Nikki Giovanni

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Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni speaking at Emory University 2008.jpg
Nikki Giovanni speaking at Emory, 2008
Born (1943-06-07) June 7, 1943 (age 80)
Knoxville, Tennessee
Occupation Writer, poet, activist, educator
Nationality United States
Period 1960s–present

Yolande Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni, Jr.[1][2] (born June 7, 1943) is an American poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. One of the world's most well-known African American poets,[2] her work includes poetry anthologies, poetry recordings, and nonfiction essays, and covers topics ranging from race and social issues to children's literature. She has won numerous awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal, the NAACP Image Award, and has been nominated for a Grammy Award, for her Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. Additionally, she has recently been named as one of Oprah Winfrey’s twenty-five “Living Legends.” (29) [2]

Giovanni gained initial fame in the late 1960s as one of the foremost authors of the Black Arts Movement. Influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement of the period, her early work provides a strong, militant African-American perspective, leading one writer to dub her the "Poet of the Black Revolution."[2] During the 1970s, she began writing children's literature, and co-founded a publishing company, NikTom,Ltd to provide an outlet for other African American women writers. Over subsequent decades, her works discussed social issues, human relationships, and hip-hop. Poems such as "Knoxville, Tennessee," and "Nikki-Rosa" have been frequently re-published in anthologies and other collections.[3]

Giovanni has taught at Queens College, Rutgers, and Ohio State, and is currently a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. Following the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, she delivered a chant-poem at a memorial for the shooting victims.[4]

Life and work

Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee,[4] to Yolande Cornelia, Sr. and Jones "Gus" Giovanni. She grew up in Lincoln Heights, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, though she returned to Knoxville to live with her grandparents in 1958, and attended the city's Austin High School.[3] In 1960, she began her studies at her grandfather's alma mater, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.[5] She had a difficult time adjusting to college life and was subsequently expelled. However, she realized that she needed an education, drove back to Nashville, spoke with the Dean of Women, and was readmitted.[6] In 1967, she graduated with honors with a B.A. in History. Afterward she went on to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.

In 1969, Giovanni began teaching at Livingston College of Rutgers University. In 1970 she began making regular appearances on the television program, Soul!, an entertainment/variety/talk show which promoted black art and culture and allowed political expression. Soul! hosted important guests like: Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Gladys Knight, Miriam Makeba, and Stevie Wonder. (In addition to being a "regular" on the show, Giovanni for several years helped design and produce episodes.) She also gave birth to her only son, Thomas Watson Giovanni.[6] Since 1987, she has taught writing and literature at Virginia Tech, where she is a University Distinguished Professor.[7] She has received the NAACP Image Award several times, received twenty honorary doctorates and various other awards, including the Rosa Parks and the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters.[4] She also holds the key to several different cities, including Dallas, Miami, New York, and Los Angeles.[8] She is a member of the Order of the Eastern Star (PHA), she has received the Life Membership and Scroll from the National Council of Negro Women, and is an Honorary Member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Giovanni ca. 1980

She has also been honored for her life and career by the History Makers along with being the first person to receive the Rosa L. Parks Women of Courage Award. In 2015 Giovanni was named one of the Library of Virginia's "Virginia Women in History" for her contributions to poetry, education, and society.[9]

Virginia Tech shooting

Seung-Hui Cho, the mass murderer who killed 32 people in the April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, was a student in one of Giovanni's poetry classes. Describing him as "mean" and "menacing", she approached the department chair to have Cho taken out of her class, and said she was willing to resign rather than continue teaching him.[10] She stated that, upon hearing of the shooting, she immediately suspected that Cho might be the shooter.[10]

Giovanni was asked by Virginia Tech president Charles Steger to give a convocation speech at the April 17 memorial service for the shooting victims (she was asked by Steger at 5pm on the day of the shootings, giving her less than 24 hours to prepare the speech). She expressed that she usually feels very comfortable delivering speeches, but worried that her emotion would get the best of her.[11] On April 17, 2007, at the Virginia Tech Convocation commemorating the April 16 Virginia Tech massacre,[11] Giovanni closed the ceremony with a chant poem, intoning: <templatestyles src="Template:Blockquote/styles.css" />

We know we did nothing to deserve it. But neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS. Neither do the invisible children walking the night awake to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory. Neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water....We are Virginia Tech....We will prevail.[12][13][14]

Her speech also sought to express the idea that really terrible things happen to good people: "I would call it, in terms of writing, in terms of poetry, it's a laundry list. Because all you're doing is: This is who we are, and this is what we think, and this is what we feel, and this is why - you know?... I just wanted to admit, you know, that we didn't deserve this, and nobody does. And so I wanted to link our tragedy, in every sense, you know - we're no different from anything else that has hurt...."[11]

She thought that ending with a thrice-repeated "We will prevail" would be anticlimactic, and she wanted to connect back with the beginning, for balance. So, shortly before going onstage, she added a closing: "We are Virginia Tech." [11]


