothing else to offer. And maybe that's harsh, and I don't intend to be harsh. But when Norman Mailer, for example, had to pay off Marilyn, the book Marilyn, because it was plagiarized, I don't know what Mailer could write that I would read. It was hard enough to be bothered with his chauvinism and his crap before that, but to recognize that the man would be in a profession, but would take the work of somebody else…. There's just no way. It couldn't happen. I mean, Norman's spirit could descend in this room, and he could start to read from something, and I'd say, "well I have to leave."
Because the only thing you bring, the only thing any of us, any professional brings, is your honesty. You don't mind that the patient died on the table, as long as the surgeon wasn't drunk. It's sad if he did. It's sad to you; it's sad to the patient. It's probably sad to the surgeon. But you feel like, "well he tried." And in my profession, if you're not going to be honest…. It's not that you ask the reader to spend, which I think is ridiculous, 15 dollars upwards for a book, but that you're asking them for their time. Because they can go get another 15 dollars. That's not hard to do. You really cannot give back time; you think about the time you spend with a book. I mean, I'm a reader. You'd feel raped to think that you involved your heart and your mind and your time, that there were things you could have been doing, and you were sitting there reading a book to find out that it's essentially dishonest. You honestly came to that book. You chose it, and that it's a lie? I mean, it's not acceptable. Absolutely unacceptable. The profession is not really strong enough to me on your basic plagiarism. I know lawyers who worry about lawyers who are essentially dishonest. Because you can't always win. Those of us who are writers can't always be prescient, but we can always be honest. So that if we make a mistake, if we misunderstand something, if we're journalists and don't see something, that's all right, because we know that what was brought to bear there is the best that we have. That's all any of us are going to do, because you're going to miss a few calls there. One reason you don't shoot the umpire is that you know the guy is watching the ball. Now if you have to feel that other team gave him 10 bucks, then there's no game. There's absolutely no way that we can play the game. And life I think is like that.
It's tremendously fragile, isn't it, because it is back to "trust." We talked before about the formula, learning how to write the formula and just repeating it, repeating it. It takes a while for the reader to catch on that that's happening especially if that reader has read that writer before and has developed his trust and liking and is willing to invest not only 15 dollars, as you say, but the time and the emotional energy. And so it's really a very fragile kind of delicate thing between writer and reader.
I honestly think,—we were talking formula,—I think that formula is essentially dishonest. I'm not fighting with my fellow writers who are formula writers. I think it's essentially dishonest, but so is the circus, so is the Hall of Mirrors. And one of the things that I think happens to you when you are involved in that level of lazy writing is that you know what you're giving, and they know what they're getting. And I don't think that is a lack of trust. If I pick up a Frank Yerby, it's my fault. I'm not picking on Yerby, but it is, because I know exactly what he's going to do; What does the song say, "you knew I was a snake when you brought me in,"? I knew that. I happened to like Jacqueline Susann when I'm doing junk-like reading. I can pick up a Jackie Susann and know exactly what I'm going to get. I don't feel misused.
I think that is true of all of us. You kind of know what you're getting when you pick up a certain level of book. What I do have a serious problem with, though, is your basic plagiarism, because that is actually taking someone else's work and putting it off as yours. What we are saying here is that, if I'm Steven King, ninety percent of my writing is going to be macabre. Take it or leave it. I'm sure that he considers that he writes as honestly and as well as any of the rest of us. As a matter of fact, he has a lot more money to show for it. What I'm saying is, I don't think that's your basic rape, because it's Steven King. You might say that someone was unaware that all his books are just alike. But that is very, very hard to do. That is like saying I didn't learn anything from "LaVerne & Shirley" this week; I'm disappointed. You know damn well you are not going to learn anything from "LaVerne & Shirley" or whatever it is that you're doing on TV. That is not to say that all of television is a waste. It's just that you know if you turn on TV, seven to ten, you're going to get mostly crap, unless it's Thursday night and there is a show called "Fame," which somehow or another is surviving; which makes my Thursdays. It's a great little show. I'm just saying, you've got to know that, and I don't think that's the same level as your basic lie.
There is a distinction.
Sure. It's like your professor who reads the same notes every year. He's not lying. He says, "this is, for the level of energy that I'm willing to invest in this class, what you need to know. And if my notes have not changed in 5 years, that is not my problem. My subject hasn't changed, or at least it hasn't involved me." But that is not a lie. That's not the guy who stands in the lab and manufactures results that he knows never came up. Sure. You get into that, and I think that has to be dealt with much more stringently. A professor of medieval poetry might be dull, but he's not lying.
It seems as if a very mysterious relationship exists between the reader and the writer, which is one, frequently, and I think, charmingly, of awe; that this person has the ability to use language that makes me put down my $15 or makes me take that book out of the library. And there is a love that develops there, because that person has that power over you, and trust, because any time you love, you want to trust.
I think that what essentially makes art so potentially dangerous is that it is totally egalitarian.
Explain that a little more.
Well, the term you use is "power," that the person has power over you. I don't think so. As a matter of fact, the writer is totally vulnerable to people that we shall never see. We sit someplace and create something, or explain something, research, and develop certain ideas. We convince a publisher to publish it, or a museum to hang it, or a producer to put it on Broadway, and we are subject to the judgment of people who never even knew us. We could have been dead 800 years before somebody discovered us.
Last year, here in Cincinnati, last September, October, and I think a little bit in November, I did a program. I don't know really how to express it, but I was invited, and I went to a number of elementary schools here in Cincinnati. And the thing that surprised the kids was that I was alive. It may sound strange, but that was the biggest thing, and when you think about how many dead authors we read, it was really not unusual. Just last night, I was at Morehead State. Even going there, people are really looking at you like, "she's really alive," and it's kind of strange. And, again, I think that the dangerous position is that we recognize not our power but people's power for themselves. The same way that I can sit here and decide whether or not Sy Hirsch, for Christ's sake, has written a creditable piece on Kissinger. That is a level of egalitarianism that most people don't have. Most people don't have to be bothered with that. Sy Hirsch should not have to worry about what some poet in Cincinnati thinks about his work. And I'm not saying that he does. I am just saying that I can make that judgment.
That certainly is a factor, but don't you feel power over your own interpretation of the world which really is not dependent upon how well someone else is going to agree with that?
Well, it really is, because if you are Ezra Pound and your interpretation of the world is markedly different from the country in which you happened to be born, you will find yourself adjudged insane, which is quite unfair. Do you understand? And that does happen, I think, frequently enough to make us take pause. You get into the whole thing with the Soviets and their writers and, of course, we with ours. We don't do ours the same way as the Soviets do, because what we do with ours is just buy them out. The end result is the same thing, and if we can't buy them out, we simply refuse to publish them; we kind of hound them out of the country, essentially. But it all amounts to the same thing. I think that I have a view of the world, that I have an obligation, if not just your basic right, to share. But I don't consider that, in any respect, that that connotes any power. I still have to go upstairs [even though] they're locking CETA out. I still have to go to IGA.
You know, the artist is not a god, and I mention Mailer because he's such a prototypical, awful artist. Of all the real dumb things that he's said recently, the most stupid had to be on the Jack Abbott case. As a writer, you just simply cringe that somebody is justifying murder because the guy can put three words together. It's totally unacceptable. The writer is not god. It's what we do for a living. It's not who we are. And I have a great resentment—you haven't ruffled my feathers on that one at all, but you will see the hairs on the back of my neck rise—because writing is not who I am. It is what I do. And I think that anybody who fails to separate what they do from who they are, and that is from Ronald Reagan to Lyndon Johnson to Pope John Paul to whomever, is in serious, mental trouble. You've got to separate yourself; unfortunately, a lot of people don't.
And a lot of the people who don't are Reagan, and Pope John, the people who are in power.
But, hey, lot of people don't.—The only reason we talk about the people in power is because that is who we know. You want to chart mental illness? We can go right up I-75 to Detroit and see a guy who has been laid off for six months who was a mechanic: who is nothing more. Now, we just don't talk about him, unless we are Studs Terkel. That appears to be a very human trait, but it also appears to be one that we have learned, because if we go back—again we are talking Africa or we go back to Chinese history, for two quickies and two good ones—you will see people and artisans, and what you did was not who you were.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1449
SOURCE: "An Interview with Nikki Giovanni," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 29-30.
[In the interview below, Giovanni offers her views on modern culture and writing.]
Nikki Giovanni wants to make it clear: "I did not perform in South Africa. I think that's ridiculous. I mean what would I do: sing, dance, recite 'Nigger Can You Kill'? It's either a misunderstanding or a lie, whichever comes first. It's just ridiculous. My books are banned in South Africa."
The princess of Black poetry has returned to the road, on tour in the midst of controversy, and is offering thoughts. Commenting on Black writers she says, "Toni Morrison has taken the American novel to stage five, and people are asking, 'Where are stages two and three?' She's riding the night wind. She's not playing it safe. Every time they say Toni can't write she comes out with another book…. I think Shange's for colored girls … was brilliant. I can't say enough how brilliant it is." She goes on, "Black writers are not helping each other. We don't encourage our artists to grow."
Nikki Giovanni is riding the night winds and "those who ride the night winds/must learn to love the stars/those who live on the edge must get used to the cuts." Those Who Ride the Night Winds is a book of twenty-eight new poems separated into two sections, "Night Winds" and "Day Trippers." Her recurring reminder of Emmett Till's past in her poems reminds us that we have gone full circle with the children's murders of '81/82 in Atlanta. Giovanni's sweet memories, mixed with cunning wit, are captured in such poems as "I Wrote a Good Omelet" and "Love Thoughts." The reflective "A Word For Me … Also" is not only a poem about and for herself but one for all poets.
There are others who ride the night winds, like the late musician John Lennon ("He was the first to say, 'We didn't do anything new; it was Little Richard and Chuck Berry'"), tennis player Billie Jean King ("I admire her courage"), the Eagles, and the late painter Charles White. After the heat from the South African controversy was cooled somewhat, Nikki felt more ready for an interview than she'd been at first. Our conversation occurred at the Common Concerns Bookstore in Washington, D.C., on April 10, 1983.
[Bonner:] How did you come up with the title of your book?
[Giovanni:] I've never been asked that before. It came up out of the John Lennon poem.
Was the John Lennon poem spontaneous, or did it take time to seep in?
It took a little time. A friend called me about midnight and told me, "If ever there was a senseless death, it was John Lennon's." I mean for some so-called scribble scrabble a life was taken.
You wrote two powerful poems for Lorraine Hansberry, Rosa Parks, and others. How did they come about?
I think it's time we pay homage to those who are courageous.
Who are some of the painters you like besides the late Charles White?
Do you plan to do any more albums?
No, books are my heart. Records are not.
Did you know you are on the International Dishonor Roll along with Ray Charles, Liza Minelli, Cher, and others?
I think it's ridiculous. People who came up three days ago have the authority to tell you what to do with your life. It's really a shame. [A New York gang member] told me about this list and came to me saying, "I know it's not true."… They have a plane leaving from Kennedy Airport every day going to Johannesburg. It's not full of entertainers. It's full of White businessmen who exploit Black workers.
Ray Charles was stoned in South Africa.
Ray Charles has a history of involvement. Should that history be ignored because he went to South Africa? Come on. He's a singer. In the Sixties, when Bull Conners said, "We don't want to niggers down here in Mississippi," if we had signed a petition saying we refused to perform down there do you think things would've changed? Bull Conners would have loved it. I'm not going to South Africa. I don't have to sign a petition saying I'm not going to perform. You want me to sign a petition not to commit rape? One not to beat my mother? Boycotting Millie Jackson is not helping South Africans.
Is it difficult separating writing from the business?
I don't have that problem. Poetry is not a big business.
A lot of people think you can do much to save the world. How do you deal with that pressure?
I'm not here to convince you I'm all right. We have to believe in each other's dreams.
You use the periods and dots in your latest book. Why?
I thought it was a good way to have human breath breaks on the page, without intimidation to the reader. James Baldwin is a master with the dash and comma.
Do you plan to get into any other forms of writing?
I like journalism. I think it's important.
What are you working on now?
I'm not working on anything.
You haven't been out with a book for a while.
I come out with one every two years.
Oh yeah, Vacation Time.
That's a book. People think children books are easy. It's a discipline as hard as poetry. You're teaching to read and reaching to children.
How do you relate your own writing in relation to contemporary writing like that of Ntozake Shange, Marge Piercy, Lucille Clifton, etc.?
I don't know if I understand that question…. There's no competition. This is not a dance. Writers write what they see and feel.
What kind of vibes do you get from today's college population?
I don't relate to the term vibes too well, but I think today's college students are a bright group and hard workers. It would be nice if the current administration would give them a break.
Do you owe Amiri Baraka some money, or did you say no to a serious question?
Baraka wrote a tasteless poem about you, and I was wondering why.
I don't let things like that worry me. Life is too short. Baraka hasn't written a good book since Black Music. He's got a nerve. Have you seen his latest work? He runs out of ideas and puts an anthology together. Have you read it? He's got a lot of nerve.
Does William Morrow publish any other Black poets?
Mari Evans and, as a matter of fact, Baraka…. He should just leave me alone.
When you published with Broadside, there was a lot of activity among Black writers.
Broadside didn't publish me. They distributed my books. I published myself. Black Feeling/Black Talk and Black Judgement were published by me, along with an anthology of women writers. I was in debt, and William Morrow asked to publish me. They did—got me out of debt and have done a good job since.
Young Black writers coming up are not as well acknowledged.
They have to do it themselves. When we get together and form publishing companies, the money has to go back into the product, not cigarettes, a new ride or shoes….
Why is the Black woman's interest in the feminist movement small?
The interest is there. There can't be a woman's movement without Black women. The feminist movement didn't recruit or have Black women in leadership roles. They were arguing to be bank executives while we wanted to be in a position to have a bank account. So many Black women are dying in Detroit it's becoming a scandal. One out of three dies from childbirth, and you have to get records of this from the British. Yeah, for real.
He doesn't know what's going on. He should have Prince playing on the 4th of July in the Mall…. It's ridiculous that they still penalize Mexicans for crossing the border but don't penalize the people who exploit Mexicans…. Two percent of Wisconsin's population is Indian, but twenty percent of the prison population is Indian. Come on.
There's a lot of talent there. We worried about everything but his music. If he dies it'll be our fault.
Like Jimi Hendrix?
What other things are you listening to?
Nona Hendrix' new album is fabulous. If there's one album to get, that's the one.
Some parents say Marvin Gaye is too x-rated for kids.
Are you kidding? Have you ever been sexually healed? I mean really. Parents are passing their fears. Leave Marvin on. I love Marvin.
What qualities do you look for in men?
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SOURCE: "Groundwork for a More Comprehensive Criticism of Nikki Giovanni," in Studies in Black American Literature, Volume II: Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism, edited by Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot, Penkevill Publishing Co., 1986, pp. 135-60.
[In the following essay, McDowell argues that critics have failed to adequately analyze the whole of Giovanni's poetry.]
The nature of Nikki Giovanni's poetry cannot be fully understood nor its significance in recent literary history be established unless critics provide more perceptive interpretations and assessments of her work than they have done in the first fifteen years of her career. Such informed appraisals are long overdue, and her reputation has suffered from the neglect of her work by serious critics. Those who would contribute now to more comprehensive and open-minded judgments of her work will undoubtedly wish to consider the early contradictory appraisals of her poetry to ascertain what is genuine in them as a basis for this more comprehensive undertaking. I shall summarize, accordingly, the extreme reactions which Giovanni's poetry evoked primarily during the first five years of her career (1969–1974). And I will speculate on possible explanations for these contradictory responses and mediate among the early conflicting judgments, because they significantly affect her reputation to this day.
