Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
A leading light of the Black Arts Movement, Nikki Giovanni studied at Penn.
Later named Woman of the Year by The Ladies Home Journal, Mademoiselle, and Ebony Magazine, Yolanda Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni was born on June 7, 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee. The African-American writer and activist received a degree in history from Fisk University and began her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Social Work. Giovanni’s successful poetry collections have solidified her as “one of the most prominent young poets to emerge from the Black Arts Movement of the 60’s and 70’s.” To date, she has penned more than 30 successful books and is a professor at Virginia Tech University.
Nikki Giovanni has successfully managed to put poetry back on the map in today’s fast paced world. Despite controversial subject matter, deeply personal revelations, and outspoken tone, her poetry is a throwback to the fundamentals: a time when love was used as a universal writing theme. Crowned by critics as the “Princess of Black Poetry” during the early 1970s, Giovanni has continued to maintain and enhance her reputation as a poet.
Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., on June 7, 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee, she was nicknamed “Nikki” by her older sister, Gary Ann. Giovanni’s mother, Yolanda, was a teacher, while her father, Jones, served as a probation officer and social worker. The close-knit family eventually settled in Wyoming, Ohio, a predominantly black suburb of Cincinnati. The young Giovanni sisters spent their summer vacations back in Knoxville with their grandparents. Giovanni often credits her maternal grandmother, Louvenia Terrel Watson, for instilling her with a passion for civil rights, which penetrated through much of Giovanni’s early work.
Giovanni’s grandmother was unabashed and outspoken when it came to her resentment of white people and played the role of activist in her involvement with groups such as the interracial Highlander Folk School. She volunteered her granddaughter for demonstrations against the segregation of the dining hall at Rich’s, a local Knoxville department store, and she ordered young Giovanni to deliver Sunday dinner to local shut-ins, instilling a sense of responsibility and desire to help among her community. She was accepted into Fisk University at the age of 17 in 1960, but quickly grew to dislike their Dean of Women. On Thanksgiving of that year, Giovanni visited her grandmother without attaining formal permission for a leave of absence, and the young student was put on probation and later expelled. In her autobiography, Gemini, the poet explains she was “released from the school for attitudes that did not fit those of a Fisk woman.”
Giovanni was eventually accepted back into Fisk in 1964 and became actively engaged in a wide variety of student activities. She became the editor of Elan, an on-campus magazine, as well as an active member of the Fisk Writers Workshop. Giovanni was also a founding member of Fisk’s first chapter of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. On February 4, 1967, she received her diploma from Fisk University with honors in history. Her beloved grandmother passed away on March 8th of that year. Virginia C. Fowler stated in her book Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, “Louvenia instilled in her a belief in the importance of individual action, of the moral imperative to ‘stand up and be counted’ whether your side wins or not. She gave her granddaughter a sense of belonging in the world.”
In June 1967, the young writer planned and supervised the first Cincinnati Black Arts Festival, in hopes that it would spread awareness of arts and culture within the black community. She also organized Cincinnati’s black theatrical group, known today as The New Theatre, while simultaneously providing social service at the People’s Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware. The young activist was taking leaps toward social evolution, but she could not count on her social work to pay the bills. At the advice of her mother and with the help of a Ford Foundation Grant, Giovanni began her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work during 1967 and 1968. Giovanni was now an activist as well as a full time student, but the notorious multi-tasker was also a writer. She penned her first two books while heavily diving into all three roles. In The African-American Review, Mozella G. Mitchell reflected on Giovanni’s ability to multi-task as a metaphor for her writing: “Giovanni seems to be both detached from and involved with life. As to living and writing, she has always been involved in some project or movement, while at the same time reflecting on immediate experiences.” Never one to be typecast, Giovanni’s life is a balancing act as a social advocate of change as well as a story teller. Mitchell went on to say that “such a dual active and contemplative and creative role” is what “characterizes her entire life.”
