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Poet Nikki Giovanni: Country of lies needs the truth
Accordingly, they will dive into deep pockets to sponsor events that ordinarily wouldn’t happen. So, the public has the privilege seeing someone of such consequence as enduring icon Nikki Giovanni come to the Twin Cities.
Giovanni vaulted to national prominence in the early ‘70s when “A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni” aired coast to coast over PBS television. She has been a revered literary figure ever since, and a firebrand figure of outspoken autonomy and inspiration to young women of all colors. She has written more than two dozen books, including volumes of poetry, children’s books and collected essays. Titles include: Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgment, and Re:Creation, Those Who Ride the Night Winds, Blues: For All the Changes, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems and most recently, Acolytes, published in January by HarperCollins and On My Journey Now, published this month by Candlewick Press. Among her countless accolades are the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters and the NAACP Image Award for Literature. Magazines from Essence and Mademoiselle to Ladies Home Journal have hailed her as Woman of the Year.
Presently, Giovanni is professor of English and the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech University. And she is in town February 28, delivering “Truth-Telling and the Need for Poetry,” a speaking engagement to highlight the University of Minnesota’s Black History Month and Women’s History Month celebration at Ted Mann Concert Hall. It is sold out.
Nikki Giovanni’s message at the address is, as she told Insight News, “We obviously need the truth. We’re living in a country of lies.”
Such straight talk has long been the articulate author’s stock and trade. After all, writing historically is a vehicle for her grassroots activism, with her earliest poetry being informed by such Civil Rights Era struggles as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s crusade of protest and civil disobedience, and the Black Power Movement, which gave rise to such voices as Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, along with the legendary agent for social change, the Black Panther Party.
Poetry not being quite a run of the mill means of personal expression, Giovanni speaks to why the medium is problematic for some: “Most people know the power and beauty of poetry. What happens a lot of times is that it gets taught poorly. Instead of reading a poem and [enjoying] how it makes you feel, many [instructors] say, ‘What do you think the poet meant?’ When in fact the poet meant what the poet said.” She goes on to add, “I like [today’s] kids, by the way. Spoken Word is just huge. The Hip-Hop generation has taken poetry and made not just a telegraph out of it. It tells the truth. It tells the news. It has given them a way of communicating. It’s wonderful what kids have done with poetry. We didn’t used to have rich poets until Hip-Hop.”
Among the current wordsmiths, she has praise for Queen Latifah and Zane. “These youngsters came through, I think it’s fair to say, the doors that we opened.” “We,” of course, encompasses the likes of Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, Sonja Sanchez, Ntozake Shange and a roster of voices who themselves passed through a portal made possible by the groundbreaking Black Arts Movement. “They were able to do so much, once they got inside. This is good. It shows the creativity of Black Americans. And it shows, whatever you’ve got, you can do something with it.”
In terms of the empowering cultural impetus, where do we go from here? “That I don’t know. I’m not much of a prophet. It’s been very gratifying to see the youngsters come through. I was just pleased as punch to see Kanye West on the cover of Time magazine. What’s the future? I would imagine more of the same. I do know the planet is in need of the creativity of Black Americans. And we are up to that challenge. As we go forward, the Black experience will add more impact.”
Far from subscribing to an ivory-tower aesthetic, she states that the art form is for everyone to enjoy and practice. “I think everybody sort of sneaks and writes poetry. My mother used to sneak and write poetry. And she wrote songs. But I don’t think it was anything she was going to do anything with. Probably, most of us are ‘sneak poets.’ The reality is, we all add our little bit of beauty, don’t we?”
With regard to the layperson and professional alike, she reflects that “An artist has to follow his own or her own muse. It’s his responsibility.” In accord with the ‘a-hero-ain’t-nothin’-but-a-sandwich’ school of thought, Nikki Giovanni sums up, “An expression I really dislike — you’re not a role model. You’re an artist. What you have to be careful about is not being pushed into something you can’t do. I’m a poet. My job is to [do that] and to have good manners and have good sense. I don’t have to run for president. I don’t have to find a cure for cancer. I should just write poetry and continue to grow from that. When we look from 1619 to 2007, the Black experience has been constant growth.”
Nikki Giovanni simulcast on large screen
Although all the free Nikki Giovanni tickets for the Feb. 28 lecture have been picked up and it looks like we have sold out the event in the Ted Mann Concert Hall, we are going to rent the Cowles Auditorium in the Hubert H. Humphrey Center because it’s close to Ted Mann, and we will simulcast Nikki Giovanni’s presentation on large screen in the Cowles Auditorium. We’re doing this to accommodate students, faculty, staff and people in the community who didn’t get tickets to the Ted Mann event.
If you are committed to attending, please RSVP to the Office for University Women by email at women [at] umn [dot] edu or call us at
We will reserve one to two spaces in HHH for you so you can go to the Humphrey Cowles Auditorium, listen and see Nikki Giovanni on the large screen there, and then walk through Carlson School of Management Building down to Ted Mann Concert Hall for refreshments and Nikki Giovanni’s book signing.
If you really want to attend, please let us know ASAP please as some of the people who couldn’t get into Ted Mann have already reserved spots in Humphrey . . . we still have space there, so join us!