It is my general conclusion that much of the writing on Giovanni's poetry has been predicated on the critics' misperceptions, their insistence on half-truths, or their rigid and demanding political and personal convictions. Academic literary critics have been inclined to generalize about Black poetry and have failed to recognize the relationships present between the poetry and Black speech or Black music. They have tended also to discover aesthetic excellence only in poetry of intricate symbolic or intellectual complexity. On the other hand, political reviewers of Giovanni's work have overestimated the necessary function of poetry in the furtherance of Black Cultural Nationalism and Pan-Africanism, and they have underestimated her poetry affirmation of Afro-American culture and her realistic portrayals of individual Afro-Americans and their experience. In writing of her poetry, critics have allowed personal and political attitudes not merely to affect their judgment but to dominate it. For example, they have used, in place of objective criteria, the tenet that poets should subordinate their individual creativity to the rhetorical needs of the political or racial group. They have placed excessive value on consistency in the views expressed from poem to poem and book to book as if the persona of a poem is always the author herself and the experience depicted is autobiographical. They have demanded that the author's personal behavior be approved if her poetry is to be judged favorably. Some reviewers have sought in Giovanni's poetry an ideal for Black womanhood and been disappointed either by the assertiveness, impudence, and strength they found in the poetry or, conversely, by the acknowledgment of emotional vulnerability, disillusionment, and fatigue which can also be found in it. The written response to Giovanni's poetry shows relatively little evidence of the application of objective criteria or of clearly formulated critical postulates. In the total body of criticism on her, no systematic, career-long examination of her techniques, her development, or the shifts in her interests and viewpoint can be found. In the reviews, one finds ardent enthusiasm for "the Princess of Black Poetry" and also cutting and humiliating attacks on both the poet and her poetry, but only a handful of writings reflect an open-minded, sensitive, and careful reading of all her work.
The judgments one infers from the popular response to Nikki Giovanni's poetry may ultimately provide more reliable critical assessment than that gleaned from "professional" sources, because such popular judgments are often made by listeners as well as readers and depend on reactions to the immediate clarity of lines; the impact of tone, rhythm, and language; and the integrity of the realism in Giovanni's depiction of Afro-Americans and their experience. The response at the popular level reflects the views of large numbers of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. However, such judgment comes, in part, from the shared enthusiasm of the crowd and the charismatic personality of the poet as well as from the poetry itself, and while the emphasis on the poetry's orality is important in criticism of Giovanni, the listener cannot fully assess the damage done to a poem by a single flawed line or by an awkward beginning, and he or she is equally likely to overlook the rich ambiguities and ironies found in the best of Giovanni's lyrics.
In the past, Giovanni claimed that the criticism of her work was irrelevant. But her attitude appears to have changed. Recently, she has implied that "harder questions" than those asked last year challenge her work this year. Her statements in recent interviews with Claudia Tate and Arlene Elder may, in themselves, provide guidance for an effective critique of an author's achievement throughout a career—particularly of an author like Giovanni, who is still experimenting with technique, growing as an artist, and broadening her vision.
A consideration of the difficulties which Giovanni experienced in the 1970s in establishing her early reputation and of her own recently expressed views on the criticism she has received to the present time might serve to indicate those aspects of her work which call for further scrutiny. Among the subjects that have never had full discussion and that demand considerable systematic and reasonable criticism are (1) an identification of her goals, (2) a definition of her techniques, (3) discrimination among her aesthetic successes and failures, (4) an analysis of the changes in her processes of invention and of revision, (5) an identification of the objects of her satire and its purposes, (6) an analysis of her use of folk materials, (7) the compilation of a history of the oral presentations of her poetry (before various kinds of audiences in stage performances, on records, and on television), (8) an examination of her status as a writer of books for children, (9) a determination of the shifts in her interests as related to the forms that she has used, (10) an exploration of the alleged inconsistencies in her work, and (11) a sensitive analysis of the flexibility, the ironies, and the ambiguities that add grace and substance to her poems—particularly those in which she develops "the women and the men" themes. Her use of Black music (jazz, blues, spirituals, folk, and popular), which enriches the patterns to be found in her poetry, and her recourse to stylized elements in Black conversation are also important features of her work that contribute to the "orality" for which she is famous, and these subjects need further investigation.
Each of Giovanni's successive volumes has been marred by the inclusion of some misbegotten poems or prosaic or sentimental lines (which usually occur at the beginnings or ends of poems). These failures repeatedly have claimed disproportionate attention in reviews, blurred the focus of her critics, and delayed the acknowledgment of her developing stature. Consequently, I would view as a first priority in the building of a comprehensive criticism of Giovanni the publication of a collection of her poems, selected with exceeding care. Such a volume seems crucial to the serious assessment of her achievement from 1968 to the present and to a more general awareness of her continued promise as a mature poet. With such an ordered and trimmed presentation of her work, critics might begin to see her poetry in its proper place in the history of Afro-American poetry and in its relation to the work of other American poets of the present time. Her critics, acting largely upon personal and political beliefs and preferences, have delayed such observation of Giovanni's work from the perspective of American literary history. While a chronological presentation of the selected poems could encourage developmental studies of the poet, arguments could be made for arrangement by topic, theme, or form.
If Giovanni is eventually to receive her merited place in the history of American literature, it is time for critics to examine the marked division in the response that her work has elicited (a division that began in 1971 and that widened greatly in 1972 and 1973). In 1972 the audiences for her poetry and its readers were highly enthusiastic; academic critics ignored her; radical Black critics, having praised her a year or two earlier, attacked her, mostly on ideological and personal grounds; and newspaper and magazine reviewers wrote brief generalizations and seemed to be reading each other's reviews rather than her poems. A disinterested consideration of her work as literary art appeared impossible when those who read her work praised it extravagantly, sharply attacked it, disregarded it, or commented on it in general formulas. Nor did it seem possible later in the 1970s for writers to consider her career in its totality in order that they might ascertain her development as a thinker and an artist as each new volume appeared and that they might appraise her achievement for what it had gradually become. On the basis of her first widely-read collection, Black Feeling/Black Talk/Black Judgement (1970), critics casually placed her in the context of current Afro-American poetry by classifying her with "the Black revolutionary poets" and by referring to her work as representative of "the new Black poetry of hate." Following the reactions which met My House (1972) and later volumes, wherein she includes few political poems, no critic has seriously confronted the whole body of her poetry and its relationship to the developments in Afro-American poetry since 1960, and to modern poetry in general.
Before she gained the attention of the critics and the public with Black Feeling/Black Talk/Black Judgement, Giovanni had attained a modicum of distinction as a promising scholar and writer, receiving honors from universities and grants from funding agencies for the humanities. She graduated in 1967 from Fisk University (her maternal grandfather, a Latin teacher, had earlier graduated from Fisk; her parents, both social workers, had graduated from Knoxville College, also in Tennessee). At her graduation she received honors in history, a formative discipline in her life. She has continued to read history as her recreation, and it has influenced her perspective on many contemporary issues. In 1967 she won a Ford Foundation Fellowship to study at the University of Pennsylvania; in 1968, a National Foundation of the Arts grant to study at the School of Fine Arts, Columbia University; and in 1969, a grant from the Harlem Council of the Arts.
She had also by 1970 grown in political and racial perspicacity and had gone through several phases of awareness of, and commitment to, Black causes. From early childhood she knew that her grandfather had changed teaching jobs and smuggled her grandmother, Louvenia, out of Georgia to Knoxville, Tennessee, one night, after hiding her under blankets. Louvenia had, as an "uppity" pioneer member of the NAACP, offended white people with her outspoken assertion of her rights. Nikki Giovanni's moving portrayal of Louvenia in Gemini (1970) suggests convincingly the effect of her independent, yet emotionally vulnerable, ancestor upon her. In Cincinnati, where her parents worked in social services, Giovanni learned as a child about urban poverty, the difficulties that Blacks face in attaining equal justice, and the struggles that Blacks undergo for economic survival in a Northern industrial city. During the times she lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, she saw, through her grandmother's eyes, the relative powerlessness of Blacks in confronting the racism of the white population in a smaller Southern town. For example Giovanni in 1967 thought Louvenia had been figuratively "assassinated" by the people who so wanted "progress" in Knoxville that they re-routed a little-used road, necessitating the displacement of her grandmother and her neighbors from the houses in which they had lived most of their lives. She felt that the elderly people grieved to death in alien surroundings.
In Gemini Giovanni tells an anecdote about herself at age four. She threw rocks from the porch roof at enemies who chased her older sister from school. She thought her sister should not fight her own battle: she might "maim" her hands, not be able to take her music lessons, and, as a consequence, the music teacher's family might starve. The story anticipates Giovanni's willingness and energy to enter the fight at hand (as in Black Cultural Nationalist enterprises between 1967 and 1969), but it also suggests that the motivation for her militance lay in helping the Black community rather than in gaining power for herself. In college her political activism intensified. Her ambivalence about the politically moderate family heroes—Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins—led her to found a campus chapter of SNCC during the period of Stokely Carmichael's leadership of that organization. As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Columbia (and simultaneously as a teacher at Queen's College and then at Rutgers University) for about two and a half years before the birth of her son (Thomas Watson Giovanni), she supported the Black activists in the leftist and radical Black Arts, Black Theater, and Black History groups; and she spoke at conferences in Detroit, Newark, Wilmington, and New York during the time that Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and Ron Karenga became leaders of Black Cultural Nationalism. Although she has consistently retained her commitment to the Black Aesthetic principles that all genuine Black art explore and affirm the Afro-American experience, she has always been ambivalent and cautious about the expectation that noteworthy Black art be "useful" in promoting the struggle for social and political power-and especially about the mixing of para-military activity with poetry. She has never believed that self-determination for a people negated the need for individual self-determination.
By 1969 she had openly dissociated her work from the demands that prescriptive didacticism was making upon her as an artist. By that time, Baraka and his associates had gained national domination of the Black Liberation Movement through para-military means in the Committee for a Unified New Ark, had violently challenged the supremacy of parallel California groups and their leaders, and, between 1970 and 1974, had fought for the support of major coalitions in the Pan-African organizations. Giovanni retreated from such extreme political action, and, as her dialogue with James Baldwin (1973) and some later poems show, she had begun again to appreciate the effectiveness of Martin Luther King. Only occasionally in the 1970s did she write about Black revolution, and then she addressed in prose issues related to equal justice, as in the cases of Angela Davis and H. Rapp Brown.
Giovanni still sees the need for continuing the Black revolution, but she contends that the revolution started four hundred years ago in America rather than in the 1960s and that one confronts its struggles, and experiences its victories, constantly. In frequent public and printed remarks, she undoubtedly alienated certain younger Black critics in the early 1970s as she dissociated her goals for Afro-American power from the more radical politics of the Black Nationalists and the Pan-African liberation groups. In her interview with Arlene Elder, Giovanni describes Africa as the world's richest continent and oldest civilization but indicates that she does not feel a closer relationship to it than to all of the other places on "this little earth" in which she wishes to travel everywhere freely with her son. She regards her poetry as having been little influenced by African culture, because she is Western by birth and no traditionalist. (Curiously, because she views the Near East as an extension of the African continent, she sees the influence of the Bible upon her poetry as African in origin.) The subject matter of her poems has consistently been Afro-American.
Giovanni's willingness to limit her political efforts to Afro-American causes has continued to bring her negative criticism, even today, partly because she so openly calls herself a Black American "chauvinist." Since the feminist movement has increasingly linked American women with those in developing nations, some feminist critics of Giovanni have also seen her focus as self-centered. The evidence that political disapproval of her exclusive focus on Afro-American needs, and not on African needs, still affects her literary reputation can be seen in the exclusion of her poems from the fine anthology, Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, edited by Amiri and Amina Baraka. The book includes works by forty-nine practicing women poets, and since Giovanni is frequently considered to be today's most widely-read Black American woman poet, perhaps the most widely-read living Black American poet, period, her absence from this volume is startling. A terse footnote in the prefatory material states that Giovanni's contributions were rejected at press time because she traveled in South Africa in 1982.
The most significant development in Giovanni's career has been her evolution from a strongly committed political consciousness prior to 1969 to a more inclusive consciousness which does not repudiate political concern and commitment, but which regards a revolutionary ethos as only one aspect of the totality of Black experience. Her earlier political associates and favorable reviewers of the late 1960s often regarded her development after 1970 with consternation, as representing a repudiation of her racial roots and of political commitment, without perhaps fully understanding the basis for her widened concerns and interests. Giovanni's shift in interest from revolutionary politics and race as a collective matter towards love and race as they affect personal development and relationships brought strong reviewer reaction. (The shift to less favorable criticism, which is apparent in the reviews of My House, is also evident in the late notices of Gemini, Giovanni's most widely reviewed book.) The problems involved in studying the relationship between this shift in her poetry and the somewhat delayed shift from favorable to less favorable criticism, as her artistry grew, are complex. And they are further complicated by the fact that, at the very time the negative reviews of her poetry markedly increased, her popularity with readers surged dramatically ahead. Witness the late sales of Gemini (1971) and Black Feeling/Black Talk/Black Judgement (1970), the new sales of My House (1972), and the record-breaking sales of two of her early albums of recorded poetry. Her audiences around the country grew markedly in size and enthusiasm in 1972, and feature articles and cover stories on "the Princess of Black Poetry" appeared in over a dozen popular magazines in 1972 and 1973.
Studying the relationships between the positive and negative reviews and between the opinions of reviewers and popular audiences is made more difficult by an anomaly presented by Giovanni's Black Feeling/Black Talk/Black Judgement: two-thirds of the poems in this 1970 volume are brief, introspective lyrics which are political only in the most peripheral sense—that they mention a lover as someone the speaker met at a conference, for instance. The remaining third, poems which are strongly political and often militant, received practically all the attention of reviewers. Critics ignored almost completely the poems that foreshadow nearly all the poetry Giovanni was to write in the next thirteen years. In short, the wave of literary reviews that established Giovanni's national reputation as a poet also established her image as a radical. Yet, by the summer of 1970, when these reviews began to appear, Giovanni had been writing solely non-political, lyric poetry for a year. The label "the poet of the Black revolution" which characterized her in the popular media was already a misnomer in 1970, when it began to be popularly used.
The change in stance had, in fact, appeared by 1969, when Giovanni published an article criticizing the leaders of Black Cultural Nationalism. In it, she also rejected the rigidity and the prescriptiveness of the Black Aesthetic, the proponents of which insisted that committed Black writers like herself could only write about changing the Black situation in America in terms of power. She further charged that Black Arts groups had become exclusive and snobbish, and she attacked the Movement's male activists for demanding the subservience of Black women to the male leaders of the cause. In general, she concluded that she could no longer as an artist subordinate her poetry to the politics of revolution. Entitled "Black Poets, Poseurs, and Power," the essay appeared first in the June, 1969, issue of Black World. The aggressive Black leaders of the revolution must surely have read it, but apparently few of her other readers knew of the essay. Since Giovanni had no popular following prior to 1970, her 1969 essay did not become a widely discussed matter in the literary world.
At least initially, readers also seem to have paid scant attention to the philosophical conclusions that Giovanni had arrived at and had announced in her casually organized and conversational essay when it was reprinted in Gemini, a collection of prose pieces, in 1971. Most would have been more interested in her angrily expressed charge that the Black Cultural Nationalists "have made Black women the new Jews." Black readers of Gemini would have focused, too, on her reaction to the 1968 electoral campaign in Newark: the Black citizens of Newark, she contends, seemed more fearful of their "liberators" than they did the corrupt white politicians who had oppressed them in the past. That Giovanni had, by 1971, felt some repercussions from the publication of her article might account for her remark, in A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, that "the young Black critics are, I think just trying to hurt people, and the white critics don't understand."
