Nikki Giovanni
Soul Food, Sex, and Space

In the 1960s, Nikki Giovanni was a revolutionary poet of the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights. She had a famous dialogue with James Baldwin in Paris in 1971. As a professor at Virginia Tech, she brought beauty and courage by the way of poetry after the shooting there. Today, she is a self-proclaimed space freak and a delighted elder — an adored voice to hip-hop artists and the new forms of social change this generation is creating.

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Guests

is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. She has written and edited numerous books of poetry and works for children, including Quilting the Black-Eyed PeaBlack Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement, and The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni. Her latest work is Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid.

Transcript

August 24, 2017

Nikki Giovanni: “We’re going to Mars for the same reason Marco Polo rocketed / to China / for the same reason Columbus trimmed / his sails on a dream of spices / for the very same reason Shakelton / was enchanted with penguins / for the reason we fall in love / It’s the only adventure”

Krista Tippett, host: Nikki Giovanni is one of our most beloved poets, and I had such fun interviewing her. She is utterly at home in herself. She’s a teacher at Virginia Tech, where she brought beauty and courage by way of poetry after the 2007 shooting there. She was a revolutionary poet of the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights. As Ebony magazine describes her, “She has been there to chronicle the Black experience and interpret it for us in words we could understand and feel.” Today, Nikki Giovanni is a self-proclaimed space freak and a delighted elder, an adored voice to hip-hop artists and the new forms of social change this generation is creating.

Ms. Tippett: You’re enjoying being in your 70s, I sense.

Ms. Giovanni: I do. I recommend it. [laughs] I do. I love it.

Ms. Tippett: And I love how you are just continuing to wrestle and change your mind, and your vision is just constantly evolving.

Ms. Giovanni: But everybody’s is. The only difference between me and most people is that I’m not afraid to talk about it. [laughs]

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Ms. Tippett: Nikki Giovanni has received numerous awards for her books of poetry and her works for children. She is a University Distinguished Professor in the English department at Virginia Tech, where she has taught since 1987. I spoke with her in 2016.

Ms. Tippett: One of the most striking things that just jumped out at me, all the way through your writing and writing about you and all the way to the latest volume of poetry you published in 2013 is how from the very beginning, you were held and cherished and taught by courageous, loving women. [laughs] Your mother — you were named — your first name is Yolande, so you were kind of named after…

Ms. Giovanni: Yeah, it used to be. When Mommy passed, I had it legally changed to Nikki, just because that’s what everybody knows me. I would’ve never done it when Mommy was here, because I wouldn’t want her to think I didn’t want to carry her name. I’m Yolande, Jr.

Ms. Tippett: I see, yeah. And so how old were you when you changed your name legally, then?

Ms. Giovanni: Mommy’s been dead ten years, so I was 62, something like that. 63 years old.

Ms. Tippett: And how do you say your grandmother’s name? Louvenia, Louvenia?

Ms. Giovanni: Louvenia.

Ms. Tippett: Louvenia.

Ms. Giovanni: But everybody actually calls her Emma Lou.

Ms. Tippett: Emma Lou, OK. Emma Louvenia Watson. Also, that you were all, it sounds like, foodies before the name, the word had been invented.

Ms. Giovanni: Oh, definitely. Grandmother was a foodie, and Grandmother’s friends were foodies. And, of course, I ended up living with Grandmother — not “ended up,” but was fortunate to live with Grandmother. So Mommy was a good cook, because she was Grandmother’s daughter, and my Aunt Ann was a good cook. Living with Grandmother, I learned all of their tricks. My favorite was, of course, her greens. And I’m still, still, still working on that, because making greens is one of life’s difficulties. It looks like you just clean them and stuff. Well, Mommy — well, and Grandmother, too, you pull the stems, and then you tie the stems, and you put the leaves in, and you use the stems to flavor, and then you pull it out. And so she was very good at that.

But the other thing I was laughing — and I’m laughing about this — you didn’t ask me about this, but in Grandmother’s day, you used to go to the market, and you bought a live chicken. Actually, Grandpapa did the marketing. And he would bring it home, and they’d put it in the backyard. And then, Grandmother would go out Saturday morning and wring its neck. [laughs] But you learn to do that, and I guess I have learned, too — it’s something that I’m dealing with on another kind of level. But for something to live, something else usually dies. There’s a transition. It’s not something I would’ve been able even to say to you even 50 years ago, in my 20s, I wouldn’t have. It’s really — it’s been interesting.

Ms. Tippett: You were born in 1943, is that right?

Ms. Giovanni: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: And so you grew up in — I like this. You talk a lot about what we call “the ‘60s,” what is called the ‘60s, which you really date from about 1954 to 1968, which was such a dramatic moment, I mean a lot of transition. I mean you’ve just been using that word.

One question I ask people — whoever I’m talking to, usually — is, how would you describe the religious and spiritual background of your childhood? And I wonder how you would start to talk about that, and I really mean the fullness of that — your family, but also that world you came into.

