The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Nikki-Rosa,” a short, introspective poem of thirty lines, dispenses with the conventional marks of written poetry—punctuation and capitalization—creating the effect of the narrator speaking directly to her audience. The title, “Nikki-Rosa,” suggests the merging of the personal life with the public or political one and indicates the evolution of a radical, from the girl Nikki to the militant Rosa, the name alluding to Rosa Parks, a Civil Rights activist.

In the poem, a black narrator addresses a black audience, assuming a store of shared experiences, experiences that would be foreign to a white middle-class audience. The narrator—a woman, as indicated by the title—realizes that her childhood contained a mixture of good and bad events. Nevertheless, the negative memories, caused by poverty, are outweighed by the positive, provided by a strong, close family. Unfortunately, “they,” the critics and biographers, will record the lack of an “inside toilet” but will fail to mention the warm baths given in “one of those/ big tubs that folk in Chicago barbecue in.” The critics will “never talk about how happy you were to have your mother/ all to yourself.” The narrator fears that the simple pleasures of her childhood will be overlooked.

The poem juxtaposes the events of the narrator’s youth with future biographers’ misreading or misinterpretation. The biographers will mention her father’s drinking and her parents’ fighting but miss the closeness of the extended family. They will not see “that everybody is together and you/ and your sister have happy birthdays and very good christmasses.” The biographers will notice the poverty but not the richness of the strong, supportive family. They will not understand that “Black love is Black wealth.” Because of this blindness, the narrator hopes that “no white person ever has cause to write about me.” The white critics would note the hardships but miss the love: “they’ll/ probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that/ all the while I was quite happy.”

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem “Nikki-Rosa,” void of any punctuation, appears as one long thought. The memories of childhood are jumbled together, much the way someone would remember his or her youth. This seemingly formless nature of the poem thus mimics the thought processes of the narrator. The particular events merge, leaving the feel of a happy childhood that presumably would elude the biographer or critic.

Nikki Giovanni’s poems, including “Nikki-Rosa,” are accessible to a wide and diverse audience primarily because the images are drawn from everyday life and the language is simple and direct. This accessibility has made her a very popular poet; her public readings have large audiences and her books and sound recordings enjoy good sales. In “Nikki-Rosa,” as well as in many other of Giovanni’s poems, the commonplace images are taken specifically from a working-class setting. The narrator describes family meetings, birthdays, and a large tub used for bathing. Thus the poem presents a realistic portrayal of day-to-day family life.

Rooted in an oral tradition, Giovanni in “Nikki-Rosa” combines ordinary language with the natural rhythms of speech. She avoids dense vocabulary and obscure symbols and allusions, relying instead on simple words, a conversational tone, and the clarity of the lines to convey her meaning.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Beason, Tyrone. “Survival of the Baddest: Poet and Activist Nikki Giovanni Keeps Her ’60s Spirit Intact for a New Generation.” The Seattle Times, January 15, 2004, p. C1.

Davis, Arthur P. “The New Poetry of Black Hate.” In Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Fowler, Virginia C. Nikki Giovanni. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Jago, Carol. Nikki Giovanni in the Classroom: “The Same Ol Danger but a Brand New Pleasure.” Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.

Josephson, Judith P. Nikki Giovanni: Poet of the People. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2003.

“Nikki Giovanni.” In Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women’s Poetry, edited by Felicia Mitchel. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002.

Washington, Elsie B. “Nikki Giovanni: Wisdom for All Ages.” Essence 24 (March, 1994): 67.