This weekend, had the esteemed honor of being one of a few (though the room was packed to capacity with standing room only) to hear Nikki Giovanni talk at the National Civil Rights Museum.
Let me say that again. Nikki Gioanni—THE Nikki Giovanni.
Two things I love dearly: words and black folks. Even more, I love how the two are connected. How our history was shared by young artists like Nikki Giovanni brought them together unashamedly and effortlessly.
I won’t claim to have a bookcase full of her poems, but she has no doubt, been life-changing. Being the 80s baby that I am, I’d heard of Dr. Giovanni early on. Little excerpts in books that I’d read because I was obsessed with black history, references to her, but I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t grow up on her era.
It wasn’t until I saw an episode of A Different World where Kimberly Reese performed an exerpt of “Ego-Tripping” after a bout with her past, self-esteem and colorism issues (ya’ll remember). She stood on that stage with nothing buy congas as her musical backdrop.
“I am so hip, even my errors are correct…”
I was only 11 or 12 when that episode aired, but when Kimberly referenced “NikkiGiovanni’s poem,” in the script, I immediately went to our encyclopedia set. There she was on the page, a little petite lady with an afro. Plain, but pretty with a big smile. She looked smart. Like she had a lot to say…about everything. The next day, I was in my school library looking for her books. I was determined to find that poem, and I did. It probably occurred to me then that you really can affect people with writing. I was a witness. From there, I began writing poetry of own. Throughout high school, I accumulated spiral notebooks full of poems about…stuff, but I was no Nikki.
So when she walked in the room on Sunday, still petite, still plain, but pretty, I was ecstatic. She’s just a person, but some people, you just don’t expect to see with your own eyes. What was she going to talk about? I knew a few things about her. She’s a professor at Virgina Tech, a member of Delta Sigma Theta. Had she changed from the fiery young woman writing for freedom? Would she be weird and off the beaten path? You know how writers and creatives can be. *wink
What she was was funny. Hilarious, in fact. Real and in her own skin. I guess that’s to be expected at a vibrant 71. In just an hour, I learned more things about her. She’s a Tennessee girl like me (Knoxville), a graduate and proponent of HBCUs (Fisk University). She’s “not a nice person,” either. She discussed everything from Kanye (she was friends with his mother, Donda West) to why college athletes should be paid to how she titled her latest book, Chasing Utopia, written in honor of her deceased mother. A few random quotes from Dr. Giovanni:
Regarding her thoughts on African American athletes dating or surrounding themselves with whites after fame: You’re not gonna like this, but it’s not my business who they’re fucking.”
On writing and being a “surveyor” of things.
“Writers, you know, you write and someone publishes or they don’t….You should be asking yourself, ‘What am I watching?’
On working on a rewrite of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun:
What if the mama died instead of the father? Why are we making a fool out of Walter Lee when could be making a man out of Walter Lee?
On her mother’s death being the influence of her new book:
Mama died because Gary (Giovanni’s sister) had a brain tumor. I still think the reason mommy died is because she didn’t wan to bury Gary.”
I was even one of the literal few who had an opportunity to ask her a question. I asked her take on feminism today.
She closed out by talk by reading “Ego-Tripping,” and I shed a tear. All was right.