Giovanni moved to New York City in 1968 to attend Columbia University’s graduate program for fine arts. Despite a generous grant from the Nation Foundation of the Arts, Fowler noted Giovanni simply could not work with “the conservative white literary critics. . .who tried to tell her she could not write.” The poet took matters into her own hands and published Black Judgement independently. That same year, she also took on her first teaching job as assistant professor of English at Queens College. Giovanni’s first poetry collections, Black Feeling Black (1967), Black Judgement (1968), and Re: Creation (1970) were literary hits. Black Feeling Black sold 2,000 copies its first year, while Black Judgement sold 6,000 copies during the first three months following its publication.
Giovanni’s internal dialogue on the African-American identity was now public information, fair game to praise as well as critique. Praised in the Black Writers of America anthology, Giovanni was mentioned as one of few contemporary black writers to have made a “constructively emotional impact on the collective racial ego of black America.” But the poet’s radical political opinions did not please everybody. Fowler wrote that “Giovanni enters the dialogue of the 1960s about black identity with rage against white America that was largely responsible for earning her the label of ‘revolutionary poet.’” This label, though softened with time, was given to the author early on in her career. In a 1969 New York Times article titled “Renaissance in Black Poetry Expresses Anger,” author Thomas A. Johnson felt the invigorated renaissance in black poetry was being taken too far:
While the new black renaissance in poetry is fairly recent, the ‘black is beautiful’ theme and black militancy can be found in the Negro poetry of many years ago. Miss Giovanni talked recently of the wide interest among Negroes in poetry. Her basically angry anthology also questions the current relevance of her art in the poem ‘For Saundra,” when she writes “Maybe I shouldn’t write at all, but clean my gun, and check by kerosene supply. Perhaps these are not poetic times at all.”
After receiving her master’s degree in 1969, Giovanni accepted a teaching position at Rutgers University and gave birth to her son, Thomas Watson Giovanni, on August 31. Giovanni was twenty-five years old when Tommy was born out of wedlock, a conscious decision brought about by the young poet’s dismay at the politics involved within the institution of marriage. “I had a baby at twenty-five because I wanted to have a baby and I could afford to have a baby,” she told Ebony Magazine. “I did not get married because I didn’t want to get married and I could afford not to get married.” Tommy’s birth provoked a parallel re-birth in Giovanni’s writing style. The tone of her writing took on a “more domestic” and less hostile effect. Furthermore, the author’s extensive travels to Africa and the Caribbean between 1969 and 1971 broadened her artistic scope and allowed for a less judgmental and more sympathetic layer to the political aroma that had previously circulated around her poems.
Giovanni has herself admitted to a “total absence” of the strong political content present in her early work, but seeing as poets cannot please everybody, some critics expressed disappointment in her “abandonment” of black revolutionary problems for more personal writing. The writer has always denounced the accusations as “absurd,” insistently retaliating that poetry leaves room to analyze and interpret while the directness of her political opinions does not leave space for interpretation and is better left for prose. Regardless, the shift in the author’s emphasis from politics to personal was described as an “almost declawed, tamed Panther with bad teeth” by Ruth McClain in Black World.
The 1970s sparked more literary hits for the author, including her autobiography, Gemini: an Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet (1971), Spin a Soft Black Song (1971), and Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young People (1973), dedicated to her son. The collections share a common theme of family and contain a subtle undertone of racial pride and black consciousness, true to the author’s nature. Giovanni commented on the changes her personal and professional life was going through: “I’m into a very personal thing, now, and I have a two and a half year old son, and I’m more settled. Only a fool doesn’t change. Only the mass of the earth remains the same. It has not changed in weight since it was formed, but yet, it is a constantly changing thing.”
If art is a reflection of life, Giovanni’s change in tone is a reflection of her growth. In 1972, Giovanni published another poetry collection titled My House. The book is divided into two sections, “The Rooms Inside” for individual, personal elements that influence internal growth, and “The Rooms Outside” for the outside social, political, and cultural elements that shape the spirit. The title of the book itself was picked to represent the more domestic and feminine side of the author, as well as the important influence of Giovanni’s ancestry in shaping her identity. Giovanni is the first to emphasize the importance of subjectivity in writing and promote the power of individuality. “Writing is about character,” she said in an interview, “It’s not about content; it’s about who you are.”