Ms. Giovanni: First of all, I grew up, of course, Baptist, because Grandmother was a Baptist, Mt. Zion Baptist Church. But when Mommy married my father, married — we called him Gus. We called Daddy Gus. When Mommy married Gus, they moved to Cincinnati, because he couldn’t get a job. He was a college graduate, and he couldn’t get a job in Knoxville, and so they moved to Cincinnati, where he could get a job. And Mommy joined the AME Church.

But if we’re just gonna just kind of breeze on religion without getting into anybody’s business, I recently have been fascinated with why it is that we don’t actually look into the manger more. We always look at the cross. And I think that one of the problems with the manger is that we have to give Mary credit for bringing God to Earth. And the book that I’m working on right now — actually, it’s called A Good Cry, and it’s just because I realize women keep a lot of things in them. I do know this from Mary, and I’m gonna give Mary credit — having a baby hurts. [laughs] I don’t care who it is or where it came from, having a baby hurts. So I want to give Mary her props. And I also want to deal with the fact that, as we are giving this birth, a part of what the Christian religion is supposed to do is give birth to a new human being.

You asked one kind of question. I don’t know if I’m answering it strangely.

Ms. Tippett: No, it’s great. I think this question lands wherever in us it wants to be given voice. I mean you also once said — you said you always think it must have been a woman who developed the spiritual.

Ms. Giovanni: Oh, gosh, yeah. When we look at slavery, which — actually, slavery is only going to be the end result. We have to look at the kidnapping in Africa. We have to look at — no matter what the country. We have to look at the fact that somebody sold, and somebody purchased. And that just cannot be denied.

We’re upset, of course, with the Europeans, because, we say, “Oh, they created slavery.” They might have. But they didn’t create the buying and selling of human beings. That had been going on for quite some time all over.

So we had the people coming across that ocean, not knowing where they were going, but knowing, whatever it was, they were not gonna go back to where they used to be. So somehow or another, they had to make a decision — how do we go forward? But it had to be a woman, because — we’re back to the manger. We’re back to Mary. We’re back to that’s what women do — it had to be a woman who said, “I need to settle my people down.”

And when you consider that there were a lot of languages going on — she didn’t speak English, at that point. They didn’t speak Swahili, at that point. There were many languages. The only common language is going to be [hums]. So when we get to what is going to ultimately become the United States, these people had created a way to speak to themselves, to each other, through the language, through spirituals.

Ms. Tippett: So when you were 25, you wrote, “I’m 25 years old, a revolutionary poet. I love.”

Ms. Giovanni: [laughs] I do.

Ms. Tippett: I kind of want to ask you about the “I love” tacked on at the end of the sentence, but I also want to ask you about what you meant at 25, when you said you were a revolutionary poet, and how you look at that now, as Nikki Giovanni quite a few years later.

Ms. Giovanni: [laughs] Well, I think 25 was good. But I always thought 25 was one-fourth of my life, and I felt the same way at 50. I don’t feel the same way at 70. I’m not sure that I’ll make 75, but I always felt like, OK, this is a fourth of my life. What am I doing, and what am I trying to do?

Well, a part of what I’m doing is articulating. I would be — if I would be unfortunate enough, if I can say it like that, to be on that ship, I would be the person who started the song, because somebody has to raise a voice. Somebody has to raise — I don’t know what the word is — it’s not just courage, but the foresight or something to say, “We have to talk, and this is how we’re going to…”

Ms. Tippett: Or the soul of a poet, maybe. Somebody has to have the soul of a poet.

Ms. Giovanni: Sure. That works for me. I mean that song had to come from someplace, and I would like to think that if I were on that ship, I would raise that song. But since I’m not, I’m — at 25, I’m at a turning point in America, and we had to raise our voice to say, “It is now time. Middle Passage is just over. This is segregation. It’s time that we moved into a new world, a new generation.” And of course, I had the great pleasure, ultimately, of knowing Mrs. Parks. But it was so…

Ms. Tippett: Rosa Parks.

Ms. Giovanni: Yes. It was so important that somebody stand up.

I didn’t know Thurgood Marshall. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have had a glass of wine with Thurgood? Oh, my goodness. What a brilliant, brilliant man.

So I came up at a time that I thought I could be of some use, that my voice could be of some use. I’m not strong. I’m not fast. I don’t have any talents. I’m not that pretty. So all of the things that one normally thinks about women and what they should do, I really don’t do it. But I am smart. And so I thought, what I have to do is use my smarts to be of some service to human beings.

[music: “Radio Song” by Esperanza Spalding]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the poet, Nikki Giovanni.

[music: “Radio Song” by Esperanza Spalding]

Ms. Tippett: I’m curious about — and this a huge question, but I’m so curious about what you might share about how you’re inhabiting this moment now. And as a grandmother of a young woman who’s going to be growing up in this world and of an adult son and — I’ve also been watching, on YouTube, these interviews that a lot of great, young, black hip-hop people and actors and entertainers do with you, and the reverence — they look up to you. And so I’m curious about the conversation you’re having inside yourself, and also with your friends and across generations, about what you lived through and participated in in the ‘60s and 50 years later, so where — how that helped you make sense of now or critique now or worry or be proud or hopeful about where we are now.