Ruth Rambo McClain, reviewing Giovanni's 1970 poetry collection Re: Creation in the February, 1971, issue of Black World, is one of the first critics to recognize the change in Giovanni's subject and form. McClain regards the many lyrics in Re:Creation as "tight controlled, clean—too clean" and sees in Giovanni not only "a new classical lyrical Nikki, exploring her new feeling," but "an almost declawed tamed panther." Re:Creation, a small collection, contains a few poems on revolution, the imprisonment of Blacks, and the hatred of white oppressors (perhaps written prior to having arrived at the conclusions Giovanni presents in "Black Poets, Poseurs, and Power"). Most of those who reviewed her two 1970 books of poetry wanted more poems of this sort and referred to them as sharp, vital, energetic, or non-sentimental. A few more detached critics saw the rhetoric in them as somewhat posed and artificial but did not object on political grounds.
Most of the reviews and essays on Giovanni in 1971 recognized no impending change in her work. For example, A. Russell Brooks, writing on "The Motifs of Dynamic Change in Black Revolutionary Poetry" in the September, 1971, issue of CLA Journal, includes Giovanni in his list of nine poets "in the forefront" of revolutionary poetry, and he identifies her as "one of the first two or three most popular black poets." Placing his comments on her between those on Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti) and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), he refers to Lee as the most impatient, Giovanni as the most popular, and Jones as "the Dean of Black Revolutionary Artists." However, in a later review of A Dialogue, Brooks speaks of Giovanni's "marked change in her mode of looking at the world and writing about it" as reflected not only in My House but "fairly well indicated" in Re:Creation and Gemini. In a 1971 article entitled "The Poetry of Three Revolutionists: Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni", R. Roderick Palmer failed to acknowledge Giovanni's shift in vision, seeing her, among these three figures, as the true revolutionary: "the most polemic, the most incendiary; the poet most impatient for change, who … advocates open violence." Palmer, like many other readers, failed to recognize the preponderance of the lyric mode in the collections of 1970, the preponderance of poems devoted to self-analysis, love, and the exploration of personal relationships; he mistakenly remarks that she "occasionally lends herself to less explosive themes."
On February 13, 1972, June Jordan, herself a Black poet, reviewed Gemini in the New York Times Book Review in a generally favorable way. She notes that the paragraphs of Giovanni's prose "slide about and loosely switch tracks" but feels that two essays are "unusual for their serious, held focus and for their clarity." She singles out for special comment the 1969 article "Black Poets, Poseurs, and Power" and the last essay in Gemini, "Gemini—A Prolonged Autobiographical Statement on Why," which closes with the statement "I really like to think a Black, beautiful, loving world is possible." More directly than had McClain, Jordan remarks on what she also identifies as an impending transition in Giovanni's work—because of the attitudes she sees revealed in these two essays. She agrees with Giovanni that the growing militarism in the Black Arts Movement is deplorable and that the Black community itself is the loser when violent strategies pit Black against Black and leave the real enemies "laughing at the sidelines." She observes that Giovanni, in "Black Poets, Poseurs, and Power," was telling the world in 1969 of a change occurring in her poetry and in herself. In speaking of the closing essay in the book, Jordan concludes: "When you compare the poetry [apparently she refers here to the revolutionary poems included in the 1970 volumes] with the ambivalence and wants expressed in this essay, it becomes clear that a transition is taking place inside the artist…. She is writing, 'I don't want my son to be a George or a Jonathan Jackson!'" A few months later, the publication of My House, without revolutionary poems and with most of its lyrics written after 1969, proved June Jordan's careful and perceptive interpretation of Giovanni's intent to have been accurate.
Two of Giovanni's friends wrote positively of her new emphasis on personal values in 1972. Howard University Press editor Paula Giddings, who provided the preface for Giovanni's Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978), in a brief review of Gemini in Black World, contends that Giovanni's concern for individual Black self-determination places her in a longn-standing tradition of Black literature. Ida Lewis, Editor of Encore, a magazine for which Giovanni wrote a twice-monthly column beginning in 1975 (as well as many other articles), mentions in her preface to My House that Giovanni already "has been reproached for her independent attitudes by her critics…. But Nikki Giovanni's greatness is not derived from following leaders, nor has she ever accepted the burden of carrying the revolution. Her struggle is a personal search for individual values…. She jealously guards her right to be judged as an individual." These two sets of remarks make it evident that Giovanni had heard that attacks on her work were soon to appear in print. In the preface to My House, Lewis quotes Giovanni as saying of such Black critics: "We are the only people who will read someone out of the race—the entire nation—because we don't agree with them."
In the same month that Jordan's review appeared, Black critic Peter Bailey published a favorable feature story in Ebony on Giovanni's rapidly growing popular reputation, but he ominously suggested, as did Lewis, that the negative reaction from certain Black artists and politicians loomed just ahead for Giovanni and her poetry. Unlike Jordan, Giddings, and Lewis, however, Bailey saw her popular reputation as a partial cause for the accelerating attack on her work, whereas Jordan had referred to it as a "guarantee" of the interests of her work: "Like it or not," writes Bailey, "—and some people don't like it—she has become a cultural force to be dealt with. She's a much-anthologized poet and she's a lecturer who commands a vast audience…. There are black artists—those in what she called 'the black-power literary establishment'—who are convinced that Nikki's emergence as a 'star' will hinder her development as a black poet."
Since the bulk of Giovanni's Black political associates and fellow artists did not understand the basis for her widened concerns as a poet and saw only her apparent retreat from revolutionary politics, few critics who supported the Black Aesthetic applauded her. Dudley Randall (editor of the Broadside Press), Ida Lewis, Paula Giddings, and probably June Jordan recognized the imperative of the artist to follow her or his own vision if one's imaginative poetry is to flourish. Most others regarded Giovanni's new position as a failure in nerve, even a betrayal. In their reviews they commented disapprovingly about her diminished political and racial commitment in turning to the lyric and away from revolutionary themes, and they judged harshly the poems that dealt with sex, love, and family relationships.
These critics seldom attacked either specific poems or specific lines; they simply opposed Giovanni's new ideological orientation. Repeatedly, they stereotyped her unfavorably—as a woman crying for a lover she could not hold, as a mother abandoned with a baby—frustrated and resentful, longing for the return of her man. While she was insultingly derided for "singing the blues," she was almost as often stereotyped as a frivolous woman, joking, laughing, enjoying herself when serious issues of race and revolution needed to be addressed, and as an overly ambitious and successful woman, who had compromised to accommodate and please everyone in order to gain popularity, wealth, and applause. This second stereotype—the too-happy woman—was labeled the "ego-tripper." ("Ego-Tripping" is the name of one of her most popular poems which she often reads to audiences. It derives from folk origins—the tall-tale, the amusing boaster whose exaggeration increases throughout the story or song and has no bounds as explicit details accumulate into a semblance of invulnerable realism. Ego-Tripping is also the name of her 1973 book for young people.)
Those reviewers who promoted the stereotype of Giovanni's crying the blues for a lost love said that her poems were sad and lacking in energy; those promoting the ego-tripper stereotype complained that her poems were irrelevant, frivolous, trivial, and derived from European lyric traditions. Giovanni's son was five when this kind of attack was most blatantly made—certainly not an infant—; in 1969 and 1970 when he was an infant and when her revolutionary poetry was occupying reviewers, no such references were made. The image of the woman sitting alone and weeping over a sacrificed future must have seemed strange to the crowds who knew of the strenuous speaking and travel schedule which she maintained in the early '70s. In addition, she was writing the poems published in The Women and the Men in 1975, and both preparing her dialogues with Margaret Walker and with James Baldwin for publication in 1973 and 1974, respectively, and producing two books of children's poems, written for her son. During part of this time she also continued to teach at Rutgers University.
In any event, whether critics' animosity arose from their disapproval of independent motherhood, envy of Giovanni's success and popularity, or anger at her political withdrawal from the Black Cultural Nationalist activity and failure to support Pan-African groups, the bitterness of their reviews is startling. They are as extreme in their negation as were the crowds which welcomed Giovanni wherever she spoke or read her poetry extreme in their enthusiasm. Hilda-Njoki McElroy prefaces her review of A Dialogue in the December, 1973, issue of Black World by satirizing the book as "Who's Afraid of James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni: A Comedy for White Audiences," starring N. Giovanni who, as a "super cool, funny woman [,] reveals her vulnerability." McElroy then refers to Giovanni's recent honors as "accolades and awards from the enemy."
Kalamu ya Salaam (Val Ferdinand) launched a still harsher attack upon Giovanni's integrity in an essay which purports to be a late review of My House and of her record album Like a Ripple in the Pond. This critic—who edits the Black Collegian, is associated with the Nkombo Press in New Orleans, and writes essays, poetry, and plays—had won the Richard Wright Prize for Criticism in 1970. He was active in the Congress of Afrikan People and the Afrikan Liberation Support Committee, and a few months later published a long report on his assessment of African Liberation Day entitled "Tell No Lies, Claim No Easy Victories." He is obviously sympathetic to Baraka's progress in the early 1970s towards dominance in the Pan-African groups as he won strength also for the CFUN (Committee for a Unified New Ark). Given Salaam's political background, it is not surprising that he disapproved of Giovanni's 1969 statement on the Black Cultural Nationalists and her refusal to participate in the African liberation groups. Nevertheless, the sense of shock which he expresses in his review rings false, because he is writing about a change that occurred in her work five years before and should have been clear to everyone two years earlier with the publication of My House.
In his essay Salaam centers on a quotation from Baraka which describes the Black actress Ruby Dee in a mournful pose, sitting at a window on a rainy day. (Ruby Dee had, since 1940, played roles in Agamemnon, King Lear, Boesman and Lena, and A Raisin in the Sun and taken other parts in stage plays, films, and television dramas. Like Giovanni, she had produced poetry readings against a background of jazz and gospel music.) Quoting Baraka, "Ruby Dee weeps at the window … lost in her life … sentimental bitter frustrated deprived of her fullest light…." Salaam continues, "This describes Nikki perfectly." He then contends that Giovanni has moved from revolutionary poetry to sad lyricism in My House because she is lamenting a lover who has abandoned her, and she now is, like "a whole lot of Ruby Dees, sitting … waiting … the footsteps of us brothers come back home." His supposed pity for her suddenly assumes a harsher tone: "Nikki has gone quietly crazy." Referring to her lyric about the experience of being a bridesmaid, he taunts her by saying, "A lot of the seeming insanity and nonsense that Nikki verbalizes … must be understood for what it is: Broken dreams. Misses. Efforts that failed. I betcha Nikki wanted to be married…." This fictionalized biography completed, Salaam attacks Giovanni's poetry for its sentimentality, its romanticism, and its being influenced by European tradition ("strictly European literature regurgitated"). He scolds her for turning from the unremitting analysis of "collective oppression" in order to "sing the blues" about personal problems. She should have known that "just love" is not an appropriate theme for poetry, because love is an intensely personal experience between only two individuals and, thus, is counter-revolutionary. He concludes that Giovanni does not have the right to "do whatever … she feels like doing" because she is, as a Black, still "in captivity." She should see the limits of her poetry within the message "The revolution is, and must be, for land and self-control. And good government."
It is my contention that Giovanni's rejection of the pressure to write primarily a didactic, "useful" political poetry was not only a sign of her integrity but an inevitable sign of her development. A truly comprehensive criticism of her work must be willing to recognize both her continuing commitment to the attainment by Black people of power in America and a commitment to personal freedom for herself as a woman and an artist. Critics need not only to see the importance of politics in her life but to perceive also that a commitment to politics, pursued with ideological rigor, inevitably becomes constricting to an artist. That Giovanni still writes political poetry can be understood by attending to the anger which she expresses in each volume at the oppression of Blacks, women, and the elderly; she continually deplores also the violence which oppression spawns. She illustrates the conflict between ideological commitment, exacted by political beliefs, and the demands of the artistic sensibility which tend to find such commitment confining and stultifying. She illustrates in her own work and career the same arc that the poets of the Auden generation in England illustrated: the passing beyond a doctrinal basis for one's poetry to a work responsive to an illuminating of the whole of the individual's experience. Giovanni's case is both complicated and made clearer by her connections with the Black Liberation Movement, which has not yet won all its objectives, particularly her affinities to the work of those closely lied to Marxist-Leninist ideology and Pan-African goals.
Giovanni has been viewed by some of her politically ardent contemporaries in the liberation groups as having deserted the movement with which she was at first visibly associated. Her revolutionary poem in Black Feeling/Black Talk/Black Judgement made her into a heroic figure for some Blacks, and the myth of her fiery opposition to tyranny was slow to die—even though she had moved away from Black Cultural Nationalism before most of those who hailed the strenuous and dominant voice in her poems knew that she existed. A more comprehensive criticism would permit critics to consider that Giovanni may have gained rather than lost as a result of the development of a personal idiom and of a more lyrical stance in her post-1970 work. In her response to Peter Bailey's questions early in 1972 about the "reproach" from Black activists that was gathering about her and her work, Giovanni displayed again the defiance and staunch independence captured in the anecdote from Gemini which features the four-year-old Nikki holding the fort with stones on her porch roof, ready to fight back against detractors: "I'm not about telling people what they should do…. The fight in the world today is the fight to be an individual, the fight to live out your own damn ego in your own damn way…. If I allow you to be yourself and you allow me to be myself, then we can come together and build a strong union…. I'm an arrogant bitch, culturally speaking."
In her poetry Giovanni has chosen to communicate with the common reader, as well as with artists and critics; consequently, she has used graphic images from everyday Afro-American life and stressed the "orality" of her usually short poems, often by assimilating into them the rhythms of Black conversation and the heritage from jazz, blues, and the spirituals—reflecting these origins both in rhythmic patterns and borrowed phrases. She has tended to focus on a single individual, situation, or idea, often with a brief narrative thread present in the poem. Her choice of such simple forms has meant that academic critics might well be less interested in her work than in that of the more complex and intellectualized poets most often associated with modernism, such as T. S. Eliot. Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden. She avoids the allusions to classical literature and mythology, the relatively obscure symbolism, the involved syntax, the densely-packed idiom, and the elliptical diction often characteristic of such poets. If the verbal and structural forthrightness of Giovanni's poetry in some measure accounts for the paucity of academic criticism of it, this elemental quality accounts also for her popular acclaim by thousands who come to hear her read her work. Like a folksinger, she senses the close relationship of poetry with music, since her poetry, like music, depends on sound and rhythm and is incomplete without oral performance and without an audience. (At times, especially in her children's poetry, she relates her poems to a third such art, dance.)
Throughout the 1970s Giovanni read her poetry and lectured on campuses, at churches, and on radio and television. Paula Giddings reported in the preface to Giovanni's Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978) that Giovanni appeared before as many as two hundred audiences a year during the 1970s, commanding substantial speaking fees. Today she continues to make public appearances but on a less strenuous schedule. As a poet of the people, Giovanni renews the tradition of the bard, prophet, or witness who sings or chants to inform the people, to subvert tyranny, and to bring an audience together as a community to celebrate a cause or person or a heritage, or to establish a basis for sympathy and understanding of one another's suffering or problems. For Giovanni's audience participation at a poetry reading can be as much a part of the aesthetic experience as congregational expression may be part of worship experience.
Giovanni's acceptance by the public was strong in 1970 and grew in 1971 with the publication of Gemini, and in 1972 and 1973 it greatly increased, in counterpoint to the negative reviews of My House during those years. In 1969 the Amsterdam News, a Black New York weekly found in 1909, listed her as one of the ten most admired Black women in America. By 1970 and 1971 journalists and television speakers generally referred to her as "the star" or "the Princess of Black Poetry." June Jordan, in reviewing Gemini, commented in 1972 that the book's interests were "guaranteed by Miss Giovanni's status as a leading black poet and celebrity," and she referred to Giovanni's "plentiful followers" who claimed her as "their poet," so directly did she speak to them.
