The Words of One Influences the Movement of Thousands
“We cannot possibly leave it to history as a discipline nor to sociology nor science nor economics to tell the story of our people,” (“Giovanni”) Nikki Giovanni writes in Scared Cows and Other Edibles, a book of her collected essays. Giovanni speaks upon the history of African Americans and their strenuous struggle of conquering oppression, discrimination, and negativity. Although this journey was anticipated to be laborious and one that would last many decades, Giovanni refused to quit and she took it upon herself to inform her entire race that quitting was not an option for them either. She was confident in knowing that their battle to freedom would not be won in the hands of anyone other than African Americans, and that unity would essentially be the most crucial element to their success. Nikki Giovanni, a woman of many words, embodies the idea of uncovering inner strength not only to rise above any struggle, but to encourage thousands in believing they too will be able to overcome. Through her many years as a writer of both positive and negative events in her personal life, she became an inspiration to many and encouraged them to believe a change would soon come.
Although Giovanni’s words empowered many to strive beyond their largest obstacles, she too had to discover her own inspiration and many times, her motivation was fueled from the most private and significant events she encountered during her childhood. Originally named, Yolande Cornelia Giovanni Jr., and born on June 7, 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee to Yolande Cornelia and Jones "Gus" Giovanni by the age of three, Yolande’s older sister, Gary Ann, began calling her Nikki and from then onward, Yolande has been formally addressed as Nikki Giovanni. Two months later, during August of 1943, the Giovanni family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio with her parents’ ambitions of beginning new jobs, however, four years later they moved once again. This endeavor landed them in Woodlawn, Cincinnati, and for about six years, they lived in the suburban area of Cincinnati. Although the Giovanni family constantly moved from one city to the next in search of jobs for Mr. and Mrs. Giovanni that would enable them to better provide for their family, they did not encounter many problems until 1952, when Mr. Giovanni attempted to build a house in Hollydale, an all-black housing development. Due to racist loan officers, whom made it impossible for the family to follow through with their original plan, the Giovannis remained strong and eventually were able to put a down payment on a house in Lincoln Heights. This minor set back did not hold back Giovanni from thriving academically in school. Barriers such as these were all too common in Giovanni’s life; however, she has always been able to preserve the mentality of rising above any obstacle, regardless of the odds.
Giovanni’s attentiveness and eagerness to learn guided her academically at Fisk University during the 1960’s, making it easy for Giovanni to graduate with honors. However, just as with any success, tribulations are the building blocks to that success and Giovanni encountered many difficulties while attending the University. Her witty and occasional inappropriate remarks were considered to be uncharacteristic of women at the university but through her involvement with organizations such as, the Writers' Workshop and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, she learned how to use her words in a positive way. A better educated Giovanni, both in dialect and in African American studies, she began publishing breath taking pieces that caught the attention of many in black communities and within a few years, stimulated momentous changes.
As Giovanni’s educational ambitions soared to new heights, she received a B.A. in History, but the passing of one of her biggest inspirations, her grandmother Louvenia Watson, caused her great suffering. This tragedy led to the production of powerful poems and essays, which essentially became her most significant outlet and by 1968, Giovanni published the first volume of her book of poems, Black Feeling Black Talk. This volume includes the poem Nikki-Rosa, one that gives a first hand account of the life of a young African American girl growing up in the heat of racism and violence. Immediately, the title Nikki-Rosa indicates that the poem will discuss Giovanni’s childhood, seeing as how the poem is given the title of the nickname Giovanni was given in the early years of her adolescence. In addition, the first shift directly comments on an area known as “Woodlawn,” (line 3) a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio where Giovanni briefly resided. The speaker continues in a calm tone by describing the poor neighborhood with “…no inside toilets…”(line 4) but yet, Giovanni found happiness in always having her “mother all to…[herself]…”(lines7-8)
The second shift drastically changes in tone, as animosity builds as the speaker reminisces about her days in “…Hollydale,…” (line 15) another suburb Giovanni grew up in, but this area contains painful memories of her “… father’s pain as he sells his stock and another dream goes…” (lines 18-19) The dream being referenced to is that of her father’s desire of building a house for his family, but due to loan officers whom could not look past the color of Mr. Giovanni’s skin, refused to grant him the loan. But yet underneath all of the chaos, is an overwhelming amount of family unity, with both the speaker and her sister “…have happy birthdays and very good Christmases…”(lines 25-26) Emphasis is placed upon “…Christmases…” (line 26) because it is one of few words of the entire poem that is capitalized and it is plural, which alludes to the idea that there were multiply “…Christmases…” (line 26) the speak and her sister enjoyed, regardless of their living conditions.