Giovanni’s words would become her actions. Insisting that “poetry is the culture of a people,” she brought her ideas to the people. The poet went about this task by collaborating with the New York Community Choir to create her Grammy-nominated spoken word album, Truth Is On Its Way. She also made close to 200 appearances during the 1970s, including The Tonight Show and Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Margaret B. McDowell’s essay on black literary criticism praised Giovanni’s public appearances, calling her a “poet of the people ... renewing the tradition of the bard, prophet, or witness who sings or chants to inform the people.”
Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978) is a celebration of the contrast of darkness and light within the human condition: a collision of the desire to salvage dreams and a surrender to reality, both present in one entity. Cotton Candy is a “metaphor for life itself, which one invests in and strives to make better despite the inevitability of change, and ultimately, death.” In 1995, Giovanni’s life-long smoking habit hit her hard; she was diagnosed with lung cancer. However, much like Candy’s message to the reader, she did not surrender without a fight. Determined to fight the disease, the poet quit smoking and had surgery to remove half of one lung and three ribs. “I smoke in my dreams,” she said in a recent New York Times Interview. “I wake myself up some nights, just laughing about something, and I’ll have a cigarette in my hand.” The poet contributed an introduction to an anthology entitled Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors.
The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection was one of five Grammy Award nominees in the category of Spoken Word in 2002, a testament to the relevance of her subject matter. If poetry is indeed the culture of a people, Giovanni told Publishers Weekly that her students make sure she never goes out of style: “If you’re a poet you are trying to teach. I think being in a classroom keeps you up to date. I think you you’d miss a lot if all you did was meet other writers; if you never saw another generation.” In 2005, a rejuvenated Giovanni made her public speaking comeback. In January, the cancer-free poet was invited as the headline speaker at The Pennsylvania State University’s Martin Luther King Day of Service Evening Celebration. The widely acclaimed author captivated the audience in a humorous yet graceful manner, providing “unique insights” into civil rights history and received a standing ovation.
Giovanni is described today as the godmother of the spoken word movement, as well as a strong influential force in bringing the Black Arts Movement to the mainstream. She remains a professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she has taught since 1987. Yet despite all her astonishing accomplishments, she remains humble. She said in a recent interview:
I’m not a priest. I’m an acolyte. I’m not trying to do anything to anybody but bring a point of view. I’m not running for office. I’m not trying to lead. I’m just trying to say does this make sense, or, isn’t there some truth that we can obtain from this? You have to keep putting the work in perspective, and the work has to be true, and you have to answer to, in my case, to my ancestors. I always feel like my grandmother is going to read this, even though she’s been dead 40 years. The world needs acolytes at this point; good people need acolytes at this point.
One of her most recent poetry collections, Acolytes, was published in 2007. True to Nikki Giovanni form, the book covers multiple subject matters with love as a central theme. She credits her ability to make a fool of herself as what keeps her humble. It is also this ability that keeps her fearless, just the way her fans and critics like her. Fear, to Giovanni, is the self defeating enemy of love, and the kind of love Giovanni stands by in Acolytes is “progressive, non-judgmental, and unconditional.”
Black Feeling, Black Talk. New York: Black Dialogue Press, 1967.
Black Judgement. Detroit: Braodside Press, 1968.
Re: Creation. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1970.
Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1971.
Truth Is On Its Way, Right-On Records, 1971.
Spin a Soft Black Song Poems for Children. New York: Hill & Wang, 1971.
My House: Poems. New York: Morrow, 1972.
The Women and the Men. New York: Morrow, 1975.
Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day. New York: Morrow, 1978.
Vacation Time: Poems for Children. New York: Morrow, 1978.
Those Who Ride the Night Winds. New York: Morrow, 1983.
Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni. New York: Morrow, 1996.