The popular media both reflected her burgeoning popular reputation and strengthened its further growth. Besides the many feature articles on her poetry and personality in major popular magazines, over a dozen in 1972 and 1973 alone, she frequently appeared on late-night television talk shows, and she read her poetry regularly on Soul, a one-hour television show of music, dance, drama, and literature for young people (sponsored by the Ford Foundation). In 1970 she established her own company, NikTom Records. Ltd., and then recorded albums on which she read her poetry against a musical background—first, gospel; and later, blues, jazz, rock, and folk. Two early albums were best-sellers, and one received the national AFTRA Award for Best Spoken Album in 1972.
Giovanni says that she speaks for no one but herself, but she actually has become, in her poems, the speaker for many diverse groups and individuals. She has revealed a sincere interest in the people from many backgrounds who come to hear her or who write to her. Though in her early work she made use of a militant rhetoric with images of violence, she deplored—even in her first major volume—the actual violence seemingly endemic to American life. In one of her first poems, "Love Poem: For Real," she mourned the fact that "the sixties have been one long funeral day." In her poetry she is ardently sympathetic to those who have died uselessly and goes on in each new volume to lament the senselessness of the results of prejudice and intolerance, the public tragedy that she makes personal tragedy in her poetry—from the Ku Klux Klan murders of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, through the assassinations of public leaders in the 1960s, to the murders of kidnapped children in Atlanta.
She has attracted feminists with her portrayals of the women in her family and of elderly Black women. They have noted her frequent dedications of poems to women and have been impressed by her courageous assertion that she had her baby in 1969 because she wanted a baby, could afford to, and didn't want a husband. The more traditional leadership of the National Council of Negro Women, moreover, has honored her with a life membership, and she has praised their inclusive program of advocacy and membership policy. Young protesters against the draft and Viet Nam involvement crowded her campus lectures, but she also encouraged high school students at assemblies (often Black students) to avoid an alignment with "hippie" groups and to follow a disciplined life—to aim higher, work harder, and demand bigger rewards. After the inmates of the Cook County Jail presented her with a plaque, she boasted that prisoners and students were her best supporters. She relished ceremonies in which mayors from Gary, Indiana, to Dallas, Texas, gave her keys to their cities. With more somber pomp and ceremony, she was in three years (1972–1975) awarded four honorary doctorates.
One example of the acclaim Giovanni received in 1972 and 1973 can be found in an event honoring her which combined the setting of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a formally attired audience of government dignitaries and other celebrities, a several-month-long publicity promotion in the Ladies' Home Journal, and the financial backing of Clairol (a large manufacturer of hair products) with a one-hour television extravaganza which pre-empted network programs. In 1972 Giovanni received one of seven "Highest Achievement Awards" from Mademoiselle as "one of the most listened to of the younger poets." In the more highly publicized Ladies' Home Journal "Women of the Year" contest in 1973, she became one of the eight winners (from among eighty nominees on ballots printed in the magazine, which thirty thousand subscribers clipped, marked, signed, and mailed that month). A jury of prestigious women who made the final choices for the list included Shirley Temple Black; Margaret Truman Daniels; Eunice Kennedy Shriver; the presidents of the National Organization for Women, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the National Council of Negro Women, Women in Communications, and two women's colleges; the dean of a medical college; a recruiter for high-level positions in the Nixon administration; and a woman Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force. Besides Giovanni, the list itself included such famous women as Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, Shirley Chisholm, recently a Presidential candidate; and actress Helen Hayes. Other nominees included Coretta King; Dorothy Day; Judge Shirley Hofstedler; sculptor Louise Nevelson; historian Barbara Tuchman; authors Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Sexton, and Pearl Buck; musicians Beverly Sills, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, and Ethel Waters; athletes Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Peggy Fleming; feminists Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Aileen Hernandez; former ambassador Patricia Harris; sex researcher Virginia Masters; Patricia Nixon; Julie Nixon Eisenhower; and Rose Kennedy. The awards (pendant-pins with three diamonds, specially designed for the occasion by Tiffany's) were presented by Mamie Eisenhower, news commentator Barbara Walters, and Senator Margaret Chase Smith. The ceremony, hosted by actress Rosalind Russell, was viewed by an estimated television audience of thirty million.
The nomination ballots had identified Giovanni as a "Black consciousness poet," and the award presentation statement cited her as "a symbol of Black awareness." Although it also described her somewhat patronizingly as a person "rising above her environment to seek the truth and tell it," readers of her poetry know that its "truth" derives not from her rising above her environment but from her having remained so close to it. This mass-media event offers evidence of the poet's rapid rise to celebrity and provides evidence of the widespread recognition of her and her poetry. This popular acclaim would seem to be an affirmation of her decision four years earlier to write on a wide variety of subjects and to reach as wide a number of people of differing backgrounds and personal characteristics as possible.
The problems arising from Giovanni's early critical reception linger. As we move in the direction of providing a more adequate base of understanding and assessment of her work, it is fortunate that three good sources of Giovanni's own views on the criticism of poetry (particularly her own work) have appeared in the last two years: the verse preface to Giovanni's Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983), the 1983 interview with Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work, and the 1982 interview with Arlene Elder.
As I mentioned earlier, negative criticism of Giovanni—often based on personal or political bias rather than sound literary assessment—gains strength by pointing to a particularly poor poem or an unfortunate line. Giovanni's process of revision (or discarding all or part of a poem), therefore, has special relevance in her continued development. As she describes her process of revision to Claudia Tate, she essentially discards an entire poem if it appears to present several problems or a major problem. Otherwise, when she discovers a recalcitrant line or two, she "starts at the top" and rewrites the entire poem—perhaps a dozen times—rather than working on a particular line or phrase. She finds this radical rewriting necessary to insure the poem's unity: "A poem's got to be a single stroke." It is particularly important to understand this characteristic process, established over fifteen years, as one begins to criticize Giovanni's forthcoming works. According to Arlene Elder's introduction to her interview with Giovanni, the poet is about to embark on an experiment with much longer poems (1,200-1,500 lines) after a career of writing short poems. Since one cannot rewrite a long poem a dozen times upon encountering problems in a few lines, Giovanni's revision process may radically change.
One already sees changes of probable significance between Giovanni's most recent book, Those Who Ride the Night Winds, and her books of the 1970s. In many of the poems she is using a "lineless" form: the rhythmic effects come from measured groups of words or phrases of fairly regular length separated from each other by ellipses, but appearing otherwise to be prose paragraphs. Except for works before 1970, she has (more than other contemporary Black poets, such as Sonia Sanchez or Haki Madhubuti) avoided such unconventional typographical devices as capitalizing all the words in a line, separating a single syllable between lines (Bl-Ack), or spelling for the sake of puns (hue-man, Spear-o-Agnew, master-bate). She has probably done so, in part, because of the artificiality of these tricks—but more often because she stresses the oral nature of her poetry, and such typography has little effect on the spoken word. One wonders, then, whether she is, in her latest volume, moving away from the emphasis on the oral. She may also be seeking a bridge between the freedom of prose and the more exact structuring of poetry. In this book she also includes a number of poems about individual white people—John Lennon, John F. Kennedy, and Billie Jean King, for example. New critics of Giovanni will need to know her earlier work and the nature of its development to understand and evaluate the changes that appear to be approaching in her career.
From the Tate interview, one learns much that is significant about Giovanni's views on good criticism. She now claims that she does not care whether her critic is black or white, but the individual should understand her work, or try to do so, before writing on it. In her view critics must not permanently "brand" a work so that other critics unconsciously embrace that judgment. They should not expect consistency within an author's canon, since such an expectation denies the fact that an artist may grow and change. In reviewing a book, they should place it in the context of the rest of the author's work. They should not assume that the voice ordering the poem and the experience described in the poem are necessarily autobiographical. They should not aim to injure an author personally by referring to private matters instead of concentrating on the work apart from the author's life. They should not question a writer's integrity because they happen to disagree with the ideas expressed in the work. Giovanni's comments, though offhanded, are pithy: "There would be no point to having me go three-fourths of the way around the world if I couldn't create an inconsistency, if I hadn't learned anything." "You're only as good as your last book…. God wrote one book. The rest of us are forced to do a little better." "You can't quote the last book as if it were the first."
In her preface to Those Who Ride the Night Winds, Giovanni invites her readers to hurry along with her as she flies the uncharted night winds, because she is changing, and because—as the Walrus said—the time has come to talk of many things. If she still feels distrust of critics, in this preface she suggests a willingness to listen, as in the interviews she suggests a desire to be energized as a poet by "better questions this year than last." In spite of her mixed experience with critics, she does not see herself as their victim, because she knows that she was free to choose a safer occupation than that of writer and did not do so. In the "lineless" poetry she uses in her new book—the first unconventional typography she has used since 1970—she puns on the "bookmaker" as a professional gambler and her own game of chance as a "maker of books": "Bookmaking is shooting craps … with the white boys … downtown on the stock exchange … is betting a dime you can win … And that's as it should be … If you wanted to be safe … you would have walked into the Post Office … or taken a graduate degree in Educational Administration … you pick up your pen … And take your chances …"
Giovanni's critics, who often limit themselves to reviews of her separate books, devote little attention to her development from year to year and provide little specific analysis of the significant aspects of the form and structure of her poetry. No critic has fully discussed the variety of her subjects and her techniques. Beyond this, personal bias and political needs, rather than a commitment to judgments based on sound theoretical postulates, dominate much of the criticism which does exist on her work. Those who have attacked her poetry most severely have failed to understand Giovanni's compulsion to follow her own artistic vision as well as her continued commitment to Afro-American culture. Her great popularity among readers of many ages, classes, races, and economic backgrounds is at variance with the neglect of her work by critics or their tendency to patronize her and her work. Sympathetic and sophisticated studies of her work are a prime necessity if she is to achieve the recognition due her as a literary artist. Such studies, it is hoped, would encourage her to achieve her full potential as a poet and would also attain for her the reputation that the corpus of her work calls for.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830
SOURCE: "Unedibles," in Cimarron Review, Vol. 83, April, 1988, pp. 94-5.
[In the following review of Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles, McDermott criticizes Giovanni's monotony and lack of wit.]
On February 19th William Morrow and Company will publish what it defines as a collection of essays by Nikki Giovanni, but this designation seems a bit inaccurate. The term "essay" suggests an attempt to order and shape material to a particular topic or collection of closely related topics. Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles is almost exclusively an exercise of glib incoherence. What is recommended by her publisher as her irreverence, her shameless-ness, is nothing more than her audacity in attempting to chat about everything and nothing, almost simultaneously. And yet it is not discursive. To call her work discursive is to suggest that at some point it is on track. There are no tracks—no destination, merely large unmapped areas of speculative discourse. But hers is perhaps a studied, or at least affected, incoherence, and for those who are admirers of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, this refusal to get to the point or stick with the subject might be to your taste. Consider her range in this entire paragraph from "In Sympathy With Another Motherless Child (One View of the Profession of Writing)":
I really don't know what to say about myself. I like music, there is something very special about capping my headphones and drowning in a vision of sound. Someone once asked me if I played an instrument and I replied, "My stereo." It's not surprising that man's first musical instrument was a drum; the image of the heart had to be manifest. The African people made use of the ability of the drum to both inform and incite; for over two hundred years of the American experience drumming was outlawed. A people, though, are rarely stopped in their legitimate desire for either knowledge or pleasure. Whether the Eighteenth Amendment would outlaw alcohol or the Miss America Pageant would desire the clothing of their Black Venus, a people, through individual risk or simply aesthetic innocence, will bring word of a new day.
This style reflects an interesting prose experiment, much the way Molly's soliloquy represents the direct reflections of Molly as she waits for Bloom and approaches the gates of la-la-land. But can you imagine the entire Ulysses transcribed from the interior walls of Molly's slipping consciousness? Imagine, then the monotony of the above Giovanni style for 163 pages.
But Giovanni's collection is also lauded by the publisher as a witty book. Is it?
Recently, a friend of mine, through no lack of sensitivity, on a rainy day in Florida, pulled into a handicapped parking place. Well, the parking space wasn't handicapped, it was simply so designated.
The sacred cow at stake here will be, of course, handicapped privileges. This, in one of her more pointed discussions after a momentary lapse, will reach the witty barb:
But hey. We were discussing designated handicapped parking. At the risk of sounding a bit cold—if they can drive, they can take their chances like the rest of us. Or I'm going to ask James Meredith to initiate a march demanding designated COLORED parking spots. Then, of course, the militant gays will demand designated gay spots,….
Has the initial joke crawled too far? Is this wit, seething with delicious sarcasm? What ever it is, it is a sort of formula wit that she employs again and again:
I am totally shocked by the Cincinnati father who raped his five-month-old baby while his wife was out shopping. Guess that will teach his wife to ask him to babysit.
But ultimately, it is wit without content. And her serious prose stance is, if not pedestrian, sometimes confused as in this opening passage from "An Answer to Some Questions on How I Write":
It's always a bit intimidating to try to tell how I write since I, like most writers, I think, am not at all sure that I do what I do in the way that I think I do it. In other words, (italics are mine) I was always told not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Is there any sort of mirror relationship between the first passage and the second that follows upon the qualifier "In other words"? Perhaps this is unfair to ask that her words say literally what she would like to say—which in this case is "Besides." But is there any significance or content to justify this paragraph or the following confessional insight:
… I do pick my nose when I'm afraid. It's gotten so bad, in fact, that now I know that I'm afraid because I find myself picking my nose.
Perhaps my standards for the genre designation "collection of essays" is too high. There are reputable critics who maintain that Tristram Shandy is not a novel. Be that as it may, Tristram Shandy's existence is insured by its brilliance. Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles has no such insurance policy.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8510
SOURCE: "Nikki Giovanni: Place and Sense of Place in Her Poetry," in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge, University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 279-300.
[In the essay below, Cook considers the influence of the Southern writing tradition on Giovanni's writing.]
Nikki Giovanni's poetry has been most often viewed by literary critics in the tradition of militant black poetry; the first serious critical article on her work, in fact, is R. Roderick Palmer's "The Poetry of Three Revolutionists: Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni." More recent critics, especially Suzanne Juhasz in her Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition (1976) have emphasized the developing feminism in Giovanni's poems. No critic has yet focused on what I see as the key to reading Giovanni, her position in the rich tradition of Southern poetry, proceeding unbroken from Richard Lewis in the eighteenth century through Poe, Henry Timrod, and Sidney Lanier, on through the Fugitives and Jean Toomer, down to James Dickey and Ishmael Reed today. By focusing specifically on the sense of place, a vital element in Southern literature, I have identified a group of poems that represent Giovanni at her best, technically and thematically.
Before looking at specific themes, subjects, images, and symbols, I should survey the significant aspects of Nikki Giovanni's life and career. She was born on 7 June 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee, to a middle-class black couple, Jones Giovanni, a probation officer, and his wife, Yolande, a social worker. It is clearly a mark of Giovanni's respect for her mother that she sometimes gives her formal name as Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr. When she was young, the family lived "in Wyoming, Ohio, which is a suburb of Cincinnati, which some say is a suburb of Lexington, Kentucky." Later they moved to the black community of Lincoln Heights. Nikki often visited her much-beloved Watson grandparents in Knoxville and attended Austin High School there. She closely identified her grandparents with their home on Mulvancy Street; when her grandmother Louvenia was forced by urban renewal to move to Linden Avenue, Giovanni explained her own feelings of displacement: "There was no familiar smell in that house." Giovanni's Southern roots were further strengthened during her years at Fisk University in Nashville. She began college immediately after high school; though difficulties in maturing during the turbulence of the 1960s resulted in a gap in her college work, she eventually graduated with honors in history in 1967. She is remembered for her radical activities on campus, especially her role in reestablishing the Fisk chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She also studied with John Killens and edited the Fisk literary magazine.
