Nikki Giovanni

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 122

Contrast the depiction of the setting in Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Knoxville, Tennessee” with that of the same city in James Agee’s A Death in the Family (1957).

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By what strategies does Giovanni unify “My House”?

“Negro” is a Latinate word denoting “black.” What is the basis of Giovanni’s objection to “Negro”?

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Giovanni is known for a particularly free-verse form and informal, conversational diction. What is specifically poetic about her work?

Cite several lines or phrases in Giovanni’s poetry that seem to be calculated to shock the reader into thoughtfulness.

Given her preoccupation with African American life and issues, what aspects of Giovanni’s writing entitle her to the wider distinction of being judged “a keen interpreter of modern times”?

Other literary forms

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Besides her volumes of verse, Nikki Giovanni (jee-oh-VAH-nee) has made several poetry recordings. Some, such as Truth Is on Its Way (1971), have gospel music accompaniment. Her recordings, as well as her many public performances, have helped to popularize the black oral poetry movement. Her two books of conversations with older, established African American writers, A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973) and A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974), offer the contrasting attitudes of two generations of African American writers on the aims of African American literature in white America. The first book is especially interesting for its spirited discussion about the changing relationships between black men and black women, a topic of many of Giovanni’s poems. The second clarifies her literary development and contains an impassioned plea for African Americans to seize control of their destinies.

Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet (1971), which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973, offers scenes from her life as a child and mother. While little is seen of the experiences and influences that shaped her art and thought, the book does contain essays about the black cultural revolution of the 1960’s that serve as companion pieces to her poems. She has edited several texts, written syndicated columns—“One Woman’s Voice” (The New York Times) and “The Root of the Matter” (Encore American and Worldwide News Magazine)—and contributed essays to many black magazines and journals. Sacred Cows . . . and Other Edibles (1988) collects a number of her essays. A collection of her work has been established at the Muger Memorial Library, Boston University.

Achievements

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Nikki Giovanni has earned an impressive array of honors throughout her literary career. In the late 1960’s, she won grants from the Ford Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Harlem Cultural Council. She was named one of ten Most Admired Black Women by the Amsterdam News in 1969. In 1971, she won an outstanding achievement award from Mademoiselle, an Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Award for outstanding contribution to arts and letters, and a Prince Matchabelli Sun Shower Award; in 1972, a National Association of Radio and Television Announcers Award for her recording of Truth Is on Its Way and a Woman of the Year Youth Leadership Award from Ladies’ Home Journal; in 1973, a National Book Award nomination for Gemini and a Best Books for Young Adults citation from the American Library Association for My House.

Giovanni was named Woman of the Year by the Cincinnati Chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association (1983), an Outstanding Woman of Tennessee (1985), and Woman of the Year by the Lynchburg chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP; 1989). She was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985 and won the Post-Corbett Award (1986), the Ohioana Library Award for Sacred Cows . . . and Other Edibles (1988), and the Children’s Reading Roundtable of Chicago Award for Vacation Time (1988). She won the Tennessee Writer’s Award (1994) and the Jeanine Rae Award for the Advancement of Women’s Culture (1995). In 1996, she won the Langston Hughes Award, the Tennessee Governor’s Award in the Humanities, the Outstanding Humanitarian Award from the Kentucky House of Representatives, the Parents’ Choice Award for The Sun Is So Quiet, and the Contributor’s Arts Award from the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, which named her to the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent in 1998. She received the NAACP Image Award for Love Poems in 1998, Blues in 2000, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea in 2003, Acolytes in 2008, and Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat in 2009. Other awards in 1998 include the Tennessee Governor’s Award in the Arts, the Appalachian Medallion Award from the University of Charleston, and the Belle Ringer Image Role Model Award from Bennett College.

Giovanni received the Virginia Governor’s Award for the Arts (2000), the SHero Award for Lifetime Achievement (2002), the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award (2002), the American Library Association’s Black Caucus Award for Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea(2003), the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame Award for Poetry (2004), the John Henry “Pop” Lloyd Humanitarian Award (2005), the ALC Lifetime Achievement Award (2005), the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Best Book Award for Rosa (2005), the African American Literary Legends and Legacies Award for Poetry for Acolytes (2007), the Gwendolyn Brooks/John O. Killens Award (2007), Carl Sandburg Literary Award(2007), Women of Power Legacy Award (2008), and the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (2008).

She has received numerous honorary degrees from academic institutions, including Wilberforce University, Fisk University, the University of Maryland (Princess Anne Campus), Ripon University, Smith College, Indiana University, Albright College, Cabrini College, Allegheny College, Wilmington University, Pace University, West Virginia University, Florida A&M University (Tallahassee), and Dillard University. Several cities have honored her with keys to the city, including Dallas, New York City, Cincinnati, Miami, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

Bibliography

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Baldwin, James, and Nikki Giovanni. A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1973. Based on a conversation aired by the Public Broadcasting Service as Soul! in 1971, this friendly, informal conversation sheds light on Giovanni’s opinions regarding race and gender identity in America—foundational themes in much of her poetry. Includes a foreword by Ida Lewis and an afterword by Orde Coombs.

Bigsby, C. W. E. The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Bigsby analyzes many recent contributions to African American literature, including the work of Giovanni. Useful to any student of contemporary African American literature. Contains bibliographical references and an index.

Fowler, Virginia C. Nikki Giovanni. New York: Twayne, 1992. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Giovanni. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Giovanni, Nikki. Conversations with Nikki Giovanni. Edited by Virginia C. Fowler. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. A collection of interviews with Giovanni containing invaluable biographical information and insights into her writing.

Gould, Jean. “Nikki Giovanni.” In Modern American Women Poets. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984. As treatments of this affable, self-confident poet are wont to be, Gould’s discussion of Giovanni is warm and personal. Stresses her biography and particularly her precocious personal achievements; provides little direct examination of the poetry.

McDowell, Margaret B. “Groundwork for a More Comprehensive Criticism of Nikki Giovanni.” In Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism, edited by Joseph Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill Publishing, 1986. An excellent source; McDowell points out biases and inconsistencies in criticism addressing Giovanni’s writings and sketches areas in need of further research.

Madhubuti, Haki R. Dynamite Voices. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971. Radical African American poet Madhubuti offers a history and criticism of some poets of the 1960’s, of which Giovanni was one. Valuable, because he offers a contemporary look at the African American poetry scene. Contains a bibliography.

Walters, Jennifer. “Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove: Poets Redefining.” The Journal of Negro History 85, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 210-217. The poetry of Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove is discussed. Both women are examples of self-defined African American women who found a voice through writing.

White, Evelyn C. “The Poet and the Rapper.” Essence 30, no. 1 (May, 1999): 122-124. Discusses Nikki Giovanni and cultural rapper and actor Queen Latifah on racism, rap music, and politics, topics which have abundantly influenced Giovanni’s poetry.

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Critical Essays