Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr.—better known as Nikki Giovanni—was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on June 7, 1943. She never dreamt of becoming a writer. Her dream, instead, was “discover something no one else had thought of. I guess that’s why I’m a poet. We put things together in ways no one else does.” Giovanni’s first book of collected poems—Black Feelings, Black Talk—is about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary of first publication. Over the course of the last fifty years, Nikki Giovanni has been living out the idea she summed up in “Werewolf Avoidance”:
“Poets should be strong / in our emotions / and our words that might make us / difficult to live with but I do believe / easier to love / Poet is garlic / Not for everyone / but those who take it / never get caught / by werewolves.”
Her childhood was bookended in Knoxville, TN, living in suburban Cincinnati until she was thirteen. She attended Austin High School in Knoxville, though she never graduated—instead she jumped into Fisk University’s “Early Entrant” program, allowing her to begin college without finishing high school. (As far as I can tell, she never did receive a high school diploma or its equivalent so, as she points out in her bio, she can accurately claim being a high school dropout.) University life presented a number of challenges and her difficulty adjusting led to her being expelled. She returned to Fisk a while later because “I knew I needed an education because I was talented like my big sister who was playing Rhapsody In Blue when she was eight years old; I really didn’t sing all that well though they let me when we had school plays. I wasn’t drop dead gorgeous. I was just me. Not even all that friendly though I knew I was a good thinker and a better dreamer.” She met with the Dean of Women and was readmitted. Graduating in 1967 with a degree in history, Giovanni would go on to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
Giovanni’s mid-to-late-twenties seem like they must have flown by at breakneck speed: she self-published Black Feelings, Black Talk when she was twenty-five years old. She gave readings so standing-room-only crowds. She began her teaching career in 1969 at the newly established Livingston College of Rutgers University (which, ten years ago, was merged with several other undergraduate colleges under the Rutgers banner to become the School of Arts and Sciences). The following year, she also took on regular appearances on Soul!, as well as helping to design and produce a number of episodes. Surefooted in her convictions that the institution of marriage is inhospitable to women and, as such, she would never get married, she defied conventional norms and decided to have a child anyway: “’I had a baby at twenty-five because I wanted to have a baby and I could afford to have a baby,’ she told an Ebony interviewer. ‘I did not get married because I didn’t want to get married and I could afford not to get married.” Giovanni was named “Woman of the Year” by Mademoiselle, Ebony, and Ladies Home Journal. She also co-founded a publishing cooperative—NikTom, Ltd.—to boost the voices of other Black women writers.
“Ego Tripping (there may be a reason)”
Critics note that the tone of her work changed quite a bit after the birth of her son, implying that she moved from a more “militant” poetry that earned her the moniker “Poet of the Black Revolution” to something “softer.” I am by no means a Giovanni scholar, but I’ve always read that transition as movement between one kind of radical celebration and another, one kind of fear and range and another. She has always been celebrating Blackness and love and relationships, even the strained ones. She has always been artistically documenting the politics and injustices of the world around her. She has always been raging against a world wherein so many people suffer. So many of those themes are present in “We Are Virginia Tech,” which she wrote in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and, subsequently, delivered at Convocation in her capacity as VT’s Distinguished Professor of English (not a super fun fact: the shooter had actually briefly been a student in one of her creative writing classes).
“We Are Virginia Tech”
For nearly fifty years, Nikki Giovanni’s voice—as a poet, as a civil rights activist, as an essayist, and as an educator—has always been powerful, yet relatable; tender, yet compelling. Like most folks around my age who are familiar with her poetry, my first introduction to Giovanni was “Ego-Tripping.” I remember walking away from that poem the same way I walked away from Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”—though, as a white woman, neither were meant for me (you can enjoy it even if you are not the target audience), I could not help but rejoice in the strength and resilience and beauty that both poems illuminate. Still, I did not quite fall in love with Giovanni’s poetry until several years later, when the man who is now my husband read Resignation to me in front of our music theory classmates. From that point on, her poetry has always managed to reach into my chest and simultaneously excite and soothe my heart. To date, she remains my favorite Great American Poet.
So, today, on her seventy-fourth birthday, join us in celebrating Nikki Giovanni and her dream of discovering something no one had ever seen before. Here is to many more years of her dreaming and showing us things about ourselves and our world that no one else sees. Thank you, Professor Giovanni! And many wishes for a very happy birthday!
You will always be a brilliant patch in the quilt of my life.