Giovanni continues to supplement her poetry with occasional volumes of nonfiction, including Racism 101 (1994), in which she looks back at her experiences of the civil rights movement and its aftermath. The book is a rich source of impressions of other black intellectuals, including writer and activist W.E.B. DuBois, writers Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Toni Morrison, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and filmmaker Spike Lee. Giovanni’s crossover from the 20th to the 21st century after a battle with lung cancer returns to her love of poetry laced with doses of harsh reality, a mix of socio-political viewpoints, and personal memories of loss, then moves on to anecdotes, musings, and praise songs, including an audio compilation.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Giovanni’s popularity as a speaker and lecturer increased along with her success as a poet and children’s author. She received numerous awards for her work, including honors from the National Council of Negro Women and the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers. She was featured in articles for such magazines as Ebony, Jet, and Harper’s Bazaar. She also continued to travel, making trips to Europe and Africa, and her increasingly sophisticated and nuanced world view is reflected in her work from the period. As Giovanni has moved through her middle years, her work has continued to reflect her changing concerns and perspectives, works spanning the first three decades of her career, reveal the evolution of Giovanni’s voice and charts the course of the social issues of gender and race, along with subjects as diverse as friendship, sexual desire, motherhood, and loneliness.
Giovanni has published no fewer than five books of poetry in the ten years since 1999 in a consistent demonstration of her “outspoken advocacy, her consciousness of roots in oral traditions, and her charismatic delivery place her among the forebearers of present-day slam and spoken-word scenes”, according to Publishers Weekly. Giovanni is an avid supporter of slam, spoken-word and hip-hop, calling the latter “the modern equivalent of what spirituals meant to earlier generations of blacks.”
In addition to writing for adults, during the early 1970s, Giovanni began to compose verse for children. Among her published volumes for young readers are Spin a Soft Black Song (1971), Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People (1973), and Vacation Time (1980). Written for children of all ages, Giovanni’s poems are unrhymed incantations of childhood images and feelings which also focus on African-American history and explore issues and concerns specific to black youngsters. Giovanni’s later works for children include Knoxville, Tennessee (1994), The Sun Is So Quiet (1996) and Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship (2008). Giovanni’s children’s book Rosa (2005) was awarded a Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration.
Giovanni’s first published volumes of poetry grew out of her response to the assassinations of such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Robert Kennedy, and the pressing need she saw to raise awareness of the plight and the rights of black people. Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967) and Black Judgement (1968) display a strong, militant African-American perspective as Giovanni explores her growing political and spiritual awareness. These early books, followed by Re: Creation (1970), quickly established Giovanni as a prominent new African-American voice. Black Feeling, Black Talk sold over ten thousand copies in its first year alone. Giovanni gave her first public reading to a packed audience at Birdland, the famous New York City jazz spot. Critical reaction to Giovanni’s early work focused on her more revolutionary poetry. Some reviewers found her political and social positions to be unsophisticated, while others were threatened by her rebelliousness. Writing about what she knows, sees, experiences, critics of the time noted her ability to convey urgency in expressing the need for Black awareness, unity, and solidarity.
Arguably one of the most widely read poets of all time, Giovanni is, among other distinctions, the author of more than 30 books for both adults and children, the recipient of over twenty honorary degrees from national colleges and universities, and currently Professor of English and the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech. Notwithstanding her many accomplishments and accolades, Nikki Giovanni is unpretentious.
Amid pouring gravy, literally “letting her dogs out,” and battling a small bout of the hiccups, Nikki Giovanni talked frankly with me about the permanence/resonance of history and politics, her new children’s book, The Grasshopper’s Song, and the ultimacy of disappointment.
Nicole Sealey: It is such an honor. Thank you, in advance, for taking the time to speak with me this evening.
Nikki Giovanni: It’s my pleasure.
Poet Nikki Giovanni will bring the keynote presentation for the UW-Madison Black History Month Celebration on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. in the Symphony Room of Gordon Commons, 770 West Dayton Street. The world-renowned poet, writer, commentator, activist and educator, who has been a longstanding image of culture and joy in the Black community, will address the 2017 celebration theme of “Black Joy: Getting Black to Happy, A Celebration of Resilience & Resistance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”
Giovanni’s unique and insightful poetry testifies to her own evolving awareness and experiences: from child to young woman, from naive college freshman to seasoned civil rights activist, from daughter to mother. Frequently anthologized, Giovanni’s poetry expresses strong racial pride and respect for family. Her informal style makes her work accessible to both adults and children. In addition to collections such as Re: Creation (1970), Love Poems (1997), and The Collected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (2003), Giovanni has published several works of nonfiction, children’s literature and recordings, including the Emmy-award nominated The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection (2004). A frequent lecturer and reader, Giovanni has taught at Rutgers University, Ohio State University, and Virginia Tech.
Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943, the younger of two daughters in a close-knit family. She gained an intense appreciation for her African-American heritage from her outspoken grandmother, explaining in an interview, “I come from a long line of storytellers.” This early exposure to the power of spoken language influenced Giovanni’s career as a poet, particularly in her propensity towards colloquial speech. When Giovanni was a young child, she moved with her parents from Knoxville to a predominantly black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio but remained close to her grandmother. Giovanni was encouraged by several schoolteachers and enrolled early at Fisk University, a prestigious, all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee. A black renaissance was emerging at Fisk, as writers and other artists of color were finding new ways of expressing their distinct culture. In addition to serving as editor of the campus literary magazine and participating in the Fisk Writers Workshop, Giovanni worked to restore the Fisk chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Giovanni graduated with a B.A. in history in 1968 and went on to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York