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.