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Giovanni, Nikki 1943–
Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., Giovanni is a black American poet, autobiographer, essayist, and writer for children. In verse which is angry, hopeful, loving, she advocates revolutionary social change. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)
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[Get] next to Black Judgement …, a book of poems by the sister from Cincinnati that's one more fast number. (p. 83)
Enjoy the guts of [Giovanni] on her journey into "Adulthood," a poem that acts like a fifth of iodine on an open wound with its raw power….
Giovanni can be remarkably warm as in "For Theresa," or she might make a drill of her love, as in "For A Poet I Know," and strike the oil of life that only those who are prepared to die more than once might experience. This book is cuttin' up more than her first volume, "Black Feeling Black Talk," which wasn't jivin', and we can expect her to lay new tracks every time she comes round because she's married to honesty and fertile enough to get it all down. (p. 84)
David Llorens, "'Black Judgement'," in Negro Digest (reprinted by permission of Negro Digest Magazine; copyright, 1969 by the Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), Vol. XVIII, No. 6, April, 1969, pp. 82-4.
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[Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgment] is a record of a time and an involvement and awareness and activism which marks the late Sixties as special. Nikki Giovanni is a special poet for this special time—a revolutionary one…. She records [the spirit of time and place] in a special way evoking images largely through cataloguing. Black feelings, talk, judgments taking pains to particularize details; through her black magic, she conjures up visions and spirit of time, although she seems to remain estranged from the true essence and spirit of the folk, "Seduction" is a fine poem in Part I which juxtaposes the rap and the real, so that she comes very close to the truth about the matter, as she undresses the brother in what he suspects to be a counterrevolutionary fashion. (p. 102)
It is in the section, "Black Judgment," where you find the poet coming into her own; the very personal tone of the first person narrator and the subject matter with autobiographical references rolls up the shades, pulls the covers off, and gets down to where it is, telling it like it is. "Nikki-Rosa" begins with "childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you're Black"; after cataloguing negatives like no inside toilet, a drinking father, conditions of poverty, we are told that what makes the difference—makes for happiness—are things like how good a bath feels, how smug to have a mother to yourself, birthdays and Christmases, and having everybody together….
[After] a series of facts/feelings,… ["Records"] starts cutting grooves and becomes like a rutted record repeating itself….
"Revolutionary Music" is a bop-pop number that captivates the idiom of the day and the rhythm of the time, saluting the artists who give the impression they know with Sam Cooke that "a change is gonna come." "Beautiful Black Men" is a poem energizer which brings an audience of sisters to the brink of frenzy…. (p. 103)
Nikki Giovanni's use of the poem form as structure and rhythmic score rather than as a distinct art form marked by other qualities of craft, such as figurative language [or] compression of imagery … makes me again ponder if a people who have used a form like the poem for 3000 years can have their art forced into the narrow confines imposed upon it by a people who are relatively new to the form, as is the case with anglos and anglo-Americans. And I think it grows increasingly evident, as we are exposed to more Black poetry, that this cannot be the case. So that, at times, certain poems like "Ugly Honkies or / The Election Game / and How to Win It" are raps in poem form with statements like graffiti on the walls: "if dracula came to town now / he'd look like daley."…
The final poem "Black Judgment" … seems too narrowly proscribed if the main character preaching "responsible revolution / along with progressive / procreation" merely wants to destroy the "me" in the poem rather than a wider group which "us" would indicate; and, as it stands, it seems excessive to proclaim that "Black Judgments are upon you …" This poem seems to vacillate between the public and the private domains. "Balances" is a little poem with a big truth, with statement and organic form balancing each other for the point of art.
"My Poem" talks about being robbed, frightened, alienated as a revolutionary because of [a personal] involvement with revolutionary ideals, which ends, resignedly, with the knowledge that one monkey won't stop the show….
Nikki Giovanni takes seriously her role of being a Black/Female/Poet and her work shows it. (p. 104)
Sarah Webster Fabio, "'Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgment'" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1970 by the Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.) in Black World, Vol. XX, No. 2, December, 1970, pp. 102-04.
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Gemini is a collection of miscellaneous essays—roughly half of them autobiographical; the rest, critical and political…. Miss Giovanni allows her sense of commitment to lead her into making some rather foolish assertions. Thus, in one anthropologically dubious chapter, called "The Weather as Cultural Determiner," she asserts that Africa's balmy climate established in the genes of all blacks a harmony with nature that whites, originating in the cold North, can never hope to enjoy. Moreover, with their racial memories of a warm past and of eons spent in living unencumbered by heavy clothes, blacks are naturally more open, more joyous, more rhythmical beings than are the pinched, dour, stiff whites. There are no good white men. The whites have never produced an original genius. Shakespeare and Cervantes? Honkies! The best of white culture was stolen from the blacks.
The trouble is not merely that this sounds very much like the cant of a white supremacist in reverse, but that Miss Giovanni does not even abide by her own spurious logic….
There is, admittedly, more to the book than this. [For example, we also learn about the author's past]…. Yet these reminiscences have little substance. The glimpses, we are given of Miss Giovanni's childhood are, as it were, seen from a distance and through a haze. Nor does the author of these essays ever reveal herself, either as an artist or as a woman. She writes a great deal about love, but she seems to be a little frightened of it. The only men mentioned with any affection are her father and her grandfathers. She says nothing at all about the father of her son.
