Q & A With World-renowned Poet and Activist Nikki Giovanni

World-renowned poet, activist and educator Nikki Giovanni will visited the University of St. Thomas Friday evening, April 12, as part of “A Night of Expression!” to celebrate Black History Month. Giovanni took the time to answer a few questions before her visit. Below is some background on her and her comments.

Over the past 30 years, Giovanni’s outspokenness, in her writing and in lectures, has brought the eyes of the world upon her. She prides herself on being "a Black American, a daughter, a mother, a professor of English." Giovanni remains as determined and committed as ever to the fight for civil rights and equality. Her focus is on the individual, specifically, on the power one has to make a difference in oneself, and thus, in the lives of others.

Born in Knoxville, Tenn., Giovanni grew up in Lincoln Heights, an all-black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. She and her sister spent their summers with their grandparents in Knoxville, and she graduated with honors from Fisk University, her grandfather's alma mater, in 1968; after graduating from Fisk, she attended the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. She published her first book of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk, in 1968, and within the next year published a second book, thus launching her career as a writer.

The author of some 30 books for both adults and children, Nikki Giovanni is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Q&A with Nikki Giovanni

You are known for being outspoken and you like to push for the edge. Can you explain why that is important to you?

Because it’s fun to see where the edge is. If you’re not pushing yourself, you are holding yourself back, don’t you think? Life is a really good idea and since we are here, why not live it?

Are there some topics you keep coming back to in your poetry, writings and spoken-word performances? Why?

Mostly I come back to people and their motivations, as I understand them. I’m a big fan of courage and daring. I am always looking for that.

Many people fear mistakes and failure, but you don’t. Why?

Mistakes and failures are a fact of life. How else would we, can we progress? We need to learn from what works and what does not work. And we can never be afraid of being laughed at or put down. We just need to keep finding people who believe in us and our dreams.

Your first book of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk, was published in 1968 during the Civil Rights Movement. As a civil rights activist, what advice do you have for young people who seek social justice?

I shy away from advice because each generation has its own set of particulars with which to live. I do know that Occupy [movement] would have been better served with less leadership rather than more. The greatest movement in America was never a movement: the Great Migration of African-Americans bleeding out of the South to the factories and freedoms of the North. Millions participated and it could not be stopped because there was no head to cut off, no body to shoot down.

When you were interviewed for the University of Virginia’s Public Institute of History, you said that you’re “always hesitant when people talk about role models because most of life is not about what you see, but what you dream.” Could you please elaborate?

I really hate the idea of a role model. All the good things in life, as far as I can see, come from someone creating something, not someone following something. Life is not about the practicalities, but the possibilities. Many of us will not see our dreams come to fruition but we are the better for dreaming. I think it is so unfair and stupid for other people to tell you what you can’t do because they don’t have either courage or vision. You must create and then re-create yourself.

You come from a long line of storytellers. Who were those storytellers and what kinds of stories still intrigue you?

The storytellers of my life were, first and foremost, my grandfather. Grandpapa was a Latin scholar with a great love of Greek and Roman myth. He would tell us, the other grands (grandchildren) and me, stories of the stars. I will always remember him pointing out Orion’s belt and the north star, and all the stories. I disagreed with him about “The Grasshopper and the Ant” and finally wrote a book with my version. I also think Sisyphus was not being punished but challenged.

My mother was a dreamer. She would play the “what I am eating and where I am going” game with my sister and me. I saw the whole world sitting at the dining room table with mommy. We only played that when our father was not at dinner. He tended to focus on “eat your food” kinds of things. I still would prefer conversation to food in good company around a warm table.

What values did you learn from the other people in your life – your father and grandmother?

The only thing I really learned from my father was to gently take care of the folks you love. He was fierce in his emotions, and I still fear strong emotions. I am also way more patient than my father. (Though he had pretty legs and a beautifully shaped skull, which, when my sister was being treated for a brain tumor – which eventually cost her her life – I shaved my hair down to in order to help my sister not feel bad about her hair falling out from her treatments. The three of us had great heads! So he had a purpose.) Plus, mommy liked him. I think he and I never got on the same track.

Grandmother was a fighter. She would go toe-to-toe with anyone who she thought needed to either be corrected or stood up for. I like to think I am a stand-up person. I don’t laugh at stupid jokes; I don’t join in when someone’s feelings are being hurt. I have said and I believe I live the creed that I’d always rather be with the person running than the mob chasing. That can be scary but whatever makes us brave is also what makes us human.

You have a good sense of humor, so what kinds of things make you laugh?

If life is not funny, then, to quote Little Willie John, “grits ain’t groceries.” If we can’t laugh at ourselves then what on earth are we doing? The whole human experiment makes me laugh.

What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

My forthcoming book is titled Chasing Utopia, which is actually a hybrid – poetry and prose. Utopia is [the name of a] beer and my mother was a beer drinker, so that’s how it started.  … It was fun to write, and I am enjoying reading it. The publication date is fall 2013.


Friday’s event was sponsored by the Black Empowerment Student Alliance, STAR, University Lectures Committee, the Office of Institutional Diversity, Student Diversity and Inclusion Services, the Luann Dummer Center for Women, the UST English Department, the American Culture and Difference program, and the UST Justice and Peace Studies Department.