Sunday, April 17, 2011

On Nikki Giovanni (for National Poetry Month)

I really cannot remember the first time I read something from Nikki Giovanni, though I assume it was in high school.  I do, however, remember the first time that Giovanni stood out for me:  African American Literature at Hampden-Sydney in my sophomore year.  I was the only black student in the class, and I remember feeling a very strong sense of pride as we read the various black writers.  I wondered if my classmates appreciated the literature they were reading (I wish I'd asked), as I appreciated the white American and English writers that I read and loved. 

Giovanni stood out for me because of her brash and unapologetic style, her use of language, and her love of being an American black (note the noun and the adjective).  I was inspired, following my class, to read more of Giovanni's poems.  The many historical references in some of her work really appealed to me, and they provided me with a window into the mind of a young black woman during a very tumultuous time (I thought of my mother going through similar things).  I had the pleasure of meeting Giovanni twice in my life, first at Sweet Briar College in '90, then at Hampden-Sydney in '91.

While I was in graduate school, Giovanni had wrote a book of essays, Racism 101.  That book helped me get through my Master's program.  I don't remember how many times I read Racism 101.  It was at that time that I decided that I would look for everything that Giovanni written, and try to buy what I could find, old and new.

Now I will admit that I don't agree with all of the things that Giovanni has written, and I may not agree with everything that she has said, but that doesn't diminish the power I feel when I read her words.  I return to a number of poems when I am feeling down, or when I want to laugh, or when I want to contemplate next moves.  I even love the fact that she wrote a poem with the title "Hampton, Virginia," my hometown.   I also love that Giovanni is ever changing, and living life to the fullest.  Those students at Virginia Tech are very lucky to have her as a professor.

There are too many Giovanni poems that I love to recommend only a handful.  I would suggest going to the library and checking out The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni:  1968-1998.  It is a wonderful entree into the world of Giovanni.  My copy is pretty worn out.

1 comment:

Tara White said...

I agree! Nikki Giovanni is the favorite of this former campus hell-raiser. We even brought her to campus my junior year. She inspired my own poetry (which I haven't written in the years since I started graduate school six years ago). I bought all of her books of poetry, her essays and her autobiography.

I received Racism 101 as a departure gift from a sorority sister who knew I loved Giovanni. I was leaving to go to New York to graduate school where I was also the "lonely only." Wonderful coincidence! Thanks for sharing!