Nikki Giovanni (2007)

The Civil Rights Movement and Black Power movements inspired her early poetry that was collected in Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967),which sold over ten thousand copies in its first year, Black Judgement (1968), selling six thousand copies in three months,and Re: Creation (1970). All three of these early works aided in establishing Giovanni as a new voice for African Americans.(30) In "After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement, Cheryl Clarke cites Giovanni as a woman poet who became a significant part of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement.[15] Giovanni is commonly praised as one of the best African-American poets emerging from the 1960s Black Power and Black Arts Movements.[16] Her early poetry that was collected in the late 1960s and early 1970s are seen as radical as and more militant than her later work. Her poems are described as being "politically, spiritually, and socially aware".[16] Evie Shockley describes Giovanni as "epitomizing the defiant, unapologetically political, unabashedly Afrocentric, BAM ethos".[17] Her work is described as conveying “urgency in expressing the need for Black awareness, unity, [and] solidarity.” Giovanni herself takes great pride in being a “Black American, a daughter, mother, and a Professor of English.” (29) [16] She has since written more than two dozen books, including volumes of poetry, illustrated children's books, and three collections of essays. Her work is said to speak to all ages and she strives to make her work easily accessible and understood by both adults and children. (29) Her writing has been heavily inspired by African-American activists and artists.[18][19] Issues of race, gender, sexuality, and the African-American family also have influenced her work.[16] Her book Love Poems (1997) was written in memory of Tupac Shakur, and she has stated that she would "rather be with the thugs than the people who are complaining about them."[20] Additionally, in 2007 she wrote a children’s picture book titled Rosa, which centers on the life of Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks. In addition to this book reaching number three on the New York Best Seller list, it also received the Caldecott Honors Award along with its illustrator Brian Collier, receiving the Coretta Scott King award. (29)

Giovanni is often interviewed regarding themes pertaining to her poetry such as gender and race. In an interview entitled "I am Black, Female, Polite", Peter Bailey questions her regarding the role of gender and race in the poetry she writes.[21] The interview looks specifically at the critically acclaimed poem, "Nikki-Rosa", and questions whether it is reflective of her own childhood experiences as well as the experiences in her community. In the interview, Giovanni stresses that she did not like constantly reading the trope of the black family as a tragedy and that "Nikki-Rosa" demonstrates the experiences that she witnessed in her communities.[21] Specifically the poem deals with black folk culture, and touches on such issues as alcoholism and domestic violence, and such issues as not having an indoor bathroom. (30)

Giovanni's poetry in the late 1960s and early 1970s addressed black womanhood and black manhood amongst other themes. In a book she co-wrote with James Baldwin entitled A Dialogue, the two authors speak blatantly about the status of the black male in the household. Baldwin challenges Giovanni's opinion on the representation of black women as the “breadwinners” in the household. Baldwin states, “A man is not a woman. And whether he’s wrong or right.... Look, if we’re living in the same house and you’re my wife or my woman, I have to be responsible for that house.".[22] Conversely, Giovanni recognizes the black man’s strength, whether or not he is "responsible" for the home or economically advantaged. The interview makes it clear that regardless of who is "responsible" for the home, the black woman and black man should be dependent on one another. Such themes appeared throughout her early poetry which focused on race and gender dynamics in the black community.[22]

Giovanni tours nationwide and frequently speaks out against hate-motivated violence.[23] At a 1999 Martin Luther King Day event, she recalled the 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard: "What's the difference between dragging a black man behind a truck in Jasper, Texas, and beating a white boy to death in Wyoming because he's gay?"[24]

Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) acknowledged black figures. Giovanni collected her essays in the 1988 volume Sacred Cows ... and Other Edibles. Her more recent works include Acolytes, a collection of 80 new poems, and On My Journey Now. Acolytes is her first published volume since her 2003 Collected Poems. The work is a celebration of love and recollection directed at friends and loved ones and it recalls memories of nature, theater, and the glories of children. However, Giovanni's fiery persona still remains a constant undercurrent in Acolytes, as some of the most serious verse links her own life struggles (being a black woman and a cancer survivor) to the wider frame of African-American history and the continual fight for equality.

Giovanni's collection Bicycles: Love Poems (2009) is a companion work to her 1997 Love Poems. They touch on the deaths of both her mother and her sister, as well as the massacre on the Virginia Tech campus. “Tragedy and trauma are the wheels” of the bicycle. The first poem ("Blacksburg Under Siege: 21 August 2006") and the last poem ("We Are Virginia Tech") reflect this. Giovanni chose the title of the collection as a metaphor for love itself, "because love requires trust and balance."[25]

In Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid (2013), Giovanni describes falling off of a bike and her mother saying, "Come here, Nikki and I will pick you up." She has explained that it was comforting to hear her mother say this, and that "it took me the longest to realize – no, she made me get up myself."[26] Chasing Utopia continues as a hybrid (poetry and prose) work about food as a metaphor and as a connection to the memory of her mother, sister, and grandmother. The theme of the work is love relationships.[27]

In 2004, Giovanni was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards for her album The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. This was a collection of poems that she read against the backdrop of gospel music.(29) She also featured on the track "Ego Trip by Nikki Giovanni" on Blackalicious's 2000 album Nia. In November 2008, a song cycle of her poems, Sounds That Shatter the Staleness in Lives by Adam Hill, was premiered as part of the Soundscapes Chamber Music Series in Taos, New Mexico.