Ms. Giovanni: I actually think of myself as the quintessential existentialist. So I live now. And one of my either great strengths or great faults — I haven’t figured out, and I probably won’t — is that I don’t go back. I don’t reread poetry like that. I don’t rethink myself. I just try to bring the best that I have today.

I’m incredibly thrilled that the youngsters — I have a “Thug Life” tattoo on my arm, and when I get a minute, I’m gonna put another. I said I was only gonna have one tattoo, but I’m gonna put another tattoo as soon as I come back, actually, from vacation, and it’s gonna say “Hokies Don’t Hate,” because I think that that was important.

Ms. Tippett: And the Hokies is the — what’s the —

Ms. Giovanni: Virginia Tech.

Ms. Tippett: Virginia Tech — I don’t know, what do you say — their nickname.

Ms. Giovanni: When we had the situation in Paris, people were picking on the Muslims. And the community, the Virginia Tech community, had a big rally on the drill field, and they gave out bands. I don’t have one on right now, but the band said “Hokies Don’t Hate.” And I thought, yeah, next to “Thug Life,” that’s the next statement that I think is important to make. “Hokies Don’t Hate.” We don’t hate.

I’m, as I say, I am incredibly thrilled that the youngsters look at my work and look at some of the things that I’ve done, and they’ve found some good in it. I like to think, essentially, I’m fertilizer, and so they’re growing something.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, that’s amazing.

Ms. Giovanni: I don’t meddle, I really don’t. And I get asked — I’m 72, so I get asked, “Well, what do you think the kids should do today?” And I don’t know what the kids should do today. They know what they should do today. I like Black Lives Matter. I think that that’s important. I have the button, “I can’t breathe.” I think that that’s important — not just because of the gentleman, but because if we don’t let the air be free, none of us can breathe. But they don’t need me to tell them what to do. They’re perfectly capable, and I think they’re doing an incredibly good job.

But we’re just all living in this world at this time. And one of the great thrills of my life is, I’m a space freak. I’m an Appalachian. I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, grew up in Cincinnati, and I’m now here. I was in New York for 20 years or so, but I am now here in Roanoke, Virginia, so I’ve spent most of my life in Appalachia. We are used to the quiet, and we are used to looking at the stars — in my opinion — looking at the stars, dreaming. And if we’re gonna really go into space, we really need two things, if I may say so like that. [laughs] We need — well, actually we need black people. We need really, really more black people involved, and we need wine. And we have to find a way to deal with the wine. And if we can do that, then you can spend 500 days going up to Mars, and you can be sane when you get there. You see what I’m saying? [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I do. So at the very beginning of your book, of the Chasing Utopia book, you just tell this quick story about interviewing Mae Jemison, who was the first black woman to go into space. And that’s such a great story. You asked her, how did she avoid getting bored? And what — she said, “I pay attention.” Or what did she say? Boredom. I can’t remember. Do you remember what her…

Ms. Giovanni: I’m not looking at it in front of me. But Mae Jemison’s a great kid. I called Essence magazine, and I’ve been knowing Essence forever. I remember when they started. And when they said Mae Jemison was going into space, I called Essence, and I said, “Listen, I want you to understand so that there’ll be no misunderstanding. I interview Mae Jemison. I’m gonna come down there, and all of you will be sorry.” [laughs] And they said, “OK, Nikki, you can do it.” And I was so pleased. And Mae did that — she paid attention.

But Mae did not have 500 days. And we might get it down to 400, but that’s a little over a year to sit on a spaceship. And you’re not gonna have any sex; I mean the things that you would normally do within a year, you’re not gonna have it. [laughs] And so what we have to do is find a way and find the people who are used to being within themselves.

Ms. Tippett: You also connect these things to your aspiration and imagination about the black connection to the future of planet Earth.

Ms. Giovanni: Sure. And it’s also — it goes back to — let me interrupt you for a minute. It goes back to Middle Passage, because if you can survive that journey from west coast of Africa to the east coast of the United States and be sane when you get here — and that’s what we haven’t looked at. And so again, a part of my research that I’m trying to do now — and hopefully, I’ll live long enough to get more done than I’ve been doing, though I’m working on it — a part of my research is that we have not dealt with the fact that they were sane when they got here.

Now I just wrote a poem, and I said — one of the lines in the poem said, “Pluto will one day be another — will be a planet, and we’re gonna send black kids up there to learn how to ski.” [laughs] And I love it. It’s — we have got to quit dealing now. Race was a bad idea 200 years ago or 300 years ago. It’s a ridiculous idea today. Hatred was a bad idea, and it’s a ridiculous idea today. We’re on the third planet from the yellow sun. We have got to come together to see “and how do we make sense out of this?” And how do we find a way to bring the sanity into this? How do we find a way to make the best of us?