Giovanni continued her involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, primarily through her writing. Right out of college, she began publishing articles, poems, and book reviews in journals such as Negro Digest and Black World. Consistently attacking elitism in the black arts movement, she praised writers whom she viewed as presenting a realistic yet positive picture of black life, both new voices, such as Louise Meriwether, author of the 1970 novel Daddy Was a Number Runner, and established ones, such as Dudley Randall. During the late 1960s, she worked to organize the first Cincinnati Black Arts Festival and the New Theatre in that city, as well as a black history group in Wilmington, Delaware. She also took courses at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and the Columbia University School of Fine Arts and taught at Queens College of the City University of New York and Livingston College of Rutgers University.
Randall's Broadside Press, invaluable for its support and encouragement of black poetry, brought out two small collections of Giovanni's poems, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968), which she had first printed privately, and Black Judgement (1969), including many poems that contributed to Giovanni's early reputation as a militant poet who advocated the violent overthrow of the white power structure in America. Many readers found these poems exciting and inspiring, and the poet Don L. Lee pointed to "lines that suggest the writer has a real, serious commitment to her people and to the institutions that are working toward the liberation of Black people." However, he goes on, "when the Black poet chooses to serve as political seer, he must display a keen sophistication, Sometimes Nikki oversimplifies and therefore sounds rather naive politically." Giovanni offered further support for fellow black writers by founding a publishing cooperative. NikTom, Ltd. One of its significant projects is her edition of a collection of poems by black women, Night Comes Softly: Anthology of Black Female Voices (1970), with contributors ranging in age from seventeen to eighty-four, from unknowns to Sonia Sanchez to Gwendolyn Brooks.
In addition to her literary creations, Giovanni marked her twenty-fifth year by having a child, though she did not marry his father. She was living in New York, where she was writing poetry and serving on the editorial board of the journal Black Dialogue. One suspects that the humor used to describe her pregnancy and the birth of her son in the essay "Don't Have a Baby Till You Read This" masks to some degree the fears and uneasiness with which she faced life as a single parent. However, she amusingly recounts planning for a daughter's birth in New York, but giving birth prematurely to a son while visiting her parents in Ohio. Through this experience, she learns that one is always a child to one's parents; finally, she asserts herself and goes "home" to New York with her own child. Of her decision to have a child alone, she said later, "'I had a baby at 25 because I wanted to have a baby and I could afford to have a baby. I did not get married because I didn't want to get married and I could afford not to get married.'" Giovanni has remained unmarried and has consistently viewed her single motherhood as a positive choice.
By 1969, Sheila Weller had called Giovanni "one of the most powerful figures on the new black poetry scene—both in language and appeal." Weller goes on to indicate that the woman she is interviewing is not the woman she expected from reading her poetry: "The tense anger that wires many of Nikki's poems is in direct contrast to the warm calm she generates." Giovanni said of herself at the time of the interview, "'I've changed a lot over the last few months.'" When her next volume of poetry, Re:Creation (1970), was published by Broadside, a reviewer for Black World was concerned that the poems were not so radical and militant as those in Giovanni's earlier volumes, describing the poet as transformed "into an almost declawed, tamed Panther with bad teeth," yet conceding, "a Panther with bad teeth is still quite deadly." Seeing her changes as positive rather than negative, as strengthening her work rather than weakening it, Time noted in a 1970 article on black writers that "already some, like Nikki Giovanni, are moving away from extreme political activism toward more compassionate and universal themes."
In 1970, the firm William Morrow issued Giovanni's first two Broadside books under the title Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement. This publication, followed in 1971 by the prose volume Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet, brought her such attention as a lengthy review by Martha Duffy in Time. Duffy particularly praises the autobiographical sections of Gemini, emphasizing: "On the subject of her childhood, Miss Giovanni is magical. She meanders along with every appearance of artlessness, but one might as well say that Mark Twain wrote shaggy-dog stories." Of Giovanni's propagandistic writing, Duffy observes: "Hers is a committed social rage. She is capable of scalding rhetoric, but the artist in her keeps interrupting."
The year 1971 also marked the publication of Giovanni's first volume of poetry for children, Spin a Soft Black Song. The poems, enhanced by excellent illustrations by Charles Bible, offer realistic images of black urban life and positive images of black identity. The same year, she recorded the first of several poetry readings combined with gospel music or jazz. "Truth Is on Its Way" includes a number of poems from Giovanni's Broadside volumes, with music by the New York Community Choir under the direction of Benny Diggs. According to Harper's Bazaar, Giovanni introduced the album at a free concert in a church in Harlem. Following her performance, "the audience shouted its appreciation.
Peter Bailey summed up Giovanni's public role as follows: "Nikki, the poet, has become a personality, a star." At that time, in 1972, Giovanni seemed to see herself in the tradition of confessional poetry, like so many twentieth-century American women poets, but with the particular perspective of the black American: "'When I write poetry,… I write out of my own experiences—which also happen to be the experiences of my people. But if I had to choose between my people's experiences and mine. I'd choose mine, because that's what I know best.'" Her next volume of poems is entitled My House (1972). In the introduction, Ida Lewis, editor and publisher of Encore, for which Giovanni was serving as an editorial consultant, calls her "the Princess of Black Poetry," saying lightheartedly: "I've seen Nikki mobbed in Bloomingdale's department store by Black and white customers; I've walked with her down Fifth Avenue and watched a man who was saying 'hi' to her walk into an oncoming taxi." Yet Lewis concludes in a serious vein, emphasizing that Giovanni "writes about the central themes of our times, in which thirty million Blacks search for self-identification and self-love." The star, the princess, at the age of twenty-nine was taken seriously enough to be awarded an honorary doctorate by Wilberforce University, the oldest black institution of higher education in America. Even after the publication of her next two volumes of poetry, Alex Batman considered My House her "finest work."
Giovanni's next album, "Like a Ripple on a Pond," again with the New York Community Choir, features selections from My House. The volume and the album were criticized by Black World reviewer Kalamu ya Salaam for failing to live up to the promise of Giovanni's earlier work. Salaam is particularly hard on the poems, citing their sentimentality and romanticism. He is accurate in some cases, yet he is harshly critical of the sequence of African poems that other critics have seen as one of the strongest elements of the volume, Giovanni's next volume of poetry for children, Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People (1973), includes a selection of previously published poems illustrated by George Ford. The title poem is an especially good example of her theme of racial pride and her interest in the places associated with her African heritage.
In 1971, Giovanni had taped a program for the WNET series "Soul!"; this appearance was transcribed, edited, and published in 1973 as A Dialogue: James Baldwin/Nikki Giovanni. The volume offers insight into both the works and the personal lives of these two important black writers, as does a similar volume apparently inspired by that experience, A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, published by Howard University Press in 1974. The latter is perhaps the more interesting, as it gives these black women writers of succeeding generations the opportunity to react to contemporary political and literary issues.
The early 1970s were clearly a period of change and growth for Giovanni, as she was coming to terms with the legacy of civil rights activism and her own personal concerns as a woman and a mother. In 1973, a number of public figures were asked by Mademoiselle to describe their views of the previous decade in a so-called epitaph. Giovanni's contribution, a mock radio-drama called "Racism: The Continuing Saga of the American Dream," was obviously a difficult chore; she commented, "'I had to use a light touch. To approach the '60s any other way right now would be too painful.'" A warmer side of Giovanni is seen in her contribution to a Mademoiselle feature entitled "A Christmas Memory," where she concludes, "Christmas to me is a special link to the past and a ritual for our future."
During this period of increasing strength in the feminist movement in America, Giovanni seems to have become more aware of the personal and political significance of sex roles and of sex discrimination. "'Roles between men and women are changing…. We no longer need categories,'" she said in an interview. "'There is no reason why my son can't cook and rock with his teddy bear as well as swim and play ball.'" Giovanni's next volume of poetry, The Women and the Men (1975), reflects her growing awareness of such issues but also hints at difficulties in the creative process. Three years after My House, she offers a volume including a number of poems from the 1970 Re:Creation (which did deserve wider circulation than it had received); the new poems do not generally demonstrate meaningful development in theme or technique. Yet The Women and the Men brought Giovanni further attention in the media, including pre-publication of three poems in Mademoiselle (September 1975). Jay S. Paul has called it "her richest collection of poems." The mid-seventies also produced another album, "The Way I Feel," with accompanying music by Arif Mardin and liner notes by Roberta Flack.
In addition to Giovanni's growing concern with feminist themes, in the 1970s, she further explored her heritage as a black American. In Gemini, she writes of her father's journey from Ohio to Knoxville College as a journey to his "spiritual roots"—his grandfather had been a slave in eastern Tennessee—and also tells the story of how her maternal grandparents were forced to leave Georgia because her grandmother refused to submit to white domination. Another essay in the volume describes her own trip to Haiti in search of "sunshine and Black people"; feeling like a foreigner, she went on to Barbados, where she gained a deeper understanding of the sense of displacement of West Indian immigrants in American society, clearly analogous to the position of blacks who were brought to this country as slaves. In 1975, she traveled to Africa, where she spoke in several countries, including Ghana. Zambia, Tanzania, and Nigeria.
Giovanni continued to receive recognition in the mid-1970s, with, for example, honorary doctorates from the University of Maryland, Princess Anne Campus, Ripon University, and Smith College. Another honor was more controversial. According to Jeanne Noble, "Nikki's winning the Ladies' Home Journal Woman of the Year Award in 1974 meant to some young revolutionaries that she was joining forces with the very people she often considered foes. But, she does not shun confrontation or even violence if whites provoke it." In fact, Giovanni had for some time been more concerned with broader themes of identity and self-knowledge than with her earlier militancy, though she remained politically active. "While her poetry is full of Black pride," African Woman explains, "she transcends colour to deal with the challenge of being human."
Giovanni's next volume of poetry, Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978), represents a definite, if not wholly positive, change. Paula Giddings's introduction emphasizes the development she sees in Giovanni and her work: "If Nikki, in her idealism, was a child of the sixties then now, in her realism, she is a woman of the seventies." She also notes, "Cotton Candy is the most introspective book to date, and the most plaintive." Alex Batman describes the distinctive features of this volume in a similar way: "One feels throughout that here is a child of the 1960s mourning the passing of a decade of conflict, of violence, but most of all, of hope. Such an attitude, of course, may lend itself too readily to sentimentality and chauvinism, but Giovanni is capable of countering the problems with a kind of hard matter-of-factness about the world that has passed away from her and the world she now faces."
Giddings further says of the Cotton Candy volume that it represents "the private moments: of coming to terms with oneself—of living with oneself. Taken in the context of Nikki's work it completes the circle: of dealing with society, others and finally oneself." Giddings's description of Giovanni's work may reveal why her development of new themes and techniques was slow. Perhaps she had to come to terms with herself, doing so to a certain degree through her poetry, before she could truly deal with others and with society. Indeed, her poetry is in many ways a mirror of the social consciousness of the 1960s, followed by the self-centeredness of the 1970s. Yet Giddings's comments do not predict what might follow such an inwardly focused collection, what one might expect from Giovanni's poetry in the 1980s. Anna T. Robinson, in a short monograph entitled Nikki Giovanni: From Revolution to Revelation, believes that Cotton Candy is "a pivotal work in Nikki Giovanni's career. It will mandate that she be evaluated as a poet rather than a voice for a cause."
The title of the volume Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day is ironic; the poems are not lighthearted or optimistic, as the positive connotations of cotton candy suggest. Giovanni's next volume has an ambiguous and perhaps also ironic title, Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983). Having read Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, one might anticipate a journey into the further gloom night can symbolize. However, the dedication indicates that night may offer possibilities not readily apparent: "This book is dedicated to the courage and fortitude of those who ride the night winds—who are the day trippers and midnight cowboys—who in sonic solitude or the hazy hell of habit know—that for all the devils and gods—for all the illnesses and drugs to cure them—Life is a marvelous, transitory adventure—and are determined to push us into the next century, galaxy—possibility." The form of the poems shows an interesting development in technique. Most are written in long verse paragraphs with abundant ellipsis marks, a stream-of-consciousness form that is not traditionally "poetic" but produces a sense of openness and forward movement with thematic significance.
The reasons behind the changes in Giovanni's poetry between the 1978 and 1983 volumes may well lie in her decision to move back to Lincoln Heights with her son and share her parents' home after her father suffered a stroke. Although she maintained an apartment in New York City, she devoted time, energy, and money to making a place for herself in Ohio again. She has more than once spoken of the difficulties she has encountered in this situation, not to complain, but simply to explain. For example, she said in 1981, "'No matter what the situation is or what the financial arrangements are, you are always their child…. If you're in your parents' house or they're in yours, it's still a parent-child relationship.'" When her son was born, Giovanni apparently needed to assert her independence, but she had matured enough not to feel her sense of identity threatened by her family. Though she spoke of the need "to feel at home in order to write," she seems to have made the adjustment rapidly, for during that period, she published her third volume for children, new poems with the title Vacation Time (1980).
The poems in Those Who Ride the Night Winds transcend such categories as black/white, male/female, reality/fantasy. "In this book," Mozella G. Mitchell points out, "Giovanni has adopted a new and innovative form; and the poetry reflects her heightened self knowledge and imagination." A look down the table of contents reveals new kinds of subjects, with poems to Billie Jean King. John Lennon, and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as to Lorraine Hansberry, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. Having once stated that she wrote primarily from personal or at least from racial experiences, Giovanni recently contradicted herself in the best Emersonian sense: "I resent people who say writers write from experience. Writers don't write from experience, though many are hesitant to admit that they don't. I want to be very clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy…. Writers write because they empathize with the general human condition." Those Who Ride the Night Winds is an impressive illustration of the effectiveness of that kind of empathy and the value of change. "'Only a fool doesn't change,'" Giovanni once commented. In the preface to this volume of poems, she alludes to both Lewis Carroll and the Beatles as she announces: "I changed … I chart the night winds … glide with me … I am the walrus … the time has come … to speak of many things…." Having changed, Giovanni has reached maturity as a poet, with a volume that satisfies the reader, yet promises more complex and challenging poems in the future.
Giovanni has continued to receive recognition for her work in the 1980s in the academic world, with honorary doctorates from the College of Mount St. Joseph on-the-Ohio and Mount St. Mary College, and with teaching positions at Ohio State University, Mount St. Joseph, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She also continues to reach the larger world outside the academy, as indicated by her being named to the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame and as the Outstanding Woman of Tennessee, both in 1985. She was chosen co-chairperson of the Literary Arts Festival for Homecoming '86 in Tennessee, the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence of the Taft Museum in Cincinnati in 1986, and a member of the Ohio Humanities Council in 1987.
Some of these honors and positions indicate that Nikki Giovanni has maintained close ties with the South of her birthplace, despite having lived more years away from the South than in it. What the South as a place means to her is of considerable significance in looking at the body of her poetry. Like many writers of the Southern Literary Renaissance before her, Giovanni left the South after her graduation from college. Louis D. Rubin, Jr., speaking of earlier writers such as Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, has pointed out: "Almost all the young Southern writers at one time or another packed their suitcases and headed for the cities of the Northeast, toward the center of modernity, toward the new. Some turned around and came back to stay; others remained." These remarks apply to succeeding generations of Southern writers, such as William Styron and Ralph Ellison, and on to Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni, who continue to be influenced by the South and their often ambivalent feelings toward it, even though they may have felt compelled to leave.
