Yolanda Cornelia ‘Nikki’ Giovanni is an inspirational woman.
The 69-year-old Grammy Award Nominee from Tennessee prides herself as ‘a Black American, a daughter, a mother, a professor of English’.
These past thirty years have really brought her name to the forefront of modern day civil rights and equality activists, however her involvement expands another 20 years previous.
Giovanni graduated from the prestigious Fisk University with honours but it was not without its problems. She was expelled in 1961 for her increasingly vocal views on racial equality. In 1964 this rebellious youngster was readmitted but continued to pursue the political topics.
This determined individual met influential black poets such as Robert Hayden and LeRoi Jones, and became involved in the Black Arts Movement, and restored the Fisk chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Her first book of poetry ‘Black Feeling Black Talk’ was published in 1968.
This collection of poems, along with ‘Black Judgement’ and ‘Re: Creation’ were very much influenced by the black power movements of the time. High-profile assassinations such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy caused uncertainty in a world already pulled apart by racism. In her own way, Nikki tried to bring some understanding to the situation and champion a drive for solidarity.
Such was the impact of her words that ‘Black Feeling Black Talk’ sold over 10,000 copies within the first year.
However her early work was received with mix views. Just as some were inspired by her ideas, others were apprehensive and in some cases felt she was expressing ideas without seeing the overall picture.
Poet Don L. Lee has commented ‘Sometimes Nikki oversimplifies and therefore sounds rather naive politically’. Yet he also understands her motives for writing the way Giovanni does: ‘she conveys such urgency in expressing the need for Black awareness, unity, solidarity’.
As The Poetry Foundation have highlighted, Nikki ‘publicly expressed the feelings of people who had felt voiceless’.
Many could relate to her ideas as she wrote in a very personal way.
In her work ‘Black Judgement’ Giovanni is proud to publish her poem ‘Nikki-Rosa’, an honest account of life with her family, but highlighting too the black-white divide in understanding the life of an african-american:
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy
Although these early poems sealed her title as the ‘Princess of Black Poetry’, these were just the beginnings of a long and illustrious career.
Many of her published works have received honours and awards. ‘The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection’ was a spoken-word album which was nominated for a Grammy Award and National Book Award. Her autobiography ‘Gemini’ was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Giovanni has been the recipient of over twenty honorary degrees, named Woman of the Year by numerous editorials and has received Life Membership and Scroll from The National Council of Negro Women.
Black Enterprise named her a Women of Power Legacy Award winner for work that expands opportunities for other women of color.
Nikki Giovanni is a professor at Virginia Tech, where she teaches writing and literature.
From her poem ‘Choices’, simple but effective advice for all of us:
if i can’t have
what i want then
my job is to want
what i’ve got
and be satisfied
that at least there
is something more