[music: “Murmuration” by GoGo Penguin]

[poem: “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)” by Nikki Giovanni from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea]

Ms. Giovanni: “We’re going to Mars because whatever is wrong with us will not / get right with us so we  journey forth / carrying the same baggage / but every now and then leaving / one little bitty thing behind:”

“One day looking for prejudice to slip…….one day looking for hatred to tumble by the wayside…….”

“maybe one day the Jewish community will be at rest…….the Christian community will be content…….the Muslim community will be at peace…….and all the rest of us will get great meals at Holydays and learn new songs and sing in harmony // We’re going to Mars because it gives us a reason to change.”

[music: “State Lines” by Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band]

Ms. Tippett: I was thinking, as I was reading — your passion about space — you’re such a space freak, as you say. Have you ever heard of this language of “the overview effect”? It’s actually a documented effect of something that happens to astronauts, people who have been in space, that they get this sense of perspective that is kind of life-altering, that changes the way they then come back to culture. Have you ever heard of that?

Ms. Giovanni: No, I didn’t.

Ms. Tippett: I mean here’s one way somebody described it. It says — it refers to “the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in a void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.” I don’t know if that’s what you’re talking about, but that’s…

Ms. Giovanni: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: Is it?

Ms. Giovanni: And said much better. But that is exactly — can you imagine when we have people doing sort of a normal, “Oh, what are you going to do next weekend, John?” “Well, Mary and I were thinking we’d just run up to this space station and have a glass of champagne, and we’ll spend the night, and we’ll be back.” Can you imagine sex in space?

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I have to confess, I’ve never thought about it before. All right.

Ms. Giovanni: [laughs] I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] No, no, you didn’t. I just — I think we have to return to Earth here for a little while in this conversation, though. I mean we were talking about the spirituals before. And that kind of led into this, the question of how people stay sane, and not just sane, but bring beauty into the world, and the spirituals as such an incredible demonstration of that.

I mean you also mention Virginia Tech, and I want to come back to that terrible massacre in 2007, and you did deliver a poem that day. And to me, when I read it and hear it again — the spirit of the spirituals is in it, which is about facing reality head-on and including — those spirituals were called “sorrow songs.” And you said, “We are Virginia Tech. We are sad today and we’ll be — we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on. We are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech. We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly. We are brave enough to bend to cry, and we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.”

Ms. Giovanni: Sandy Smith is the president’s — Dr. Steger’s assistant — called me. And everybody — I knew Mr. Cho, I knew the murderer. And I knew some of the students who were killed. I know that Mr. Cho — I had kicked him out of my class, and that’s a longer story. But people — some people said, “Was he after you?” But I’m never on campus on Monday, so I knew Mr. Cho wasn’t looking for me. He was doing something else. And so when Sandy Smith called me, she said, “Nikki, we need you to anchor convocation.”

I knew that I was incredibly sad. Actually, I’m tearing up right now, and I apologize. Anybody that knows me knows that I’m pretty good on my feet, but I knew that I couldn’t walk into an auditorium as sad as I was, and — I just didn’t want to trust myself to do the right thing. So I just sat down and wrote what was important. And what was important to me was that we are Virginia Tech, not what happened.

“We are Virginia Tech. // We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning. // We are Virginia Tech. // We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and sad enough to know that we must laugh again. // We are Virginia Tech. // We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by a rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands, being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy. // We are Virginia Tech. // The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all this sadness. // We are the Hokies. // We will prevail. // We will prevail. // We will prevail. // We are Virginia Tech. [applause]”

Ms. Tippett: And it was an incredible poem. And also, what was so striking to me, and telling, really, about what you do and about who we are as human beings, is, there was just the incredible applause, and then whoever stood up next, and I don’t know if it was the president, said, “Boy, did we need that.”

Ms. Giovanni: I don’t remember. I was just glad that I was able to do that.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and if you think about poetry and the place of poetry — in human life and also, in common life, and how it’s something we forget, but it kind of resurfaces again and again, and I felt like that moment after that terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech, and you, as a poet, saying, “We will prevail” — there was this authority of that form of language. I wonder how surprised you might have been, that 25-year-old revolutionary poet, that there are moments when we honor poetry and poets and understand how necessary it is. Do you know what I’m saying?

Ms. Giovanni: Even now, to be honest, and I say this to my students, I don’t — my students are too young to understand that you don’t plan your life. The life of a poet is not planned. You’re just always doing — well, we’re back to cooking. You’re always doing the best that you can do, and you’re always taking whatever ingredients you’re given and making whatever it is that you can make. Am I making sense?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Giovanni: And so being a black American — and I don’t mean to bring race in like that, but being a black American, I’m used to taking little bits of this, that, and the other. My grandmother did not waste. There was nothing that came into her kitchen that she didn’t find a use for. And I feel the same way with experience and with words. And as I have grown older, I refuse to let who I was at 25 inform or make me be who somebody else thinks I should be at 72.