The ambivalence of black Southerners toward the region has been in the past compared to the way Jews might feel about Germany: "They love the South … for its beauty, its climate, its fecundity and its better ways of life; but they hate, with a bitter corroding hatred, the color prejudice, the discrimination, the violence, the crudities, the insults and humiliations, and the racial segregation of the South, and they hate all those who keep these evils alive." Though the South has changed, there has been much in Giovanni's lifetime to cause pain for the black Southerner. Still she has acknowledged the South as a symbolic home, commenting earthily: "I can deal with the South because I love it. And it's the love of someone who lived there, who was born there, who lost her cherry there and loved the land…." In the opening essay of Gemini, Giovanni describes "going home" to speak in Knoxville, Tennessee, and looking for familiar places—Vine Street, the Gem Theatre, Mulvaney Street. "All of that is gone now," she realizes. Even so, after a tour of the city, "I was exhausted but feeling quite high from being once again in a place where no matter what I belong. And Knoxville belongs to me. I was born there in Old Knoxville General and I am buried there with Louvenia…. And I thought Tommy, my son, must know about this. He must know we come from somewhere. That we belong."
This theme of belonging has occurred in Giovanni's poetry since the beginning, in poems set in the South and in other places as well. The best of her poetry throughout her career has been concrete, with references to specific places, rooms, furniture, people, colors, qualities of light and dark. When she is abstract, her poetry is sometimes still successful in a political but not a critical sense. This kind of concreteness has been identified as one of the essential elements in Southern literature by Robert B. Heilman, in a seminal study entitled "The Southern Temper," where he distinguishes between what he terms "a sense of the concrete" and merely employing concrete images. The overriding importance of place in Southern literature has often been noted, for example, by Frederick J. Hoffman, whose essay "The Sense of Place" is a landmark in the criticism of modern Southern poetry and fiction. Looking closely at the body of Giovanni's poetry, one finds places large and small, houses and continents, places she has lived in or traveled to, places important in the history of black people, places from the past and in the present, metaphorical places, places of fantasy, symbolic places. To emphasize this sense of place in her work is to see it, along with the best literature of the South, not as provincial but as universal.
While Giovanni has received more attention first for her militant poems on racial themes and later for her feminist writing, the poems that will finally determine her position in the canon of American poetry are, almost without exception, ones in which place functions not only as a vehicle, but also as a theme. In her most recent work, her themes are becoming increasingly complex, reflecting her maturity as a woman and as a writer. Traditionally in Southern writing, place has been associated with themes of the past and the family; these themes are seen in Giovanni's poems of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, with the added dimension of a desire to understand the faraway places from which black slaves were brought to the American South. Her later poetry reflects a changing consciousness of her role in society as a single woman, the need to adjust her concept of home and family and of the importance of smaller places, such as houses and rooms, to fit her own life, a life that many American women and men, black and white, can identify with. In her best poems, places grow into themes that convey the universal situation of modern humanity, a sense of placelessness and a need for security.
In her first collection of poems, Giovanni expresses themes anticipated by the title Black Feeling, Black Talk. But already she demonstrates occasionally her gift for the original, individual image, for example, as she evokes the days and places of childhood in "Poem (For BMC No. 2)":
There were fields where once we walked Among the clover and crab grass and those Funny little things that took like cotton candy There were liquids expanding and contracting In which we swam with amoebas and other Afro-Americans
This poem is a striking contrast to the best-known poem from this volume, "The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro (For Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts)," with its repetition of the lines "Nigger / Can you kill." Like "Nikki-Rosa" and "Knoxville, Tennessee" from her next volume, "Poem (For BMC No. 2)" recalls a time and place that endure in memory, even in the face of violence and hatred.
One of Giovanni's finest poems is set in this homeland of the past. "Knoxville, Tennessee," written at the height of the unrest of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, develops a theme of security, of belonging, through simple yet highly effective images of nature, of family, of religion. Although it is almost imagistic, it builds to an explicit thematic statement:
I always like summer best you can cat fresh corn from daddy's garden and okra and greens and cabbage and lots of barbecue ............. and be warm all the time not only when you go to bed and sleep
The simple diction, the soothing alliteration, the short lines to emphasize each word, all create a feeling of love for this place and these people that transcends topical issues.
Giovanni later wrote a prose description of Christmas in Knoxville using images of winter rather than summer, yet conveying the same feeling of warmth: "Christmas in Knoxville was the smell of turnip greens and fatback, perfume blending with good Kentucky bourbon, cigars and cigarettes, bread rising on the new electric stove, the inexplicable smell of meat hanging in the smokehouse (though we owned no smokehouse), and, somehow, the sweet taste of tasteless snow." As Roger Whitlow notes, though, this kind of warmth is "rare" in Giovanni's early work. Still, Giovanni's use of this Southern place from her past speaks to the same aspects of Southern life as poems by James Dickey or prose by Eudora Welty.
Most of the poems in Black Judgement are militant in subject and theme; one of the most effective is "Adulthood (For Claudia)," in which Giovanni catalogs the violence of the decade, the deaths of leaders from Patrice Lumumba to John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr., and of lesser-known civil rights workers such as Viola Liuzzo. In another poem from this volume, "For Saundra," Giovanni seems to explain why poems of political rhetoric dominate her first two volumes. The persona speaks of the difficulty of composing poems in revolutionary times; for example,
so i thought i'll write a beautiful green tree poem peeked from my window to check the image noticed the schoolyard was covered with asphalt no green—no trees grow in manhattan
She concludes that "perhaps these are not poetic / times / at all." Although the thrust of the poem is toward the civil rights strife of the late 1960s, the reader also senses something of the alienation and displacement of a Southerner in the urban North.
Giovanni uses the South and its people to develop the specific theme of the past in "Alabama Poem" from her next collection, Re:Creation. A student at Tuskegee Institute meets an old black man and then an old black woman whose remarks indicate that knowledge must be gained through experience, must be inherited from the past. The persona speculates in conclusion: "if trees would talk / wonder what they'd tell me." Her words do not seem ironic; rather she seems to have learned a valuable lesson in her walk along this Southern country road. Though the images in this poem are sparse, the rural place and its people are seen to be of vital significance to one who seeks knowledge. The theme of the necessity of learning from the past what one needs to live in the present links this poem by Nikki Giovanni to a rich tradition in Southern writing, especially from the Fugitive poets of the 1920s to the present.
A more challenging use of the concreteness of place and the thematic significance of the past can be seen in the complex, ironic poem "Walking Down Park," also from Re:Creation. Speculating about the history of New York City, the speaker wonders what a street such as Park Avenue looked like "before it was an avenue," "what grass was like before / they rolled it / into a ball and called / it central park." She even thinks:
ever look south on a clear day and not see time's squares but see tall birch trees with sycamores touching hands
Questioning why men destroy their environment, she returns to days of the past, musing, "probably so we would forget / the Iroquois, Algonquin / and Mohicans who could caress / the earth." Possibly this relationship with nature, which characterized the Indians of an earlier time, can be recaptured:
ever think what Harlem would be like if our herbs and roots and elephant cars grew sending a cacophony of sound to us
Here through a complex set of images Giovanni connects the situation of blacks in contemporary America with the past of the American Indian, another oppressed minority group, as well as with their African heritage. "Walking Down Park" thus becomes a statement of a longing for happiness, related in the mind of the speaker not only to life in the past, which allowed for a closeness to nature lost in contemporary urban life, but also to a specific place from the past—Africa.
One of the most important examples of the ways Giovanni employs places in her poetry is her use of houses, both literal and metaphorical, from the past and in the present. In "Housecleaning," another poem from Re:Creation, the persona speaks first of her pleasure in ordinary chores essential to maintaining a house, then turns tidying up into a metaphor to describe aptly the chores necessary in human relationships as well. The growing sense of independence and identity in this poem anticipates the major themes of Giovanni's next volume, My House.
At this point, in the early 1970s. Giovanni is still using the lowercase "i," which R. Roderick Palmer identifies as a common device in revolutionary poetry, more then the uppercase. Perhaps she intends to symbolize the concept she has often invoked, that one retains qualities of childhood, even when striving for maturity. She uses this device in a poem from My House set, as is "Knoxville, Tennessee," in a place that now exists only in memory. In "Mothers," Giovanni depicts a woman remembering her mother sitting in a kitchen at night:
she was sitting on a chair the room was bathed in moonlight diffused through those thousands of panes landlords who rented to people with children were prone to put in windows
Recalling a poem her mother taught her on this particular night, the persona determines to teach the same poem to her son, to establish with him the relationship she had with her mother. This relationship is re-created for the reader in the simple description of a place remembered, especially in the quality of light Giovanni uses as the central image of the poem.
In the title poem, Giovanni uses homes and houses to represent the movement toward maturity, symbolized by the movement away from the places, homes, of one's childhood toward establishing a home for oneself, or an identity as a mature person. Like Giovanni's poems about childhood, "My House" is characterized by images of warmth and security, emphasizing that in her house the speaker is in complete control:
i mean it's my house and i want to fry pork chops and bake sweet potatoes and call them yams cause i run the kitchen and i can stand the heat ............. and my windows might be dirty but it's my house and if i can't see out sometimes they can't see in either
As Suzanne Juhasz emphasizes, the woman speaker "orders experience and controls it…. She controls not only through need and desire, but through strength, ability…. In contrast to the child persona of "Knoxville, Tennessee," the "i" here has discovered that she is an autonomous being who can shape at least the smaller places of her world to suit her own needs and desires: at the same time, the "i" is willing to take responsibility for her actions, to pay the price for such control.
In this context, the title poem of the volume My House takes on a deeper level of meaning. In fact, Erlene Stetson has identified the house as a dominant symbol in poetry by women, especially black women, explaining: "The house represents the historic quest by black women for homes of their own—apart from the house of slavery, the common house of bondage, the house of the patriarchy. The house embodies women's search for place and belonging and for a whole and complete identity…. In addition, the house is a symbol for place—heaven, haven, home, the heart, women's estate, the earthly tenement, the hearth—and for region—Africa, the West Indies, America, Asia, the North, and the South." Stetson does not emphasize, as she might, that this use of place as symbol is particularly significant in the tradition of Southern literature to which Nikki Giovanni and a number of other black women poets belong.
Many of Giovanni's poems are set, as I have mentioned, in Africa. For Giovanni, as for black Southerners and other black Americans in the twentieth century, the significance of this place lies mostly in the past—a past with which each individual must come to terms. Like other Southern writers in the period since World War I. Giovanni recognizes that no one can live in the past or relive the past, yet there is no meaningful life in the present or the future without an understanding of, often involving a confrontation with, the past. In a three-poem sequence in My House, she creates powerful images of the displacement of a people who in their racial past were forced to leave their homeland involuntarily.
The first poem in the group, "Africa I," describes a plane journey to Africa. During the flight, the speaker dreams of seeing a lion from the plane but is jarred by the statement of a companion that "there are no lions / in this part of africa." Her response is quick: "it's my dream dammit." The poem closes at the journey's end, with the following thoughts:
we landed in accra and the people clapped and i almost cried wake up we're home and something in me said shout and something else said quietly your mother may be glad to see you but she may also remember why you went away
Seeing Africa as a woman, a mother, as she did in the fantasy poem "Ego-Tripping," Giovanni movingly illustrates how the significance of this place relates to the past of these tourists, visitors, just as the significance of an adult's mother usually lies more in the past than in the present. In one's personal past as well as in one's racial past may exist harsh memories difficult to confront. Yet coming to terms with the past is necessary in order to grow and mature, as an individual or as a people.
"They Clapped," the third poem in this sequence, demonstrates even more explicitly that the dream of Africa and the reality, the past and the present, are not the same. The black American tourists clap because they are so happy to be landing in "the mother land"; then they see the realities of poverty and disease, as well as of their own foreignness. As they leave to return to America, they appear to have come to terms with the past in a way that frees them for their lives now and later. Giovanni uses the metaphor of possession, a subtle allusion to the horrors of slavery in the past, to convey the theme of displacement:
they brought out their cameras and bought out africa's drums when they finally realized they are strangers all over and love is only and always about the lover not the beloved they marveled at the beauty of the people and the richness of the land knowing they could never possess either they clapped when they took off for home despite the dead dream they saw a free future
So the physical confrontation with this place serves to make these tourists aware of their historical past as past rather than as present or future. They have learned too that, as modern men and women, they are "strangers all over," that in a very important sense they do not belong anywhere except in the place they must create for themselves as individuals. Thus Giovanni reminds the reader that the visitors to Africa are returning home, to America.
Many of the best poems in Giovanni's next volume, The Women and the Men, such as "Ego-Tripping" and "Walking Down Park," originally appeared in Re:Creation. The new African poems, including "Africa" and "Swaziland," are less successful than the Africa sequence in My House because they depend more on abstract diction than concrete images to convey themes. Yet one new symbolic poem, "Night," uses complex metaphorical language to contrast New York City with Africa and the Caribbean. The latter are both portrayed as places where the night is strong, natural, black:
in africa night walks into day as quickly as a moth is extinguished by its desire for flame the clouds in the Caribbean carry night like a young man with a proud erection dripping black dots across the blue sky the wind a mistress of the sun howls her displeasure at the involuntary fertilization
In contrast, the night in New York is seen to be unnaturally white, with humans being unable to adjust to their environment:
but nights are white in new york the shrouds of displeasure mask our fear of facing ourselves between the lonely sheets
Again Giovanni contrasts the natural environment of the warm Southern country and continent with the literal and metaphorical cold of the urbanized northeastern United States, dominated by white culture. The images of masking and of death suggest that no one, black or white, can live a meaningful life in a place like New York. However, the negative images in the earlier sections of the poem—death, rape—reveal the generally grim situation for modern man or woman in Africa, in the Caribbean, anywhere.
The volume Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day contains mostly poems relying on images of placelessness or homelessness rather than security, or dominated by ideas rather than strong central images. The title poem sets a fairly pessimistic tone for the volume yet hints at what may follow in Nikki Giovanni's career. Characterizing the seventies as a decade of loneliness. Giovanni uses the image of cotton candy poignantly:
But since it is life it is Cotton Candy on a rainy day The sweet soft essence of possibility Never quite maturing
Though she speaks of a lack of maturity, in this poem Giovanni uses an uppercase "I" to define the speaker, acknowledging perhaps unconsciously a certain kind of maturity that seems to have been missing in earlier poems such as "My House," regardless of their bravado.
At any rate, the speaker is characterized as a lonely, place-less person, yet one who can write a prescription to improve her own condition:
Everything some say will change I need a change of pace face attitude and life Though I long for my loneliness I know I need something Or someone Or......
Perhaps acknowledging the desire to succumb to loneliness, to the temptations of the solitary life, allowed Giovanni herself to move forward, to change in a way that profoundly affected her poetic subject matter and technique.
This sense of placelessness is perhaps seen most clearly in an urban poem different from those in Giovanni's earlier volumes. "The New Yorkers" focuses on the so-called bag people, "night people" who seem to "evaporate during the light of day," others who are seen during the day but appear to have nowhere to go at night. Of these placeless people, she comments:
How odd to also see the people of New York City living in the doorways of public buildings as if this is an emerging nation though of course it is
In addition to its commentary on American society in the 1970s, the poem provides a commentary on the persona's shaky self-image, as "an old blind Black woman" says on hearing her voice, "You that Eyetalian poet ain't you? I know yo voice. I seen you on television." Yet the old woman feels the poet's hair and determines that she is truly black: symbolically, her identity is intact.
Among the innovations in Those Who Ride the Night Winds is a different sense of place, a sense of space, of openness, as well as a concern with "inner" rather than "outer" space, both striking contrasts with earlier uses of place in Giovanni's work. For example, in "This Is Not for John Lennon (And This Is Not a Poem)," the speaker implores:
… Don't cry for John Lennon cry for ourselves … He was an astronaut of inner space … He celebrated happiness … soothed the lonely … braced the weary … gave word to the deaf … vision to the insensitive … sang a long low note when he reached the edge of this universe and saw the Blackness …
This view of John Lennon leads to the conclusion that "those who ride the night winds do learn to love the stars … even while crying in the darkness…." In other words, only those who travel far enough, metaphorically, to confront the harshness of reality are able to transcend it, as Lennon did.
