Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni Jr. is a writer, commentator, activist, and educator. She is currently a distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech.
The civil rights and black power movements inspired her early poetry that was collected in Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967), Black Judgement (1968), and Re: Creation (1970). She has since written more than two dozen books, including volumes of poetry, illustrated children’s books, and three collections of essays. Her writing has been heavily inspired by African-American activists and artists.
Her book Love Poems (1997) was written in memory of Tupac Shakur and she has stated that she would “rather be with the thugs than the people who are complaining about them.”
She has received 19 honorary doctorates and other awards, including “Woman of the Year” awards from 3 different magazines as well as the key to several different cities. She is a member of the Order of the Eastern Star (PHA), and an Honorary Member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Giovanni grew up in Lincoln Heights, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, and in 1960 began her studies at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, her grandfather’s Alma Mater. She graduated in 1967 with honors, receiving a B.A. in history. Afterward, she went on to attend theUniversity of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
In 1969 Giovanni began teaching at Livingston College of Rutgers University, and since 1987, she has taught writing and literature at Virginia Tech, where she is a University Distinguished Professor.
Giovanni taught the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho in a poetry class. She described him as “mean” and “menacing” when she approached the department chair to have Cho taken out of her class, and said she was willing to resign rather than continue teaching him. She stated that, upon hearing of the shooting, she immediately suspected that Cho might be the shooter. On April 16, 2007, at the Virginia Tech Convocation, commemorating the April 16 Virginia Tech massacre, Giovanni closed the ceremony with a chant poem, intoning:
“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 awake 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…We are Virginia Tech…We will prevail.”
On August 21, 2007, The Tennessean reported that Giovanni is returning to her alma mater as a distinguished visiting professor at Fisk University.
Giovanni tours nationwide and frequently speak out against hate-motivated violence. At a 1999 Martin Luther King Day event, she recalled the 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard: “What’s the difference between dragging a black man behind a truck in Jasper, Texas, and beating a white boy to death in Wyoming because he’s gay?”
Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) acknowledged black figures. Giovanni collected her essays in the 1988 volume Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles. Some of her more recent works include Acolytes, a collection of eighty new poems, and On My Journey Now. Acolytes are her first published volume since her 2003 Collected Poems. It tones down the militant, edgy conscience for which Giovanni is known and portrays her softer, more nostalgic side. The work is a celebration of love and recollection directed at friends and loved ones and it recalls memories of nature, theater, and the glories of children. However, Giovanni’s fiery persona still remains a constant undercurrent in Acolytes, as some of the most serious verse link her own life struggles (being a black woman and a cancer survivor) to the wider frame of African-American history and the continual fight for equality.
Giovanni’s collection, Bicycles: Love Poems (2009), is a companion work to her 1997 Love Poems. They touch on the deaths of both her mother and her sister, as well as the massacre on the Virginia Tech campus. Giovanni chose the title of the collection as a metaphor for love itself, “because love requires trust and balance.” The work portrays her life as it spins out of control and love, which she prescribes as the antidote. The poems come alive with her warmth and authenticity, a stark foil to the militant, edgy work that laid a path towards becoming one of the prominent voices of the black community.
In 2004, Giovanni was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards for her album The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. She also featured on the track “Ego Trip By Nikki Giovanni” on Blackalicious’s 2000 album Nia.
In November 2008, a song cycle of her poems, Sounds That Shatter the Staleness in Lives by Adam Hill, was premiered as part of the Soundscapes Chamber Music Series in Taos, New Mexico.
She was commissioned by National Public Radio’s All Things Considered to create an inaugural poem for President Barack Obama.
Giovanni read poetry at the Lincoln Memorial as a part of the bicentennial celebration of Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 2009.
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