She was commissioned by National Public Radio's All Things Considered to create an inaugural poem for President Barack Obama.[28] Giovanni read poetry at the Lincoln Memorial as a part of the bi-centennial celebration of Lincoln's birth on February 12, 2009.[29]


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Poetry collections

  • Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967)
  • Black Judgement (1968)
  • Re: Creation (1970)
  • Black Feeling, Black Talk/ Black Judgement (contains Black Feeling, Black Talk, and Black Judgement (1970)
  • My House (1972)
  • The Women and The Men (1975)
  • Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978)
  • Woman (1978)
  • Those Who Ride The Night Winds (1983)
  • Knoxville, Tennessee (1994)
  • The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (1996)
  • Love Poems (1997)
  • Blues: For All the Changes (1999)
  • Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems (2002)
  • The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni (2003)
  • The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998 (2003)
  • Acolytes (2007)
  • Bicycles: Love Poems (2009) (William Morrow)
  • 100 Best African American Poems (2010) [editor] (Sourcebooks MediaFusion)
  • Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid (2013) (HarperCollins)

Children's books

  • Spin a Soft Black Song (1971)
  • Ego-Tripping and Other Poems For Young People (1973)
  • Vacation Time: Poems for Children (1980)
    • The Genie in The Jar (1996)
  • The Sun Is So Quiet (1996)
  • The Girls in the Circle (Just for You!) (2004)
  • Rosa* (2005)
  • Poetry Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat (2005) [advisory editor] (Sourcebooks)
  • Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship (2008)
  • Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat (2008) (Sourcebooks)
  • The Grasshopper's Song: An Aesop's Fable (2008)


  • Truth Is On Its Way (Right On Records, 1976)
  • The Reason I Like Chocolate (Folkways Records, 1976)
  • Legacies: The Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (Folkways, 1976)
  • Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (Folkways, 1978)
  • Nikki Giovanni and the New York Community Choir* (Collectibles, 1993)
  • Every Tone A Testimony (Smithsonian Folkways, 2001)


  • (Editor) Night Comes Softly: An Anthology of Black Female Voices, Medic Press (1970)
  • Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet* (1971)
  • A Dialogue with James Baldwin* (1973)
  • (With Margaret Walker) A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker* (1974)
  • (Author of introduction) Adele Sebastian: Intro to Fine (poems), Woman in the Moon (1985)
  • Sacred Cows ... and Other Edibles (essays)* (1988)
  • (Editor, with C. Dennison) Appalachian Elders: A Warm Hearth Sampler* (1991)
  • (Author of foreword) The Abandoned Baobob: The Autobiography of a Woman* (1991)
  • Racism 101* (essays, 1994)
  • (Editor) Grand Mothers: Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories about the Keepers of Our Traditions* (1994)
  • (Editor) Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking at the Harlem Renaissance through Poems* (1995)[16]


  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Jane M. Barstow, Yolanda Williams Page (ed.), "Nikki Giovanni," Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), p. 213.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Margaret D. Binnicker, "Yolande Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni," Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Retrieved: 17 October 2014.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Poetry Foundation Center Nikki Giovanni Biography
  5. "Nikki Giovanni-The Real Deal", Dallas News.
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  8. Virginia Tech News Virginia Tech's Nikki Giovanni Nominated for Spoken Word GRAMMY
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  13. Nikki Giovanni, "We Are Virginia Tech", The Tennessean, April 17, 2007.
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  15. Clarke, Cheryl, “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 "Nikki Giovanni". Poetry Foundation. 2010.
  17. Shockley, Evie, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African- American Poetry. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2011.
  18. "Nikki Giovanni - Spotlight - Interview", Ebony, December 2003.
  19. "Poet, Tupac capture beauty beneath pain", Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (April 5, 1997).
  20. Barnes and Noble, Meet the Authors audio
  21. 21.0 21.1 Bailey, Peter. "I am Black, Female, Polite". Nikki Giovanni and Virginia C. Fowler, Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1992. 31- 38.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Baldwin, James and Nikki Giovanni. “Excerpt from A Dialogue.” Nikki Giovanni and Virginia C. Fowler, Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1992. 70-79.
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  24. "Giovanni tells students to 'sail on'", University of Michigan's The University Record, January 25, 1999.
  25. Interview with Bill Moyers, February 13, 2009.
  26. Sara Kugler, "Nikki Giovanni reflects on 'Chasing Utopia,' and other struggles", Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC, December 16, 2013.
  27. "Writer Nikki Giovanni", Tavis Smiley, PBS, November 18, 2013.
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External links

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