The final shift reestablishes the original calm tone of the poem, however, the speaker “…hopes no white person ever has cause to write about …[her]… because they never understand Black love is Black wealth…” (lines 27-30) The impact of the poem’s message is felt in these few lines as the speaker praises her life and conveys the joy she found in her low budgeted “…Christmases…” (line 26) because she discovered that black love equates to black wealth, meaning love is the true token of wealth not money or material possessions such as “…big bath tubs that folk in chicago barbeque in…”(11) The speaker understands that her childhood was tough, but the love and unity she received from her family made all of her troubles seem extremely bearable.
Within the same volume of Black Feeling Black Talk, Nikki Giovanni published, Poem for Black Boys and her inspiration could have derived from a time when her parents moved the family to Cincinnati, Ohio during 1943. There, they began jobs as house parents at Glenview School, a home for Black boys. Views of these young boys prompted the powerful opening of the first stanza, “Where are your heroes, my little Black ones…”(line 1) Throughout the entire poem, the speaker references childhood games and their relevance to the boy’s situations. The first game referenced occurs in the first shift, involving an Indian and a chief, however, the speaker warns the boys that they are not the powerful “…sheriff on his faggoty white horse…” (line 3) but the “Indian …[they]… so disdainfully shoot…”(line 2) After establishing a clear distinction between those who are the real targets, the speaker notes how the boys should play “…run-away-slave…” (4) or “…Mau Mau,…”(5) a revolt in Kenya against British rule, all which are games “…more in line with …[there]… history…”(6)
The speaker’s tone swiftly changes and appears to advocate violence in the second shift as the speaker says, “Ask your mothers for a Rap Brown gun…” (line 9) H. Rap Brown is well known for his involvement as a Civil Rights activist and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a committee that Giovanni too was a part of while she attended Fisk Univeristy. “Ask for CULLURD instead of Monopoly DO NOT SIT IN DO NOT FOLLOW KING GO DIRECTLY TO THE STREETS…”(11-13) says the speaker. Society thinks “…this is a game …[they]…can win” (14) and they expect nothing less than violent, atrocious actions from these young black boys.
The third shift discusses how well the readers know the speaker is stating the truth and emphasizes how blacks should “grow a natural and practice vandalism,”(line 16) learning these “…useful games…”(line 18) and skills would once again uphold every societal expectation of African Americans. The fourth shift, however, introduces a new idea by commenting on a special game called “…Burn Baby..”(line 24) and yet the same results occur because “…Hide and Seek becomes valid /Because we have much to seek and ourselves to hide from a lecherous dog.” (lines 28-29) Regardless of the game conducted, African Americans will continuously be subjected to the same gruesome and unequal treatment.
The fifth shift enforces the importance of the poem and just how crucial it is for African Americans to listen and truly understand every word written. Even if the boys don’t listen to her, they will soon understand that the boys are there own heroes and it is their responsibility to “…invent …[their]...own games and teach …[the]… old ones how to play” (lines 34-35) By the boys creating their own game, they are instituting a change and eventually a new way of life for themselves and for those of generations prior. Those lines are words of encouragement because the boys gain a sense of hope that although society expects specific actions, they can surprise everyone by inventing a game all of their own and genuinely win.
Beginning in 1958 though 1960, Giovanni’s life was jolted as her parents’ relation started to crumble, with constant arguing Giovanni thought it would be in her best interest to stay with her grandparents for awhile. This move resultantly became one of her best decisions because she gained an abundance of knowledge from her grandmother, learning the importance of helping others and fighting for social justices. Becoming a strong Black American was something Giovanni prided herself upon, which lead to powerful, heart hitting pieces such as Poem (No Name No. 3). The first line, “The Black Revolution is passing you bye…” (line 1) immediately establishes the severity of the speaker’s words. Seeing as how “…Black Revolution…” (line 1) is capitalized, the readers quickly understand that African Americans need to react soon. The use of “..bye…”(line 1) is a homophone and it creates a major impact on the readers because not only is the revolution passing, but it will soon pass by with no return. The speaker then speaks upon Anne Frank and her experience but how the “…naziboots…” (line 5) will not march this time. African Americans should not wait for such a warning because no group will come hunting for them this time.
The second shift has an aggressive, forceful tone because it uncovers African American History and draws the readers focus by introducing the facts. “They already got Malcolm … They already strapped a harness on Rap…” (lines 11-13) its forces the readers to understand that oppression began many generations ago and it is not stopping. Whites have already killed Malcolm X, an activist who fought for justice and continued by limiting the only other form of voicing their sorrows. The second shift also creates a personal feeling between the readers and the speaker by saying, “Didn’t you hear them when 40 thousand Indians died from exposure to honkies…”(lines 17-19) As the speaker continues to give examples of the horrendous atrocities conducted by whites, African Americans see how other races have been wiped out and nothing is stopping whites from striking the African American race as well.