An extreme example of this philosophy is seen in "Flying Underground." Dedicated to the children of Atlanta who died in the mass murders of the early 1980s, the poem develops the idea that in death these innocent children "can make the earth move … flying underground…." Giovanni thus takes the entrapment of the place "underground"—literally, the grave—and transforms it into a sense of freedom and possibility. The reader is reminded of the old slave's cry so often invoked by Martin Luther King, "Free at last," a phrase Giovanni used with effective irony in a poem on his death, published in Black Judgement.
The concluding poem in Those Who Ride the Night Winds, "A Song for New-Ark," is an appropriate end to an impressive volume. Giovanni characterizes the city of Newark, New Jersey, where she once lived, in predominantly negative terms, stressing, as she did in the earlier poem "Walking Down Park," the destruction of nature to create this urban environment: "I never saw old/jersey … or old/ark … Old/ark was a forest … felled for concrete … and asphalt … and bridges to Manhattan…." After drawing analogies between city dwellers and the rats that plague them, the poet-persona closes:
When I write I want to write … in rhythm … regularizing the moontides … to the heart/beats … of the twinkling stars … sending an S.O.S. … to day trippers … urging them to turn back … toward the Darkness … to ride the night winds … to tomorrow …
She moves from the confinement of a physical, earthly place to the openness and freedom of outer space and places of fantasy.
In addition to this new sense of place, Giovanni displays a new sense of herself as a poet in Those Who Ride the Night Winds. In "A Song for New-Ark" and also in "I Am She," Giovanni seems confident of the role she has chosen for herself, secure in her place in society. As she says in the latter poem, "I am she … who writes … the poems…." Again the ellipses give the sense of openness, of more to come from this poetic talent. While the poems in this volume seem to reflect Giovanni's own feeling that she has reached maturity as a poet, there are still indications of the necessity of coping with the demands of modern life. She acknowledges the presence of loneliness, not as she did through the poems in the volume Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, where loneliness seemed to be a problem for which she could at the time see no solution, but in a way that indicates the strength of her inner resources. In the poem "The Room with the Tapestry Rug," she creates a persona who confronts loneliness by seeking out "the room … where all who lived … knew her well…." The room holds memories of the past, symbolized by a garment created by a member of her family who was important in her childhood, used in a literal and metaphorical way to keep out the cold.
But Giovanni moves beyond this fairly traditional symbol, refusing to let the room be only a place of confinement and protection from the larger world; it becomes a place where she can also find comfort in the cool air from outside, while luxuriating in the security of her own space:
If it was cold … she would wrap herself … in the natted blue sweater … knitted by a grandmother … so many years ago … If warm … the windows were opened … to allow the wind … to partake of their pleasure …
The closing paragraph of the poem indicates the resources of the persona beyond her memories of the past: "Her books … her secret life … in the room with the tapestry rug…." Here she shows not only the need for but the fact of control over the places in her own life.
In the 1970s, such poems as "My House" conveyed an important theme of the development of a strengthening identity as a single woman; in the 1980s, such poems as "The Room with the Tapestry Rug" and "I Am She" illustrate not only the strength but also the depth and range of that identity. It is appropriate that a volume that so strongly exhibits Giovanni's talents as a writer should also attest to the importance of literature and art in her life, an importance reflected as well in her continued involvement in efforts to bring people and the arts together.
These examples from Nikki Giovanni's poetry—and her prose as well—demonstrate that, for her, place is more than an image, more than a surface used to develop a narrative or a theme, just as place functions in the best poetry of the Southern tradition lying behind her work. Further, the changing sense of place in these poems can be seen to reveal Giovanni's developing sense of herself as a woman and as a poet. Suzanne Juhasz, Anna T. Robinson, and Erlene Stetson all emphasize in their recent critical discussions the growing feminist consciousness they find in Giovanni's work. Her use of place is broader than simply a feminist symbol, though, just as her poetry has developed beyond purely racial themes. The relationships of people to places and the ways people have responded to and tried to control places are important themes for Giovanni, as are the ways places sometimes control people. Greatest in thematic significance are the need to belong to a place or in a place and the necessity of moving beyond physical places to spiritual or metaphysical ones.
Looking at Giovanni's poetry in the context of Southern literature expands rather than limits the possibilities for interpretation and analysis. In fact, this approach reveals that within the body of her work lies a solid core of poems that do not rely on political or personal situations for their success. Rather, they develop universal themes, such as coming to terms with the past and with the present so that one may move into the future—again, themes that have been and continue to be of particular significance in Southern poetry. These themes mark her work as a contribution to the canon not just of Southern poetry, of black poetry, of feminist poetry, but also of contemporary American poetry. However, Giovanni's response to any generalization, any categorization, would probably echo the closing line of her poem "Categories," from My House. Emphasizing her uniqueness as an individual, she might well proclaim, "i'm bored with categories."
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SOURCE: "A Free Spirit of the '60s," in Washington Post Book World, February 13, 1994, pp. 4-5.
[In the following review of Racism 101, Crockett argues that Giovanni accurately reflects African-American views on race.]
Poet Nikki Giovanni is caught up in the past and the future at the same time. In Racism 101, her latest collection of largely autobiographical essays, she describes herself as a '60s woman and a Star Trek fanatic. These two obsessions are like highway markers on her life's path, pointing the way to where she's been and where she's headed. Giovanni first captured the nation's attention as one of the most powerful voices in the black culture movement of the 1960s. Her work, then as now, is all about perspective—first as a black, next as a woman, then as an American, but ultimately as a human being in a complex universe.
Talking about Shakespeare in "I Plant Geraniums," she reflects: "Shouldn't we hold him to the same standards as the Constitution and Bible and bring him 'up to date'? I think not. I think we should leave him in the brilliance of his expression. We need, we modern artists and critics, to do exactly what Shakespeare did. Write for now. Think for now."
Before the '60s, most African Americans simply accepted our invisibility as a fact of life. During the '60s, voices like Giovanni's helped blacks and whites understand black contributions to the world. This was a new and an important revelation to the masses of blacks, and we took it personally in a way most whites could not. Virtually every black person in the U.S. who is old enough to remember the '60s, no matter where they hail from in the diaspora—the U.S., the Caribbean, Africa—fondly reminisces about those times.
Giovanni captures that spirit in Racism 101. Many whites may remember those days in negative terms—turmoil, civil unrest, deaths. While all that is true, many if not most blacks recall those days as a time when we did what we had to do to make America live up to its promises. "You must do, say and write that which you believe to be true," Giovanni notes. "What others think can be of no significance."
In Racism 101, Giovanni is teaching history. She reminds us that Rosa Parks; the catalyst in the Montgomery bus boycott that launched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights career and the modern-day protest movement, "was not just a little old lady with tired feet. She was a moving force in the Montgomery NAACP." Giovanni recounts the authentic horror story of Emmett Tilt's death—the black boy from Chicago brutally lynched by whites in Mississippi. His mother insisted on an open casket, saying "I want the world to see what they did to my boy…. And the world was ashamed."
Giovanni bemoans black conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele and Clarence Thomas who've criticized affirmative action. "Clarence is against affirmative action? Shelby is against affirmative action? Since when? Since the people fought so that neither of these men would have to die for their choice of wives? So that Yale would admit a poor boy from Pin Point, Georgia? When did affirmative action become an insult? Shortly after you were granted tenure at your university? You don't like being made to feel you can't honestly do your job because affirmative action made someone hire you? There is a solution. Quit."
Giovanni says she laughs at the critics who say she is bitter and full of hate. She responds, "Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not envious or jealous either. I am just me … I do not measure my soul by the tape of the white world."
In various essays she delivers a message to African-American collegians, explores campus racism, and talks about her struggle for tenure. "Why did I agree to fight against those who so glibly dismissed my achievements—to whom my 16 books, my honors and awards, my 20 years in public life, simply didn't count?… Had I had the meager credentials that some of my tenured colleagues have, I would have been turned down … The biggest stumbling block to progress in America is still racism." Giovanni writes what most blacks know: Despite white denials to the contrary (after all, how would they know?), if you are black in America, no matter your economic standing, it's virtually impossible not to deal with racism at some point even in the 1990s.
Giovanni reminds us that as a people, we haven't reached our destination of equal opportunity. Here she's at her best, describing the achievements of the first black woman astronaut, Mae Carol Jemuson, or searching for answers to better understand lost youth. She is less convincing when she lambastes Spike Lee and gives him specific directions for rewriting his movie "X."
For an accomplished writer who celebrated her 50th birthday last year, Giovanni sometimes comes across as incredibly insecure. This is the same woman who gave us the signature poem "Ego Tripping"? But perhaps we're all entitled to our insecurities. She muses about why she has not yet received a "major" poetry award, and in one essay she continues, "I plant geraniums. No one will remember that. I have an allergy to tomato fuzz. No one will care. I write poetry and sometimes prose. No one will know me …" Surely that will never be true. We lovers of words and black culture will keep Nikki Giovanni alive and see that she gets her wish to have her work become required reading in colleges—and that she even becomes a question on "Jeopardy."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4709
SOURCE: "Windmills or Giants? The Quixotic Motif and Vision in the Poetry of Nikki Giovanni," in The Griot, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 18-25.
[In the following essay, Boldridge explores the relation between Miguel de Cervantes's character Don Quixote and Giovanni's world view.]
Of the generation of black poets that emerged in the volatile sixties, as Paula Giddings notes, Nikki Giovanni is among that select group "whose career has defied the odds." Certainly, her writing has been the subject of ongoing, extensive critical commentary. Among the many topics noted in this body of work, the kinship between Nikki Giovanni and Don Quixote, the legendary protagonist of Miguel de Cervantes' remarkable baroque novel, has been alluded to by a few scholars. In the "Introduction" to Gemini (1971), Barbara Cosby makes reference to a certain relation between the contemporary poet and the immortal knight when she describes Giovanni as "… the most sensitive, slowest to anger, most quixotic …" woman she knows. Publisher and editor Ida Lewis submits that the highly independent writer, as the self-reliant Don Quixote does, trusts her own sensibilities to define her reality. She maintains that in the frequently cited lines from the poem "nikki-rosa": "… I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / … they'll probably / talk about my hard childhood / and never understand that / all the while I was quite happy", Nikki Giovanni makes a "quixotic judgment" as to the quality of her formative years, disavowing any external interpretation. Apart from these references to a likeness between Miguel de Cervantes' mythical main character and the prominent poet, Giovanni's own remarks about the master work and its renown literary persona are noteworthy:
It is a big, clumsily written book about a dude fighting windmills for the love of some chick who didn't dig him … It deals with chivalry and knighthood and stuff. In other words, it describes the standards of a lifestyle that no western man could afford to live.
Despite Giovanni's apparent dismissal of the novel as little more than a farcical work and even though the relationship between the modern poet and Cervantes, who articulates his personal philosophy via his extraordinary fictional character, has only been touched on, it is a connection that, as this paper intends to show, undoubtedly deserves more attention than it has been given.
A good starting point for exploring what the baroque novelist and the contemporary poet have in common is the windmill episode that Giovanni mentions in her commentary on Don Quixote. Of the many ventures of the knight, this incident in which he "engages in righteous warfare" with what he believes are "thirty or more lawless giants", the problem of the nature of reality is still very much alive. Like other major writers, Giovanni addresses this issue in her work. A brief consideration of the poet's definition of reality illustrates that her notion mirrors Cervantes' definition, one of several affinities between the two writers.
According to the respected critic Samuel Putnam, "… the basis of Cervantes' art is an essential realism based on verisimilitude and the imitation of nature" … "the truth that our senses give us…." The seventeenth century novelist's concept of "an essential realism", as Putnam defines it, is clearly acknowledged by Giovanni in various poems. In "Nothing Makes Sense", in a baroque fashion play on words and theory, she comes to terms with Cervantes' "truth behind the show of things", submitting that:
the outline of a face on a picture isn't really a face or an image of a face but the idea of an image of a dream that once was dreamed by some artist who never knew how much more real is a dream than reality.
"The imitation of nature" and "the truth that our senses give us" that the humanist novelist ascertains is the primary state the poet apprehends in "Revolutionary Dreams" when she "dreams of being a natural / women doing what a women / does when she's natural …"
Not only do Giovanni and Cervantes discern a natural order, a genuine state of being based on changeless truths, they both see man as deeply alienated from his harmonious condition in a ravaged world. The starkly realistic view of their societies and times that they share is an important component of their correspondence as a look at their perception of their eras reveals. Cervantes' treatment of the Spanish national character at the time he conceived Don Quixote is unmistakably human and socially incisive. Historically, the Spain that gave rise to Cervantes' works was the Spain of Phillip II, the Counter Reformation, a political and military disaster. As deputy purveyor for the Spanish Armada, Cervantes toured the country seeking provisions for the Spanish fleet. From a wide range of novelistic experiences, he acquired firsthand knowledge of his compatriots and their circumstances. Consequently, his understanding of human nature deepened, inspiring his successful depiction of flesh-and-blood characters.
Giovanni's keen observation of modern man and society is no less sensitive and informed than Cervantes' insightful view of his fellow countrymen and epoch. In her poetry and prose, she lays bare the oppressive conditions of contemporary existence. Indeed, her delineation of the ills of the life today is unquestionably sobering. The present-day human experience, as she sees it, is overwhelmingly solitary.
If loneliness were a grape/she observes, "the wine would be vintage." Earmarking the adverse effect that the welfare system has on self-esteem, she stresses that "Institutions still haven't found a way to give service and to leave the ego intact."
In today's dehumanizing social climate, the solicitous writer points out that "the most gentle of the species are pruned," "the imagination of children is stifled," and "… people speak more personally of their dogs or cats than they do of their children." Since there is little regard for human life in modern civilization, she further notes that, "… we kill each other at a very high rate." In the final analysis, the poet concludes that we live in a world where: "Nothing is easy; nothing is sacred."
Even though Cervantes and Giovanni are deeply troubled by the crises of their times, the outlook of both writers is essentially positive. Although Giovanni scoffingly refers to the lofty standards of the knight of La Mancha as "a lifestyle that no western man could afford to live," she holds that man can live nobly and effect a better world. Undergirding the optimism of the novelist and the poet is their abiding faith in the natural goodness of man. Though highly conscious of humankind's spiritual impoverishment, at the same time they firmly believe that man can redeem himself and his world if he fully commits himself to that enterprise. The relationship between Cervantes and Giovanni undoubtedly broadens when their common attitude regarding personal engagement, as disclosed in the course of their texts, is explored.
That Cervantes subscribes to the concept that every man, as a part of the human race, should take part in shaping a world built on large and noble lines, resonates throughout his great work. The matter of individual obligation is, however, patently addressed in a conversation that ensues between the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance and his niece. After one of the Knight's misadventures, his concerned niece affords him the option of accepting things as they are, the status-quo:
But tell me, uncle, who is responsible for your being involved in these quarrels?" she questions the frail Quixote, then rhetorically asks, "Would it not be better to remain peacefully here at home and not go roaming through the world in search of better bread than is made from wheat, without taking into consideration than many who go for wool come back shorn."
The apprehensive woman's dissuasive words, as is true of similar advice from the level-headed Bachelor Carrasco and the well-meaning curate, go unheeded. The commanding knight remains firm in his resolve to realize a poetic world. That Giovanni likewise maintains that sincere concern about the ignoble condition of man in a debased world must be translated into revolutionary action, as with Cervantes' masterpiece, permeates her work. Pointedly, where she stands concerning each man's accountability to himself, his fellow man and his world is voiced in the poem "Charles White." In the grown-up world she posits, "… we are all in some measure responsible / for the life we live and the world / we live in." Emerging from the unconventional poet's compelling sense of obligation to human kind and society are protestations of the causes of the crises of modern life. In as much as protest is an exemplary theme in Don Quixote, it is another link between the two writers that appropriately deserves consideration.
