Early Work

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni on June 7, 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Nikki Giovanni grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati. At the age of sixteen, she entered Fisk University; she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history in 1967. Her political involvement at the university in the early 1960’s, combined with her increasing interest in writing, led to her obtaining a Ford Foundation grant in 1967 that aided her in the publication of her first book of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968). Publication of Black Judgement followed in the same year. The unifying themes of the work are the black struggle and the role she sees for herself as both a participant in and a witness to the historic events of the Civil Rights movement.

Giving a glimpse into the childhood of the poet is the poem “Nikki-Rosa,” which highlights a happy childhood: “everybody is together and you/ and your sister have happy birthdays and very good/ Christmases.” In addition to writing about her sister, Gary, in many of her works, Giovanni describes her close relationship with her mother, Yolande; her father, Gus; and her maternal grandparents, John and Louvenia Brown. Later, with the birth of her son Tommy in 1969, Giovanni began writing collections of children’s poetry, including Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children (1971), Ego-Tripping, and Other Poems for Young People (1973), and Vacation Time: Poems for Children (1980). She sought to transmit her values of black aestheticism to children through her poetry, as in the following:

i wish i werea shadowoh wow! when they putthe light onme i’d growlonger and taller andBLACKER

Inner and Outer Selves

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The social and political changes that Giovanni has witnessed have affected the tone of her works. Chronicling the changes are her autobiography, Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet (1971), and her collection of essays Sacred Cows . . . and Other Edibles (1988). Pulling the tenets of her life together, Giovanni faces, as do her readers, contradictions in her poetry. Many of these seeming contradictions are the result of the changes that have taken place in what she calls the “rooms outside” (society) and the “rooms inside” (the individual)—major themes in her poetry. In an interview with Claudia Tate, the poet addresses these contradictions:If I never contradict myself then I’m either not thinking or I’m conciliating positions and, therefore, not growing. There has to be a contradiction. There would be no point to having me go three-fourths of the way around the world if I couldn’t create an inconsistency, if I hadn’t learned anything. If I ever get to the moon, it would be absolutely pointless to have gone to the moon and come back with the same position.

Beginning with My House (1972), Giovanni attempts to put the truth into perspective for herself and many other black women, identifying the “inner self” and the “outer self.” These personas are, in part, the result of the tumultuous 1960’s; the poet must reconcile her role in speaking for the many and her responsibility to verbalize her own unique,...

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A Quiet Revolution

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In The Women and the Men (1975), the theme of revolution is redefined to mean “that if i dreamed/ natural dreams of being a natural/ woman doing what a woman/ does when she’s natural/ i would have a revolution.” Soul singer Aretha Franklin is the subject of “Poem for Aretha,” in which the poet examines the need to deal with Franklin as “a mother with four children,” not as a talented singer to use and to exploit, “to relive billie holiday’s life.”

The emerging natural woman, who derives pleasure from her children and her man, whom she seems unable to hold on to, also sits by the typewriter, but instead of writing, questions its value: “and i think/ not of someone/ cause there isn’t anyone/ to think/ about and i wonder/ is it worth it.” In the poetry included in the collection’s second section, “The Men,” the poems wrap around the theme of love—a satisfying, rich love: “i’m gonna grab your love/ and you’ll be satisfied.” Ultimately, the natural woman finds satisfaction in her devotion to her man’s love, and Giovanni’s poetry is a reference for the black woman in which her role is described and reaffirmed: “the heat/ you left with me/ last night/ still smolders.” She adds, “i am a leaf/ falling from your tree/ upon which i was/ impaled.” Although the love is satisfying, it may also be destructive for the artist, the individual.

Ironically, the third section of the collection, “And...

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Giovanni’s Evolving Rhythms and Style

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In general, Giovanni’s poetry is rhythmic and replete with arbitrary yet universal imagery. In her earlier works, however, a simple, repetitive rhythm is striking and resonant, as in the poem “The True Import of Present Dialogue: Black vs. Negro,” in which she asks “Nigger/ Can you kill” over and over again. The harmonious blending of the lines stands in stark contrast to the tone of rage. The poet uses this unique combination to emphasize the harshness of the theme. In addition, she frequently uses alliteration, as in “Poem (No name No. 2)”: “Bitter Black Get/ Blacker Get Bitter/ Get Black Bitterness/ NOW.”

Giovanni’s poetry in later volumes focuses on the use of more personal imagery associated with family, domesticity, and everyday life. Although the poems are rhythmic, they rely more on descriptions that create common, natural visual images, as in the poem “The Butterfly,” which describes hands as “butterflies fluttering/ across the pleasure/ they give/ my body.” In “The December of My Springs,” the rhythmic pattern reinforces the universal theme of aging: “that pitter-patter rhythm of rain/ sliding on city streets is as satisfying/ to me as this quiet has become.” Ultimately, the past language she has used to describe black experience does not offer her the dimension she needs to formalize the poet she has become. Therefore, in a subsequent collection, Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983), the language and form are very different.

In the preface to the 1983 collection, Giovanni asserts that “language has opened . . . becoming more accessible . . . more responsive . . . to what people really think.” The poetic style is nontraditional. The lines are fractured by ellipses, and the form resembles a prose passage rather than a stanza of poetry. In an attempt to reunite private and public self as one universal model for African American women, she has dismissed a poetic form that had placed too many restrictions on her as both a witness and participant in this transformation. In “I Am She,” domestic chores are sacrificed for a dream, for a creative journey. As a poet, Giovanni seems comfortable with her role, which sometimes can be lonely. The “ride” is worth the price: “When I write I want to write,” she explains, “to day trippers . . . urging them to turn/back . . . toward the darkness . . . to ride the night winds . . . to tomorrow.” Describing herself as charting the “night winds,” she imagines a journey that forces people “to look . . ....

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Fowler, Virginia C. Nikki Giovanni. New York: Twayne, 1992. A colleague of Giovanni’s at Virginia Polytechnic Institute State University, the author details the evolution of the poet, using her poetry to identify the influences of historical events, personal changes, and maturity on her work. Concluding with an interview of the poet, the work dramatizes the depth of Giovanni’s poetry and its literary power. Includes a comprehensive bibliography.

Giovanni, Nikki. Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971. A somewhat self-centered collection of essays linked together by one common theme: the major influences on Giovanni’s life and work as she perceives them.

Giovanni, Nikki. Interview. In Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate. New York: Continuum, 1983. Tate’s interview of Giovanni reveals the poet’s literary philosophy, her unrelenting openness, and her spiritual connections with other black writers.

Giovanni, Nikki, and Margaret Walker. A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. A dynamic dialogue between two major African American women writers. Reveals an aggressive yet poised Giovanni, who describes her vision of Black Power.

Juhasz, Suzanne. Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Notes the political and social themes of Giovanni’s poetry and details the intensely individualistic nature of her work in defining both her public and private roles.

Lazenby, Roland, ed. April 16th: Virginia Tech Remembers. New York: Plume, 2007. Virginia Tech journalism students chronicle the shooting rampage in 2007 that left thirty-two people dead. Giovanni is cited as having brought the campus together in the wake of the tragedy with a speech she wrote and presented one day after it happened.