The third shift continues with a personal tone, in addition to bringing the content of the poem into the present tense. “Can’t you hear them when Arab women die from exposure to isrealijews/ You hear them while you die from exposure to wine and poverty programs…”(lines 23-25) says the speaker. Not only does the speaker reference current attacks in different countries, but she follows that line with one that personally targets African Americans living in poor communities. The liquor stores on every street corner are not accidents, they all are mechanisms implemented to slowly kill the black race while finding numerous other methods.
The final shift truly emphasizes that crucial time has already passed and African Americans do not have amply time left to prepare themselves for a task that should have been accomplished years ago. The forceful, angry tone of this shift states the importance of moving quickly and not wasting anymore time because if African Americans will not fight, “…the whi-te reaction…”(line 34) will not refrain from continuing their genocides. “…Whi-te…” (line 34) is also visually important because it forces the readers to stare at the word and wonder why Giovanni chose to write the word in such a format. Regardless of the readers’ interpretations, they have spent extra time deciphering the meaning behind the word and genuinely taking time to see the importance in one race swiftly taking action against another before time runs out.
Nikki Giovanni has made a difference in the lives of many, regardless of their race, age, or gender because she has proven that regardless of a person’s origin or the obstacles one is faced with, uncovering a divine amount of strength will allow for one individual to achieve greatness. Today, Giovanni continues to be “…a strong voice of the Black community…”(“Nikki Giovanni”) with focus on bringing about a change for an entire race. Her words now go beyond Civil Rights and flow into the ears of hundreds who recently fell victim to the Virginia Tech Massacre on April 16, 2007. After Giovanni took the position of English Professor at the University during 1995, no one could foreshadow the events of that catastrophic day, but regardless of how broken the students and faculty were, Giovanni’s soulful and moving words of “We Are Virginia Tech” reminded them all of the unity they once and will always have. Unity and strength are two elements that create power and Nikki Giovanni is a sole demonstrator of one individual who believes that the only way to introduce a positive change is through the gathering of an entire race, nation, or student body and acting as one.
The New Revolution of 2009
The time has come
for a Revolution
the time to react was
but Obama is our new King
so we are not to late
Recession is a sorrow
of the past Depression is our battle
of the present, but prosperity is in
our near future
cast aside all of your differences
and Unit as one
to regain the stability we once
came to love
Annotated Works Consulted
“Awards and Honors.” Nikki Giovanni: Awards and Honors: Awards and Honors. Ed. Nikki Giovanni. 2002. 2 December 2008. < http://nikki-giovanni.com/awardsnhonors.shtml>
A page comprised of numerous awards Nikki Giovanni won for various and significant reasons. This page is also formatted in a timeline and it takes the viewers from minute awards won during 1970, all the way until 2006. Over these decades, Giovanni shows immaculate progress solely based on the increasing amount of awards she received over the mounting years. It is also interesting that she won these awards over a large sum of consecutive years and she accomplished this over many decades.
Giovanni, Nikki. “Nikki.” MySpace.com. 2 January 2009
Nikki Giovanni’s My Space page is more personal than other pages documenting her work. Although the majority of the information contains a detailed biography, recording the past events in her life, she includes recent information as well. Such as many of her interests and favorite past times, but also people she would like to meet. Many of the individuals she speaks of, were Civil Rights activist, many of whom she received her inspiration and strength from.
“Good Reads- quotes by Nikki Giovanni.” Home page Ed. Otis Chandler. 2008. Goodreads Inc. 9 December 2008. < http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/22050.Nikki_Giovanni>
A website full of inspirational and intriguing quotes that Nikki made throughout her years, using the experiences and information she gained from her life, to guides others. The quotes range from discussing love, to the importance of helping those in need. She is such a versatile writer that one could discover a quote for nearly any top. Overall, she stresses the importance of unity and togetherness, in order to accomplish goals.
“Nikki Giovanni.” Poets.org. 1997. Academy of American Poets. 3 December 2008.
A website that gives more of an in depth view of Giovanni’s background and states that “Nikki” is her nickname, rather than her given name. The site also discusses her latest and most recent books published of her work. In addition to her noted battle with lung cancer and how that didn’t keep her from inspiring others as she used her survival story as a way to connect with others dealing with the same illness. Afterwards, she partook in the introductory writing of the anthology Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors.
“Nikki Giovanni's speech at Virginia tech touched a troubled world.” Nikki Giovanni's speech at Virginia tech touched a troubled world- Record Online-The Times Herald Record. 22 April 2007. The Herald Record. 9 December 2008.
This powerful and informative article discusses the tragedy that struck the students, faculty, and staff of Virginia Tech. This article is special because not only is Professor Giovanni using words full of encouragement and wisdom, it depicts another side of Nikki. Through her poems, it is clear that she is an amazing and accomplished writer, however, the way in which she was able to convey her emotions of sorrow but invoke a change as well, demonstrates Nikki’s versatility.
