Nikki Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 7, 1943, the younger of two daughters of Gus and Yolande Giovanni. As a child, Giovanni moved with her parents to the black middle-class suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, where her mother worked as a supervisor for the Welfare Department and her father worked as a social worker. Some of her most memorable times, however, were the summers she spent back in Knoxville with her maternal grandparents, John Brown and Louvenia Terrell Watson. Many of these experiences figure importantly in some of Giovanni’s poems, most notably “Knoxville, Tennessee” (1969).
As a young girl, Giovanni began to display certain traits that would characterize her and her poetry after she became an adult—brashness, assertiveness, and outspokenness among them. These traits can perhaps be seen most clearly in Giovanni’s fierce determination to protect her older sister, Gary, whom she idolized. Furthermore, these traits may have been inherited from, or at least encouraged by, her grandmother, Louvenia Watson, herself assertive and outspoken, as one learns in Giovanni’s autobiographical statement, Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet (1971). As Giovanni grew older, these traits merged into the one which brought her to the attention of both the literary world and the political establishment during the 1960’s: militance.
Upon graduating from high school in 1960, Giovanni entered Fisk University, a historically black college located in Nashville, Tennessee, but was dismissed from the school in February, 1961, because her attitude was not consistent with that expected of Fisk women. She returned to Fisk in 1964, where she excelled as a scholar, became active in student literary circles, and became involved in campus politics, soon establishing at Fisk a chapter of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), a prominent organization in the Civil Rights movement. This was the first display of the revolutionary spirit for which she would become well known in the following years.
Also at Fisk, Giovanni became editor of Élan, the campus literary publication, and participated in the Fisk Writers’ Workshop. This workshop for younger writers was directed by John Oliver Killens, an important African American novelist and critic. Through such activities, Giovanni began to develop her feelings and talents as a poet of intense sensitivity. Further, her interest in the various struggles of black people for social, political, cultural, and economic liberation became much more pronounced.
Giovanni graduated from Fisk magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history during the winter commencement exercises held in early February, 1967. Following graduation she returned to Cincinnati but within a few weeks received the news of her beloved grandmother’s death in Knoxville. This event profoundly affected Giovanni, immediately making her ill and also triggering a more far-reaching and longer-lasting anger that would characterize the majority of her early poetry.
From her grandmother’s death, Giovanni became more aware of the plight of powerless people in the United States. Her grandmother had been forced to move from her home at 400 Mulvaney Street when an urban renewal project relocated her neighborhood to make way for new commercial development. Although the new house had more amenities—a bigger back yard, the reader is told in Gemini—Louvenia Watson was never happy because the house was not “home.” She had simply had to leave behind too many memories, and she withered and died as a result of this displacement.
During the late spring and early summer of 1967, Giovanni became involved in organizing Cincinnati’s black community and established the first Black Arts Festival in that city. Through this activity...
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