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