And I think that this is what maybe the young rappers — Jill Scott called me the other day, and it was really just such a pleasure to talk to that young lady. But what I was at Jill’s age, I’m not now. I’m learning something. I’m looking again at slavery, and I’m going to look at it very differently, because I’ve learned so much. I’m not a novelist, and I have good friends who are novelists, and I’m always laughing at “You novelists, you sit down, and you say, ‘This is what I’m going to write, because this was a bestseller.'” But we don’t do that. Poets don’t have bestsellers. I’ve had a couple, but it’s been an accident — nobody knows why. But poetry is not on that level. So we’re always trying to just tell the truth as we understand it, and I want my students to understand that. You have a voice — use it. Never let anybody take your voice away from you. That’s what’s important.

And don’t waste — I’ll go back to that — don’t waste what you know. You’d be surprised at how many people actually waste what they know, not to mention waste what they feel.

Ms. Tippett: Would you say a little bit more about what you — your reflections that you had in that conversation about how you’re thinking about slavery now in ways that you didn’t think about it before?

Ms. Giovanni: Well, we all know — let me approach it this way, if you don’t mind. We all know Rosa Parks. And we all know Mrs. Parks refused to give up — Mr. Blake said to her, “I want you all to give up this seat.” It was the four of them sitting there. And Mrs. Parks, who was sitting on the aisle — and there was a man on the window and two people across — Mrs. Parks, said, “No.” She got up to let the man on the window out, and she sat back down. What I ask my students, and what I’m sharing with you is, what did the white man who was standing there think, when he saw this woman standing up by sitting down for herself? Who was he? We’ve never looked at who was he, and what were his thoughts?

And so when you say, “as I look into slavery,” well, we know that there were victims in slavery; I don’t have any problem with that. But we also know that something good came out of slavery, because we in black America became Americans, because we — no matter what Marcus Garvey or any of the rest say, there is no “back to.” This is it for us, because we have no place to go back.

I’m — what is it? Fifth generation American, something like that. I’d have to do the math. But there’s no place to go back. So it’s not unusual for somebody like me to be in love with something like Mars, because all my people have ever done is go forward. And we go forward with a sanity and a love. And I think that that’s so important, that planet Earth tap into that. Quit playing these little stupid race games and find out what it is that these people are bringing to all of us as we go forward.

[music: “Vivencias Alheias (Deep Rap Beats Mix)” by Taser Production Beats]

[poem: “Stardate Number 18628.190*” by Nikki Giovanni from The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni]

“This is not a poem…No…It is a celebration of the road we have traveled…It is a prayer…for the roads yet to come…This is an explosion…The original Big Bang…that makes the world a hopeful…loving place // This is the Black woman…in all our trouble and glory…in all our past history and future forbearance…in all that ever made love a possibility………………….This is about us…”

“giving pride…giving succor…giving voice…giving encouragement…giving whatever…we can give”

“This is about us…Celebrating ourselves…And a well deserved honor it is…Light the candles…This is a rocket…Let’s ride”

[music: “Vivencias Alheias (Deep Rap Beats Mix)” by Taser Production Beats]

Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Nikki Giovanni through our website, onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Vivencias Alheias (Deep Rap Beats Mix)” by Taser Production Beats]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with the poet, Nikki Giovanni. She was part of the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights, and she engaged her revolutionary poetic voice in a famous dialogue with James Baldwin in Paris in 1971. Now she’s a professor at Virginia Tech, where she brought beauty and courage by way of poetry after the shooting there. And she’s an adored voice to the hip-hop artists of today and the new forms of social change this generation is creating.

Ms. Tippett: One thing that just runs all the way through a picture — getting a picture of your life is that you have been loved well, you were loved well in the beginning, and you’ve loved well. There’s these famous lines from some of your early poetry that “Black love is Black wealth and they’ll / probably talk about my hard childhood / and never understand that / all the while I was quite happy.”

I mean you just used the word “love.” Does that word — how does that word figure in as you think about a vision for us, as human beings, in terms of race and beyond race, in this world that you’d like to see us be creating?

Ms. Giovanni: Love is important. I think my father was an idiot. And — I don’t think that. My father was an idiot. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: He was abusive, right? He was violent.

Ms. Giovanni: Yeah, he was. And I don’t know what — I couldn’t begin to tell you what made me understand that whatever was going on with Gus had nothing to do with how Mommy felt about me and felt about Gary. Gus was crazy, but he loved us. So I think it was Toni Morrison that said, “Love is no better than the lover.” Crazy people love crazily. And I think she’s absolutely right. And I don’t know what let me separate so that I didn’t learn to dislike him. I just didn’t let that which does not suit me determine who I am.

And I feel the same way, and I think that we’re looking at young black youngsters and young white youngsters today — I say that to my students, because I have white youngsters: They didn’t create slavery, so there’s no reason for them to feel guilty about it. What we all need to do is decide how we want to go forward — am I making sense? — from this.