“Quilts.” Poets.org. Ed. Visual Verse Project.1997. Academy of American Poets. 3 December 2008. < http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16891>
Solely based on her poem, “Quilted,” this site deals with the issue of what will happen to poetry when she no longer part takes in it. However, she is quick to defend the activity she loves dearly and emphasizes how poetry and writing poetry will always be something that she carries with her and cares about tremendously.
Annotated Works Cited
“Biography.” Nikki Giovanni: Bio: Biography. Ed. Nikki Giovanni. 2002. 3 December 2008
A brief introduction to Nikki Giovanni’s life is given on this website. Most of the details lie within the beginning stages of Giovanni’s life, including the most basic facts, such as her place of birth and the motives behind her success. Her determination lies within the pride she takes in being a “… Black American, a daughter, a mother, …[and]…a professor of English.” It establishes a fundamental framework from which she builds upon and matures into a fascinating writer.
Daniel, Jenine. “Nikki Giovanni-1943.” Giovanni_Nikki_tn. Ed. Susan Lawson. 9 December 2008. < http://www.ncteamericancollection.org/litmap/giovanni_nikki_tn.htm>
This interesting website is composed of many sections, beginning with a very brief biography of Giovanni’s life. The page then continues with a discussion of her literary works, but it is written in the perspective of the author and how the poems impacted her life or her reaction to the work. The writer seems to appreciate the life lessons Giovanni discusses because she forewarns young teens about many life’s obstacles, such as “dating.” The third section is an actual interview with Giovanni, where the student asks about varying topics, one of which was whether or not Giovanni thought life was a journey; and Giovanni responses, “…life is not only a journey, but an adventure…”
Giovanni, Nikki. The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003.
One of the most well known books of poetry, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, produced by Nikki Giovanni and it takes the readers through hundreds of poems published by Giovanni. She discusses a wide range of topics and ideas in all of the poems because of her versatility. Her passion for the Civil Rights Movement was the driving force behind many of her best and widely known works. However, she also has an array of poems that discuss the beauty found in love and passion.
Giovanni, Nikki. The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni. New York, NY: Virginia C. Fowler and by the University Press of Mississippi: 1995.
Although this novel seems similar to The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, it differs in the fact that this novel primarily focuses on poems about the Civil Rights Movements and the struggles African Americans faced during the 1960’s. Many of these poems “reflect the changes Giovanni has endured as a Black women, lover, mother, and teacher.” These poems are essential because they guide the readers through her life, but at the same time, they focus of the prevalent issues of many movements.
“Nikki Giovanni.” Thinkexist.Com. 30 December 2008.
Nikki Giovanni’s most notable and well known quotes are discussed on this page. A number of these quotes were either written in famous literary pieces or spoken in moving motivational speeches. The quotes are significant for multiple reasons but most importantly, for the meaning they all conveyed upon those who heard or read her powerful words. The selected quotes range from playful comments to serious observations on many experiences in Giovanni’s past and observations on recent occurrences as well. Amazingly, numerous of these few specific words have changed the lives of hundreds.
“Nikki Giovanni Timeline.” Nikki Giovanni: Bio: Timeline. Ed.Virginia C. Fowler. 2003. 2 December 2008.
This website provides information about Nikki Giovanni’s life in a timeline format. It maps out the most significant moments in her career, beginning from 1943 and concluding in 2005. Many of the dates pin point specific times in her life that could have influenced various writing pieces seeing as how the timeline records events such as her transition from her hometown of Knoxville, TN, to suburban Woodlawn, Cincinnati. The website also provides incite on various awards she won because of her poems, but overall, it allows the viewers to see her amazing journey of becoming a well respected poet.
Nikki Giovanni: We Are Virginia Tech. Dir. Hokie 850. April 18, 2007. 30 December 2008. < http:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-Qx9dIr-68->.
This video accounts for Nikki Giovanni’s poem, We Are Virginia Tech, spoken to a crowed room of teary eyed victims of the tragic events of the Virginia Tech Massacre. The video is a great opportunity to view the reactions of Giovanni’s colleagues and students as many rose in appreciation and respect for her words of encouragement and closure. Her words rang throughout the entire center and her strong presence and guidance towards unity could be felt amongst all, even those who did not attend the ceremony.
Paige, Vivian, J. “Nikki Giovanni: We Are Virginia Tech” All Politics is Local – Tip- O’Neill WordPress.com. 2 January 2009
Virginia Tech caused an overwhelming amount of emotions amongst the students, and faculty of the University. Although Giovanni made a powerful speech, not everyone agreed with her words. Some viewed her poem as unnecessary and even disrespectful, on the other hand, many felt and understood the core of her message. Regardless of the position taken by those who commented on her work, the majority appreciated her efforts.