As regards Cervantes' protest stance, the iconoclastic writer, by means of his ingenious knight, passes sentence on all that constricts man's courage, aspirations and vision. The windmills that Don Quixote is convinced are giants, the inns that he believes to be castles, and the flocks of sheep that he thinks are armies are all telling episodes that illustrate Cervantes' disdain for the unimaginative. Adhering to this point of view, it is not surprising that the enlightened novelist attacks ideologies, conventions and distortions that undermine man's creativity, dignity, and spirituality.
Giovanni's indictment of all that diminishes human potential and compassion is no less zealous than Cervantes'. Her "maverick attitude" and "a confessed fallibility in the face of humorless ideological dictates" has been addressed extensively. In a number of her poems, such as "Categories", she challenges the unnatural restrictions imposed by an inflexible social system. Overall, to sum up Giovanni's relentless opposition to oppressive imperatives, it can be said that the assertive poet takes to task all the forces that sustain a reality where "everything controlling can be justified: everything liberating denied." Similarly, from the Golden Age novelist's and the twentieth century poet's remonstrations emerge some critical questions about life and its meaning, issues that, upon examination, shed further light on the writers' relationship.
In his great social novel, Cervantes asks questions that are still very much alive today. How should man live? Where will he find his true greatness? Can man fashion a world that will serve his soul's needs? Giovanni comes to terms with some comparable matters of importance in her writing as exemplified in Poetic Equations. In her candid conversation with Margaret Walker, she contends that "What makes a person, what makes a man and what makes a woman" are definitions that subvert the full expression of individuals. Moreover, "in order to be a fulfilled person," she maintains that one "must do what is necessary regardless of predetermined roles." Notably, in the aforesaid dialogue, she concludes that ultimately, the only true question is "How shall we live?"
The questions that Cervantes and Giovanni raise and unresolved controversies that, as both assert, confuse, hamper, and desensitize men. Yet, as caring and committed artists, as might be expected, they do not limit themselves to a grim discourse on the moral horror of their realities and the desolation of humankind. To the contrary, Cervantes, through his romantic character, and the spirited poet accord man a pathway to the fulfillment of his true self and the actualization of a society that does not abort his dreams or as Giovanni sums it up, a world "where all are endowed with the inviolate right … to perceive the limitlessness of their possibilities unencumbered…." In a like manner, Cervantes and Giovanni uncompromisingly maintain that pursuing a life centered in love is the only means for man to redress his fallen nature and rediscover his human self. Of the many parallels between the two writers, nowhere is their conformity clearer than in their shared belief in love as the antidote against the problems that plague and demoralize the human species.
Cervantes' notion of the transformational force of love, is manifest in his tenderhearted knight's adoration of his lady, Dulcinea del Tobosco. Much attention has been given to Don Quixote's "heart interest" who is primarily intended to be "a glorification of love, as the only means of knowing we are alive … the very image of love, of love that is our reason for being." The bleakness of life without love is articulated early in the narrative by Don Quixote himself who dramatically points out that "a knight errant without a lady is like a tree without leaves or fruit / a body without a soul." During the course of his often foiled but well intended, exploits, the fearless knight frequently invokes the name of the "lady of his fancies." To prove himself worthy of her, he persists in his grand mission to restore a world of chivalry.
That the human capacity to love is the wellspring of a meaningful, benevolent life experience is a leitmotif in Giovanni's body of work. After pinpointing, "How shall we live" as the primary dilemma of contemporary existence, the apprehensive poet mindfully added that "if there was a corollary to that question, it was: And will there be love?" In the poem, "Love: Is a Human Condition", as Quixote pays tribute to his lady who is the inspiration for his exalted endeavors, Giovanni celebrates love "as the only true adventure." In "Statement of Conservation", she echoes the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance's faith in the power of love to prevail in face of the most adverse circumstances. Assuredly, she explains why she is not disquieted by the flux and uncertainties of modern times. "I don't mind the cold or heat / and I've got a reason / Love when it's spread all around / can tackle any season".
To embrace love, and kindled and empowered by it, to set out on a venture to uplift man and society is not a charge that Cervantes' hero nor the activist poet see solely as a matter of personal duty. In fact, both hold that every man can attempt to live a life grounded in love and work towards the betterment of the human race. Spain's greatest Golden Age prose writer as well as the distinguished Afro-American poet invoke others to undertake the romantic enterprise of restoring order, meaning, and beauty to a world that has lost these resources. Looking at who are the visionaries that Cervantes and Giovanni acknowledge and their significance contributes to a fuller appreciation of the correlation between the two authors.
In response to his niece's admonition regarding the perils of his nobly aimed adventures, the unassailable Don Quixote simply tells her that the world needs more knight-errants. The resourceful gentleman of La Mancha does indeed convince one man to share his dream and join him in his quest of opportunities to redress "all manner of wrongs". Although the peasant man, Sancho Panza, who sallies forth with him agrees to do so solely for material reasons: riches, fame, and the promise of the governorship of an island, in the course of his master's foolhardy escapades, he becomes an idealist. His transformation, which Salvador de Madariaga calls quixotification of Sancho, is manifest when he, as Don Quixote does, begins to see "things as they should be and not as they are." As is true of the characterization of the peerless Dulcinea del Tobosco, Sancho Panza's symbolical meaning has been widely commented upon. Primarily, however, Sancho is seen as the practical man who, illustrating the "sublime quality that the masses possess, embraces 'an honored and good cause.'"
Nikki Giovanni, no doubt, would agree with the perspicacious Quixote's observation that there is a need for more knight-errants to address what she sees as "the lack of class this nation is showing" and the "big chill" that has settled into present-day living. As a result, and in keeping with the "pragmatic-existential idealism" that Ida Lewis claims is characteristic of the poet, she sets apart those who are beacons of hope in a spiritual wasteland. The modern day Utopians that she recognizes are the masses, the black race, black women, artists, and children. A brief discussion, respectively, of the revolutionary role these torchbearers play in effecting an ideal society reemphasizes a central analogy between Cervantes and Giovanni: their enduring faith in man's heroic nature and in his capacity to bridge the gap between his inner and outer self, and thus, consummate his true existence.
Just as Cervantes called upon the common people of Spain, figuratively through the inimitable Sancho Panza, to embrace the chivalric principle, the energetic poet urges the masses to respond courageously to the destructive experiences of pain and loss in their lives. "Ordinary people like myself," she contends in her prose selection, "CITIZEN RESPONSIBILITY (Hey! I'm Running for Office!)", must endeavor to fulfill the dream. Accordingly, the trusting poet makes the unqualified statement that "everyone can gather into themselves the subjective feelings needed to place the world in its natural order." To bring about the restitution of all things, she establishes some guidelines to follow:
Love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, encourage those among you who are visionary, and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair, and disrespect.
Giovanni's eulogy of the black race is a refrain in her writing. The "Princess of Black Poetry" as she has been identified consistently, holds that black people are singularly endowed to forge a humanitarian world "a people who through / individual risk or simply aesthetic innocence will bring word of a new day." She supports her posture by routinely directing attention to the inner grace of blacks, their humanitarian lifestyle, and their survival of horrendous circumstances. As to the fundamental character of black people, Giovanni unwaveringly insists that they are vital human beings enriched by a creative disposition, "a spiritual, emotional nature reaching back to their African roots." In reference to the modus vivendi and operandi of African descendants, the poet highlights the magnanimous conduct of blacks in spite of being ruthlessly disfranchised. In "An Answer to Some Questions On How I Write", she reviews the principles that have prevailed in the black community:
Our politics have been the standing for that which is right and good; for the desegregation of society; for the equitable distribution of goods and services; for the free movement of a free people: for the respect of the old and the love of the young.
Perhaps Giovanni's conviction that black people are caretakers and apostles of an affirmative vision is best supported, as she emphasizes, by their amazing survival of a dehumanizing plight. With obvious pride, she points out that the history of black people is a paradigm of human triumph, a testimony to the truth that "the human spirit can not be tamed and should not be trained."
Apart from recognizing the black race as whole as a visionary culture, Giovanni avows that black women are remarkable individuals. "Who else but the black woman," the prideful poet asks, "could not only survive slavery but thrive and grow stronger". Without reservations, she asserts: "we black women are the single group in the West intact… We are … the only group that derives its identity from itself … we measure ourselves by ourselves…." Since the black woman, although discredited, has not compromised her integrity, Giovanni maintains that her fortitude, attests to the power of the spirit to overcome the most erosive forces.
The conventional notion of artists as divinely gifted individuals whose fuller insight enables them to illuminate the inner recesses of the human psyche is clearly seen in Cervantes' and Giovanni's work. That the Spanish novelist adhered to this viewpoint is apparent in how Don Quixote sees the love of his life, Dulcinea. Through imaginative perception, love's eyes, the homely, course peasant girl becomes a gracious, beautiful woman. That the enamored knight is under no illusion regarding his lady is evidenced in the knight's own words regarding her transfiguration. "I see her as she needs must be", he outrightly admits and readily adds, "I will act as if the world were that I would have it to be."
The creative perception that allows Don Quixote to see Dulcinea "as she needs must be" is also apparent in Giovanni's writing. In Poetic Equation, she comments specifically on the transformative nature of poetry and the aesthetic end it accomplishes, describing it as "the art of making beautiful that which never was." Echoing Cervantes' and the traditional perspective of artists as a select population that comes close to unveiling truth, she suggests that "we who write our dreams … confess our fears … and witness our times … are not so far from the root … the heart of the matter." Although Giovanni sets apart all artists as couriers of truth and craftsmen of a higher vision, it would be remiss not to mention that she pays special tribute to black poets as envoys of timeless principles and prophets of cheer. Openly, she states why she regards them so highly: "I think a lot of the Black poets because we honor the tradition of the griotes. We have traveled the length and the breadth of the planets singing our songs of the news of the day, trying to bring people closer to the truth."
Perhaps those closest to the truth, and, thus the real evangelists of the advent of an Utopian society, as set forth in Giovanni's work, are the children. Their experience is recurrently represented by the poet as intact, untouched by the fragmentation, dislocations, and uncertainties of the modern age. Whether children are observed or whether they are the onlookers, their portrayal plainly shows that they live in harmony with themselves, with others, and with their environment. This kind of state of grace that envelopes children is the subject of several of Giovanni's poems. "Jonathan Sitting in Mud" in which a young boy's contended existence is contrasted with the distressful and demanding reality of his parents is a good example:
Jonathan sat in the mud all day Jonathan sat in the mud His Mother cried His Father tried But Jonathan sat in the mud And Jonathan said as he stretched out for bed "I'm happy where I am."
In spite of Cervantes' and Giovanni's belief that heroic individuals can effect a better way of life and that a fuller, truer existence is attainable, it can not be denied that a mood of disillusionment comes out in their texts that seemingly belies their affirmative outlook. This disheartenment, so discernible in each's work, is certainly a connection between the two writers that should be taken into account. The disillusionment, dequixotization, of Cervantes' madman-philosopher character, as he comes to terms with the destructive operatives of day-to-day living so unworthy of his high-mindedness, is regularly noted by specialists in relation to the knight's final days. The heartrending deathbed scene in the novel is at times regarded as the despondent Quixote's submission to a base reality. Yet, even today, how to interpret the dispirited Knight's return to La Mancha is open to discussion. There are those that argue that when the weary gentleman came home to his village, he returned victorious over himself. They support their viewpoint alleging that Cervantes, who survived an inordinately tedious life, would not have brought his spokesperson to such a disastrous end. Such specialists hold that the protagonist's triumph is, in effect, achieved when he determines that "it is fitting and necessary to become a knight-errant" … "for he could not but blame himself for what the world was losing for his delay" … "so many were the wrongs that were to be righted, the grievances to be redressed, the abuses to be done away with, the duties to be performed.
The low-spiritedness that comes out in Giovanni's work, as with Cervantes' disenchantment, has elicited varied commentary. Specifically, Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978), considered the poet's bleakest book of verses, prompted the critical assessment that the poet's optimism that came from believing that the ideal was possible was gone. In her analysis of the text, Virginia Fowler explains that its' themes of disillusionment, disappointment and diminishment reflect "the poet's responses to events in her own personal life as well as to those in the social and political life." Paula Giddings note that "the book is immersed in world-weary cynicism" and that "it is the rain dampening the spirit of another time that prevails" … "the consequences of an emotional compromise to a bleak reality." The poet herself, acknowledging the gap between the ideal and the actual, concedes, "I am cotton candy on a rainy day / the unrealized dream of and ideal unborn."
Apparently, there is no question that Cervantes' central character's and the romantic poet's dreams and ideals are shaken when confronted with the distance between illusion and reality. Yet neither's optimism is crushed by that realization owing greatly to their conception of victory. If Cervantes is indeed saying as has been noted to be the viewpoint of many scholars, that victory is gained when each of us recognizes and fulfills his cycle of obligations, Giovanni's notion of triumph is analogous. Throughout her work, the prestigious poet maintains that the prize is won man rises to heroic behavior and "goes in search of better bread." In Those Who Ride the Night Winds, she pays tribute particularly to all who display moral and spiritual determination and invites them as fellow passengers to answer the upward call. She applauds the intention of those who take the risk inherent in enhancing the quality of life rather than focusing on the possibility of failure. Straightfowardly she acknowledges her own fallibility, but, at the same time makes the point that failing to attain the ideal in no way lessens the value of the effort.
"Life is only about the I-tried-to-do", she espouses, and, on a personal note, adds, "I don't mind the failure, but I can't imagine that I'd forgive myself if I didn't try."
The substratum of Cervantes' and Giovanni's celebration of the intention to shape a poetic reality, as an alternative to an adverse one, is their conviction that life, despite its tediousness, is a wondrous adventure. Both writers fervently believe that living is a stimulating experience and both refuse to reconcile themselves to an insipid and oppressive existence. As the critic Aubrey G. Bell points out,
"It would … be contrary to all that we know of Cervantes to assume that a long succession of hardships, disappointments, vexations and disillusions had reduced the least morbid of men to a state of apathy, idleness, and gloom. He remained gay and active to the end…."
That Giovanni regards life similarly is plainly seen in her denotation of life as a "marvelous transitory experience." As such, she exuberantly insists, "I don't have a lifestyle, I have a life."
Critics disagree as to whether the life-battered Cervantes, facing death, was conscious of the magnitude of his creation. Notwithstanding, today it is generally acknowledged that "… the most important of the world's writers … in one way or another … have felt the breath of the Cervantine spirit." As I have attempted to show in this paper, Nikki Giovanni is among those profoundly human writers whose work reflects the Quixotic outlook upon the world. Her dream of the "best of all possible worlds" mirrors the uncompromising knight-errant's vision of a world where "there would be ample scope for love, truth, and beauty." Although she is at times disconcerted by the horrifying conditions of our restless, discontented age, her idealism and hope are the bedrock of her life and work. Early in her professional career, she shared her positive regard for man and optimistic worldview with her readers:
think we are all capable of tremendous beauty once we decide we are beautiful, of giving a lot of love once we understand love is possible, and we are capable of making the world over in that image … I really think that a … beautiful loving world is possible.
Nikki Giovanni's belief in the consummation of a higher ground way of life centered in love and her lasting faith in the true goodness and greatness of man is the Quixotic refrain and vision given body and substance in her work. In a world ravaged by demoralization and factionalism, she charges modern man, as Cervantes endearing knight did, to resurrect love and trust, to keep the doors open to the possibilities of the human soul, "to take a chance on being human" "to earn our right to be called men and women". In the final analysis, she reminds us that "what one person does … makes a difference".