Recently, writer and civil and human rights activist Kevin Powell interviewed Nikki Giovanni via a Zoom session that was part of his weekly “Kevin Powell’s Writing Workshop” Zoom sessions.
Giovanni is one of America’s foremost poets, writers and activists. She is an educator who has been teaching at Virginia Tech since 1987, where she is a University Distinguished Professor. During this conversation, Giovanni delightfully discussed her upbringing, writing process, and social justice for the more than 100 workshop attendees, who logged in as far away as Puerto Rico and South Africa.
She was classmates with the late Congressman John Lewis at her grandfather’s alma mater Fisk University, from which she received a history degree. Her peers were James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Amiri Baraka and a number of capital “T’s,” Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara. She spoke of these relationships not in an “ego-tripping” manner but in a pedestrian way as an “earthling,” as she prefers to describe herself.
When she wrote her second book of poetry in 1968, which she referred to as “a little green book for which she charged $1” and titled “Black Judgment,” she hustled to get it published. “I was attending Columbia University in New York, and I’m reading poetry and I’m writing. The logical thing for me to do was to write. No one was much interested in a Black girl writing what was called ‘militant’ poetry. Since no one wanted to publish me, I published myself,” she said. “I lived uptown, and a friend had a friend in the Village who ran a printing press. I asked the printer what it would cost to print 100 books, and he told me $100 to print 100 books. I gave him the poems, and he said that I could pay him in a couple of months.”
Giovanni went to a conference in Detroit, selling them all for $1 each. She returned to New York to get more printed. The next batch of 100 books only cost her $50, and she planned a reading in which she could sell more.
“My mom was a jazz fan, and I arranged a book signing at Birdland in New York on an early Sunday evening in 1969,” she said while explaining that she had to bring in 100 people or she would have to pay $500 rental. “Morgan Freeman was my next-door neighbor, and I asked everybody that I knew if they could come and read. I was very proud because my mom came. Nina came but she didn’t read.”
Giovanni said that a New York Times reporter saw the lines forming to get into Birdland. The reporter, looking for a Nick Giovanni, heard folks say that “Black Judgment is coming,” not understanding that this was the name of the book. Afterward, Giovanni says that a huge story in the paper’s Metro Section put her career on full blast.
She added that she was glad that folks were proud of her career, but she was sorry that her grandmother wasn’t around to see it happening. However, she cautioned writers about adopting feelings of invincibility at a first success. “I have seen so many people who got so involved in thinking that they were important, and they ended up drug addicts, suicidal or fools.”
Nikki Giovanni’s 1972 “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)”
I was born in the Congo
I walked to the Fertile Crescent and built the Sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star that only glows every 100 years falls into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
I sat on the throne drinking nectar with Allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to Europe to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is Nefertiti, the tears from my birth pains created the Nile
I am a beautiful woman, I gazed on the forest and burned out the Sahara Desert with a packet of goat’s meat and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours, I am a gazelle so swift, so swift you can’t catch me
For a birthday present when he was three, I gave my son Hannibal an elephant
He gave me Rome for Mother’s Day
My strength flows ever on, My son Noah built New/Ark and
I stood proudly at the helm as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was Jesus
Men intone my loving name, All praises, All praises, I am the one who would save
I sowed diamonds in my back yard, My bowels deliver uranium, the filings from my fingernails are semi-precious jewels
On a trip north, I caught a cold and blew my nose giving oil to the Arab world
I am so hip, even my errors are correct, I sailed west to reach east and had to round off the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned, and gold was laid across three continents
I am so perfect, so divine, so ethereal, so surreal, I cannot be comprehended except by my permission
I mean…I…can fly—like a bird in the sky…
(Poem used with permission of author)
She expounded further on the writing profession: “It’s all a game, and all you are doing is the best that you can. The first thing is, great writers are never great until they are dead—that’s when we recognize their greatness. I know that I am in a profession that when I—or if I—become anything significant to the planet earth, I will be long gone. Poets will die broke, everyone will love them, and their heirs will be rich.”
Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1943, and spent her early years in Cincinnati. But Knoxville is very important in her writings. “I look at Cincy where I grew up historically. When I think of love, I think of Knoxville.” She explained that her next book due out in 2022, “A Library,” is about when she would spend summers with her grandmother. When helping on laundry day, afterward Giovanni would walk to the Carnegie Library at Mulvaney and Vine. “My love of Knoxville is unconditional, as long as I am able to write, I will write about Knoxville.”
As concerns the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict and other examples of injustice, Giovanni said: “He takes an AR-15, goes to another state and shoots three white men and says he was afraid for his life. It upsets me, but not to the point that I wouldn’t be able to write about it. Young folks writing now will have history on their side, [when they write about] other situations.
“If you are so afraid of a half-naked man running down the street or you see a Black person and you shoot him if that is what scares you, whatever life you have, you don’t deserve it. We won’t be able to go out in the streets, because someone will make the decision that I am going to kill that person. We keep watching that people decide that Black men don’t have to come home.”
And, of course, there’s Trump: “I do believe that Mr. Trump is illiterate. He was the only president in the U.S. that didn’t have any kind of art, performances, poetry nothing to do with culture,” she said too much laughter.
Zoom participant Evangeline Lawson (evangelinelawson.net) valued this conversation: “She really emphasized the importance of pushing forward in life. She stated that there are things to be corrected, but it’s okay to find joy in life. I think in these current times, that attitude is important because life can be overwhelming, but at least we have a life to live.
“Ms. Giovanni has survived several generations of change. To know that she started as a young activist in the civil rights era, but progressed to using her poetry as a platform for activism, is empowering. I think the fact that she has been committed to centering Black people is not only edifying but critical in a world where our full humanity and diversity is often ignored.”
And finally, around the time that she displayed her Tupac “Thug Life” tattoo, Giovanni had feelings about the National Anthem. “It’s the home of brave, Black people and free white people. That’s the way the song should be sung. You have to be brave to be bothered.”
Nikki Giovanni has a son and a young granddaughter. She is a poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. Her work includes poetry anthologies, poetry recordings, and non-fiction essays, and covers topics ranging from race and social issues to children’s literature. She has won numerous awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award. Her most recent publication is “Make Me Rain: Poems and Prose” (2020). For more information, visit nikki-giovanni.com.
Kevin Powell, Brooklyn, New York, is a celebrated political, cultural, literary, and hip-hop voice in today’s America. The Jersey City product of a single mother, absent father, horrific poverty, and violence studied at Rutgers University on an educational program created during the Civil Rights Movement to benefit poor youth.
He has written articles, essays, and blogs for a wide range of media outlets; authored 14 books, including his critically acclaimed autobiography, “The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood,” as well as an upcoming biography of Tupac Shakur. His upcoming organization will focus on voter education and empowerment, and he is directing, writing, and producing his first documentary film, “What’s Going On,” among other projects. More info: http://kevinpowell.net/wpkpp/.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/englewoodelaine/.