I’m going to be sorry when I retire, because I enjoy — if it’s one thing that I definitely enjoy, it’s my 8:00 class. My 8:00 class, they come to me, 8:00 AM, they come to me from their dreams, and I come to them from mine. And I would give up a lot of things, in terms of teaching; I really don’t want to give up my 8:00, because I like the freshness that they bring. And the other word would be, I like the love that we have for each other as we come into that class.

And I think that you have to make up your mind what you’re going to love. And the other day I had the pleasure, the absolute pleasure of having okra made with chicken feet. And I hadn’t had chicken feet since, oh, since I lived with Grandmother. She’s been dead a long time. I just couldn’t believe it. I just sat there. I wanted to lick the bowl. It was so good. [laughs] I don’t know if you’ve ever had okra, which — I don’t know if you’ve ever had chicken feet, because nobody does it.

Ms. Tippett: I’m not sure I’ve had chicken feet. I haven’t had okra with it. I do love okra, but I haven’t had it with chicken feet.

Ms. Giovanni: Oh, my. Well, it was so wonderful. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Is that where your mind and heart go when you’re thinking about love — it ends up with food?

Ms. Giovanni: Yeah, if I had a choice between food and sex to remember, I’d always remember the food. [laughs] The sex wasn’t bad in some cases, but the food was always wonderful.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] So you’re saying love is a great thing, and also, it’s not always healthy, and so it’s not necessarily that useful to throw it around, as a word.

Ms. Giovanni: Well, I — no, you can’t just throw it around. I think you have to make up your mind, what you love and what loves you. And I think that’s a two-way street. And I think you have to be patient with your love. All love doesn’t work, we know that, whether it’s food, whether that’s a human being, whether that’s a dog, whether that’s the garden you used to grow — I mean whatever it is. But outgrowing something or not needing it doesn’t make you dislike it, it just means that you’ve learned that lesson. You have earned what it had to offer you. You’ve done that, and now you move on. I’m not married, but I have friends who are divorced, and it was like, “Oh, it was such a mistake.” Well, it wasn’t a mistake, it was a lesson learned. You had ten good years, and you have children and whatever, the house or whatever.

Everything is a lesson. And so you have to find out what’s the lesson, and how do I embrace this lesson, and how do I go forward? And you have to watch out for the bitterness. That’s what you don’t want to be bothered with.

[music: “See Me As I Am (feat. The E-Collective)” by Terence Blanchard]

[poem: “You Were Gone” by Nikki Giovanni from Those Who Ride the Night Winds]

Ms. Giovanni: “You were gone / like a fly lighting / on that wall / with a spider in the corner / You were gone / like last week’s paycheck / for this week’s bills / You were gone / like the years between / twenty-five and thirty / as if somehow / You never existed / and if it wouldn’t be / for the gray hairs / I’d never know that / You had come”

[music: “See Me As I Am (feat. The E-Collective)” by Terence Blanchard]

Ms. Tippett: There’s another line I wrote down from your talk with James Baldwin, 1973. So one thing you said to him is, you said, “One of the nicest things we created as a generation was just the fact that we could say, ‘Hey, I don’t like white people.'” And then, you said, “It was the beginning, of course, of being able to like them.”

Ms. Giovanni: Yeah, that makes sense, yeah. That makes total sense, because once you can articulate, once you can get it out, then something else can come back in. It makes total sense. I don’t know what else to say about that. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Well, and it seemed helpful to me — I feel like we’re in this moment — so much has come to the surface that obviously needed to come to the surface, but we still don’t know quite what to do with it. And I feel like we, at this point, 50 years on from the that Civil Rights Movement of Dr. King and all the people of that era, we think we’re supposed to know how to do this. And we don’t. And we don’t know how to tell each other the truth or tell ourselves the truth. And so that statement that you made, that we could say, “Hey, I don’t like white people,” [laughs] it’s so refreshingly true and real.

That’s not even really a question, but…

Ms. Giovanni: No, well, the line you were quoting, “Nikki-Rosa,” earlier, and I could push it back from where you were, and the line was: “and I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / because they never understand / Black love is Black wealth and they’ll / probably talk about my hard childhood / and never understand that / all the while I was quite happy.”

And I think that what I’m trying to say — I don’t want to second guess myself either. But I think what was important to me is that I don’t want to be put into a box. We need to stop that old-fashioned racism and get back into where we, as human beings, are going. We really do.

Ms. Tippett: Right. I mean you also are on a college campus a lot — do you think there’s — isn’t there something healthy right now about the fact that there’s truth being told? And these things that happen are — they’re being reckoned with, I mean imperfectly, but that has changed. Do you see that too, or do you have it differently?

Ms. Giovanni: I’m not sure what you mean when you say “truth being told.”

