"Childhood remembrances are always a drag/if you're Black," Nikki Giovanni writes in her poem "Nikki-Rosa." "If you become famous or something/they never talk about how happy you were to have/your mother/all to yourself and/how good the water felt when you got your bath..." Though she grew up mostly middle class, Giovanni remembers poverty and her father's alcoholism. She uses the poem, however, to renounce biographies that only focus on those parts of her life. She writes that it isn't the bad things that make any difference, "but only that everybody is together and you/and your sister have happy birthdays and very good/Christmasses."
Nikki Giovanni was born Yolanda Cornelia Giovanni on June 7, 1943, the second child of Yolande and Jones Giovanni. A few months after her birth, the family left their Knoxville, Tennessee home to move to Cincinnati, Ohio. Giovanni didn't write much as a child, but like many, she spent time doing chores to earn money. "I earned my allowance by washing dishes," she says, "and in the summer I earned my allowance by working in daddy's garden. I'm not good in the garden; I once pulled up all the peppers -- I thought they were weeds."
When she was fourteen, Giovanni returned to Knoxville to live with her grandparents, where she had spent nearly every summer beforehand. She attended Austin High School and graduated early to attend historically black Fisk University in Nashville. After a particularly rough year, including the death of her grandfather and some rebellious behavior at college, Giovanni was dismissed from Fisk University. She returned to Cincinnati, working at Walgreens and taking occasional classes at the University of Cincinnati. In 1964, she reentered Fisk University and immediately became involved with the growing civil rights movement. She reestablished the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee at Fisk and edited a student literary journal. Her political and artistic involvement in the Civil Rights Movement earned Giovanni her reputation as a fiery young woman and outspoken Black Rights poet.
Giovanni graduated Fisk in 1967 with a Ford Foundation fellowship to attend University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work. The same year, she attended the Detroit Conference of Unity and Art and organized the first Cincinnati Black Arts Festival. She moved on to New York City and received a grant to attend Columbia University's School of Fine Arts, where she continued writing about volatile times. Just after attending the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she published her collection of civil rights poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk. The Harlem Council of Arts funded the publication of a third section, and Black Judgement was added to the collection.
On August 31, 1969, Giovanni gave birth to her son, Thomas Watson Giovanni. At the time there were very few single mothers, and Giovanni remembers the reaction. "They…said I was setting a bad example…. It was none of their business. I'm not a role model, and I've had big arguments with people about that. I just try to live my life and be a decent human being." She says that Thomas, who is now twenty-nine, made her look more closely at the "needs and interests of children." Since then, she has written six books for children, including the recent favorite, The Geni in the Jar.
After serving two teaching positions at Queens College and Rutgers University, Giovanni started NikTom, Ltd, a communications company, and edited an anthology of poetry by African-American women. Her writing was immensely popular, especially her spoken-word albums. Decades before the emergence of hip-hop and rap into popular culture, Giovanni was recording her poems with gospel choirs and other music. In 1972, Truth won NARTA's (National Association of Radio and Television Announcers) Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
Giovanni's career continued throughout the next three decades as she published volume after volume of her poetry and toured the country giving lectures. She has been given the Life Membership and Scroll by the National Council of Negro Women, named an honorary commissioner for the President's Commission on the International Year of the Child, and awarded with seven honorary doctorates. Awards and titles decorate her biographies, but Giovanni insists, "I was not that adventurous in life…I'd be the one standing in the corner writing down everything that happened."
Although her writing has admittedly softened since the years of her militant fight for civil rights, Giovanni does not shy away from conflict. In 1984, she was teaching English at The Ohio State University while receiving bomb and death threats for her opposition to the artist boycott of South Africa. Political organization TransAfrica blacklisted her, but Giovanni's career lived on; she toured Europe on a speaking tour the year after.
Giovanni currently teaches at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She is a voice for all types of Americans -- she has been labeled an Appalachian writer and a Southern writer; she is a female poet and an African-American poet, a mother, a teacher, and a cancer survivor. Her early years as an activist gave voice to the pain and anger of an oppressed race, while her recent writing works through the emotions of our time and culture. "You only have so much time," she says. "There are things you stand up for because it's right. That's not a battle that you're losing. You're just adding your body and your best wishes to a fight that has to be won."
Photos courtesy of Barron Claiborne and Nikki Giovanni.