Miss Giovanni's social and literary criticism is similarly sketchy. She takes on but never seems able to come to grips with the work of Charles Chesnutt …, James Baldwin, John O. Killens, John A. Williams, and Ralph Ellison. Nor does she go very deeply into the social issues she writes about: the relationship between black men and women, the character of African and West Indian blacks, or the question of poetry and politics.
Much of this book's weakness, and a large portion of my negative reaction to it, stems from the attitude Miss Giovanni has chosen to adopt: the pose of childlike defiance. This role, she appears to believe, entitles her to the same privileges and protection that are a child's due. It permits her to meander, to contradict herself, to throw logic to the winds. Carried to an extreme, however, this rebellious ingenuousness can only do Miss Giovanni harm—as a woman, as a poet, and as a revolutionary.
Jerry H. Bryant, "'Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LV, No. 3, January 15, 1972, p. 34.
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[Even though the content of Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet] is contemporary, it is written from a personal as well as a personalist view. Personal, meaning interpreting perceptions from the framework of one's own experience, primarily, and subjecting them to a formal ideology only as a secondary consequence. Personalist, meaning that the ultimate value of any act or movement is directly proportional to one's own self-actualization and its negative or positive effect on interpersonal relationships….
In the first part of the book, Nikki talks with warmth and humor about her family….
"Don't Have a Baby Till You Read This" is one of the best of this group of good autobiographical essays. It is the most humorous and most serious…. (p. 51)
The second half of the book moves away from the autobiographical to general commentary. The personalist comes full view here when she talks about Angela Davis, Lena Horne, and … Aretha Franklin. What is interesting about these essays is that Nikki Giovanni perceives people in relationship to their own reality, their own context, rather than hers or their adherence to the current political prescriptions….
That same perspective, which dictates that the ultimate meaning of anything is centered in the individual, shapes Nikki's view of AfroAmerican relationships to the Third World. The price, she says, of one Black immigrant settling on another shore is the displacement, and often the exploitation, of the indigenous Black. Similarly, she feels that it is the subjective which propels actions. Objective standards and feelings can debilitate emotional responses and therefore create stagnancy. Stagnancy, in turn, keeps life from being in its "natural order," a phrase often used in the book.
The ideal of natural order is the only real vision of the future Nikki talks about in Gemini. What it means is never explained in the book but I would guess that a part of it entails Black people having sufficient control over their lives so that they may simply have the ability and inner freedom to respond with love to those who love them, and to understand the nature of that love.
I think that that may be the perspective which underlies her criticisms in "Black Poems, Poseurs and Power," where she intimates that the unnatural mixture of art and militarism made artists unable to respond properly to the people, and caused some of them to, in her view, defect from the community.
Gemini is an important book. It is not without flaws—thoughts, particularly in the second half of the book are sometimes too loosely tied together; there is unnecessary repetition; the essay "A Revolutionary Tale" … is weak and its length breaks up the rhythm of the book; the ideas in the Chesnutt essay could have been developed more. What makes it important is that I think the next generation of Blacks will feel something about this book. (p. 52)
Paula Giddings, "Books Noted: 'Gemini'" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1972 by the Johnson Publihsing Company, Inc.), in Black World, Vol. XXI, No. 10, August, 1972, pp. 51-2.
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Nikki Giovanni in [The Women and the Men offers an unfortunate example] of the dangers of success. [She is] self-consciously determined to speak as [a black woman of her] African past and of [her] present loves. [She fails] because the public voice drowns out the private emotion. In fairness, Nikki Giovanni retains in some of her new work the innocent clarity that marked her earlier poems. "Kidnap Poem" is a delight: "if I were a poet / I'd kidnap you…." And in "All I Gotta Do," one hears the authentic note of the blues. She sometimes shows an eye for detail, as in "Alabama Poem" when she describes an old woman with a corncob pipe knifing a bunion off her foot. But too often we are assaulted with generalities like: "'life is precious' is all we poets / wrapped in our loneliness are trying to say." (pp. 103-04)
James Finn Cotter, "Book Reviews: 'The Women and the Men'," in America (© America Press, 1976; all rights reserved), Vol. 134, No. 5, February 7, 1976, pp. 103-04.
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[My House] by title implies both a kind of freedom to deal in lyrics with things which affect the poet personally and intimately and a projection of the mind and feelings of the poet from her center of being. The poems that strike me as the best in the group are those which involve love, dedications to certain personalities, personal fury, and relatives…. Something of the personal voice comes through in ["My House"]…. (p. 111)
"When I Die" catches up and projects the voice tone in its fury…. "Untitled," a poem for Margaret Danner, makes effective use of folk feeling, although its first simile ("benefits like ripples on a pond") is not very effectual in the context of the poem. Some poems place excessive dependence upon wit, fantasy, or cleverness. But the book tends to give us varied voices from the poet. (p. 112)
George E. Kent, "The 1975 Black Literary Scene: Significant Developments," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, 37 (copyright, 1976, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. 37, No. 1, First Quarter (March, 1976), pp. 100-15.∗