Ms. Tippett: Well, that, as you wrote in 1988, people get shot, and it’s not — there’s no outcry, there are no marches, there are no sanctions. And now there are pictures, and there’s an outcry, and there’s sanctions. And we’re not quite sure what to do with it. But these things aren’t invisible anymore.

Ms. Giovanni: I just wrote a — and I’m struggling with it, by the way, because I — it’s on a deadline. It happens to be one of the few poems I have on a deadline.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, you’re struggling with this piece you’re writing.

Ms. Giovanni: And I’m struggling to make it — but the third line in the poem says, “We cannot be un-raped.” And I was interested, because we’ve had a lot of campus rape, and then we find out that some of it isn’t quite accurate. But no matter what it is, we cannot un-rape.

And I’m not sure — I’m having this argument with myself. I don’t know where this is going to go, by the way — but I’m not sure that justice can come from any of that. Only thing that can come from that is revenge, and revenge is a bad idea. And I mean the Greeks learned that 800 million years ago.

Ms. Tippett: That justice can come from any of what?

Ms. Giovanni: That there is no — if you, right now, came in here and beat the living crap out of me, there is no justice. There’s no justice. I had the living crap beaten out of me. I can sue you. I can get revenge, but I can’t — there’s no justice. And so I’m beginning to wonder, should we change this dialogue we have? And I’m sorry to say it like that, and I’m not namby-pamby, but we’re going to have to find a way to talk to each other. And I think that that’s what’s important. So I’m — am I — I’m probably not making sense.

Ms. Tippett: No, you are making sense. I mean you said a minute ago that we need to work with where we’re going. And it strikes me, and I think that’s also what you are saying here, that there’s the anger and pain at injustice, which is real, and there’s also this other work. If you say that there’s no justice, then there’s this other work of also creating the world we want to live in, which may be so imperfectly tied to righting those wrongs.

Ms. Giovanni: Or just trying to learn to live with the fact that “Some things,” we’re going to say, “you cannot do.” And then some things we’re going to say, “But though you have done them, we have to find a way to live with them.” And that doesn’t mean we reward you for what you’ve done, but it also means that we need another level of dialogue.

I’m a big fan of the Greeks for a lot of reasons, not because of their — they have terrible wine, as you know — but I’m a big fan of the Greeks. But it would have been fun to have lived at the time that you could walk around and talk to Socrates or Aristotle, to somebody and say, “Let’s remake the world.”

My students and I — because we talk about everything, because we’re writers — and we were talking about how there is an imbalance. I don’t have to tell you that. There is a terrible, terrible imbalance in economic privileges. And one of my students, a young man, he says, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. What I’m going to do is tell you that it needs to be changed, because it does.” The economic system that we live on needs to be changed. And I can’t think of it, because I’m 72, and I’m already stuck with where I am. But the youngsters coming up are going to find another way to handle this.

[music: “Within Everything” by Brian Blade, Danilo Perez & John Patitucci]

[poem: “Nikki-Rosa” by Nikki Giovanni from Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement]

Ms. Giovanni: “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black / you always remember things like living in Woodlawn / with no inside toilet / and 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 / from one of those / big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in / and somehow when you talk about home / it never gets across how much you / understood their feelings / as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale / and even though you remember / your biographers never understand / your father’s pain as he sells his stock / and another dream goes / And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that / concerns you / and though they fought a lot / it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference / but only that everybody is together and you / and your sister have happy birthdays and very good / Christmases / and I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / because they never understand / Black love is Black wealth and they’ll / probably talk about my hard childhood / and never understand that / all the while I was quite happy”

[music: “Within Everything” by Brian Blade, Danilo Perez & John Patitucci]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the poet Nikki Giovanni.

[music: “Within Everything” by Brian Blade, Danilo Perez & John Patitucci]

Ms. Tippett: You’re enjoying being in your 70s, I sense.

Ms. Giovanni: I do. I recommend it. [laughs] I do. I love it.

Ms. Tippett: And I love how you are just continuing to wrestle and change your mind and ask questions, and your vision is just constantly evolving, it seems.

Ms. Giovanni: But everybody’s is. The only difference between me and most people is that I’m not afraid to talk about it. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: That’s right, you do. That’s right. You talk about it very openly. Here’s something — I don’t know where you wrote this. “The state of the world we live in is so depressing,” you wrote. “And this is not because of the reality of the men who run it, but because it just doesn’t have to be that way. The possibilities of life are so great and beautiful that to see less wears the spirit down.”

I was at a gathering recently, and the topic of the gathering was “On Beauty.” And actually, it was at the Ford Foundation, and I know you have a history with the Ford Foundation, because the Ford Foundation sponsored that early entrance program at Fisk, all those years ago, when you went to college.

Ms. Giovanni: Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: And so it was a gathering of writers, artists, architects, philosophers, psychologists, people working in different fields. And one of the points of contention that we got to in the room was, somebody said — and he was a white man in his 60s, maybe — said that he believed that there is a canon of beauty, that there are certain works of art and works of writing that you basically have to be made out of stone not to experience and get shivers and perhaps cry — be moved by. And he was saying that we should take beauty seriously as a cultural good and that we should have a kind of a canon that children experience, and they claim as their own. But this was also controversial, because the idea was that in fact we’ve had an idea in the West that there’s a canon of beauty, and it’s excluded a lot of other people’s sense of what is beautiful and what is meaningful. I wonder how you take in that idea, but also, I think, more importantly is, I’m curious, what would be your canon of beauty?

Ms. Giovanni: That’s going to be a hard question.

Ms. Tippett: Another hour? [laughs]

Ms. Giovanni: But I’m not against a canon, let me be really clear about that. I’m not against a canon, because if we give you a canon, then you will vary on it. And so I don’t have any problem with that. If, for example, I learned — I just went to see, the other day, the “Messiah.” I don’t have any problem with a canon, because it will change. You build on what you know, and I think that it’s up to all of us to say, “Well, this I want you to learn.” I got no problem with the ‘Mona Lisa,’ this is what I want you to look at.”

But I also know that there’s Ashley Bryan. And I know that Ashley Bryan and the work that he does, which is so beautiful, and he does a lot of work on illustrating the spirituals, I don’t want to exclude. I don’t want some teacher to stand up there and say, “Well, that’s crap,” because it’s not the — you don’t want that. What you want to say is, “Now let’s look at the ‘Mona Lisa,’ and she’s smiling. Why is she smiling?” Well, I think she’s probably smiling because she was listening to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and they were singing some beautiful spirituals for her. Do you see what I’m saying?

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I do. I like it. If I ask you, when you look around the world right now, today, in your 72nd year, where do you see beauty? What gives you hope? What comes to mind?

Ms. Giovanni: Well, see, I like the people, first of all. I’ve always been fond of the people. I really do, of course, enjoy the food. I’m an American, and I really, really like what we’re doing in the black communities. I wish we had more resources, because I would like to see the black community having better housing, better schools, just some basic things that we know they need. But I love what they’re doing with rap. I love what they’re doing with the music. I love what they’re doing to bring their spirits up. And I think that that’s — again, this is something that I think the world benefits from. And of course, I’m a fan of travel. So you want to see everybody traveling back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, and I think that that’s important. I enjoy that. But I also like my friends.

I’m just trying to be a good writer. And I’m not trying to change the world, but I’m trying to, when I do say something, trying to make sense out of it.

Ms. Tippett: Here’s something you wrote that I loved. You wrote, “Writing is a conversation with reading, a dialogue with thinking.” I really get that too. I get that, actually, that dialogue with thinking, talking to you, as well, that that’s how you live.

Ms. Giovanni: Well, you gotta — as I say to my students, and again, I hate to keep referring like that, but I’m always telling my students, “You’re your first reader” — so that when you write something, the main person that has to be pleased with it is you.

Writers don’t stand on the corner. And it’s important that the young writers realize that. You’re not writing so that you can write a bestseller. You’re not writing so that it can be turned into a movie. You’re not doing any of that. You’re writing to tell the truth, and you’re writing to satisfy that in you that says, “I have this truth to share.” And you have to be proud of that.

Ms. Tippett: Well, Nikki Giovanni, I’m glad, very glad that you’ve shared your truth. And it’s been such a pleasure to spend this time with you in conversation. Thank you so much.

Ms. Giovanni: Oh, thank you. It’s been fun. [laughs]

[music: “Passion” by Nightmares on Wax]

[poem: “The Life I Led” by Nikki Giovanni from The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni]

“i know my upper arms will grow / flabby it’s true / of all the women in my family / i know that the purple veins / like dead fish in the Seine / will dot my legs one day / and my hands will wither while / my hair turns grayish white i know that / one day my teeth will move when / my lips smile / and a flutter of hair will appear / below my nose i hope / my skin doesn’t change to those blotchy / colors”

“i hope my shoulder finds a head that needs nestling / and my feet find a footstool after a good soaking / with epsom salts // i hope i die / warmed / by the life that i tried / to live”

[music: “Passion” by Nightmares on Wax]

Ms. Tippett: Nikki Giovanni is a University Distinguished Professor in the English Department at Virginia Tech. Some of her best known collections from which the readings in this show were taken include Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgment, and The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni. Her latest work is Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid.

[music: “As Close to Me As You Are Now” by Hiatus]

Staff: On Being is: Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Malka Fenyvesi, Carolyn Friedhoff, and Katherine Kwong.

Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Virginia Fowler at Virginia Tech and Beth Ives at HarperAudio for granting us permission to use Nikki Giovanni’s poetry.

Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating.

And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.

On Being was created at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Music Played

About the Image

Nikki Giovanni attends an event celebrating Toni Morrison at the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University.

Share a Reflection

  • Japhet Simon

    Wonderful discussion, really enjoyed the whole conversation.

  • Saarah Loper

    Everything is a lesson. It is so simple, powerful and true. I have loved her work since college, more so now that I have lines on my face.