American poet Yolande Cornelia (Nikki) Giovanni, Jr. (born 1943), initially wrote poetry from a revolutionary Black's standpoint in the 1960s, but later moved to more traditional themes and softer attitudes.
Nikki Giovanni, née Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., was born on June 7, 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Gus and Yolande Giovanni. When she was still an infant, the family moved to a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, where both her parents worked as social workers. In 1957 Giovanni moved to Knoxville to live with her grandparents—the southern influence of Tennessee and her grandmother, Louvenia Terrell Watson, were strong factors in Giovanni's development.
Giovanni attended an Episcopal school as a child and was a voracious reader of literature from T. S. Eliot to Richard Wright. In September 1960 she was an early entrant into the freshman class at Fisk University in Tennessee. At the time a conservative in her political views, she nevertheless rebelled against the paternalistic attitude of the historically Black colleges of the era. After ignoring a number of Fisk's social rules, she was placed on probation and, unwilling to change her behavior, suspended before completing her freshman year. Giovanni returned to Fisk in 1964 and became a militant participant in the cultural and political movements on campus. She fought the administration to establish a chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on campus, edited the campus literary magazine Elan, and participated in John Killens' legendary creative writing workshop. While in Killens' workshop, Giovanni published her first article in a national publication, Negro Digest. She graduated magna cum laude from Fisk in 1967 with a B.A. in history.
Back in Cincinnati during the summer of 1967, Giovanni organized the first Black Arts Festival and founded The New Theatre, a Black drama group. She left Cincinnati at her mother's urging to enroll in the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work with a Ford Foundation fellowship in 1967. In 1968 she moved to New York, where she enrolled in Columbia's School of Fine Arts with a grant from the National Foundation of the Arts. In 1968 she taught in the SEEK program, a pre-college enrichment program for minority students at Queen's College.
Giovanni formed her own publishing company to publish her first book of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968). Her second volume, Black Judgement (1969), was distributed by Broadside Press. In 1970 the two books were combined into one volume and published by William Morrow. Giovanni's first books created quite a sensation in the political and collegiate worlds that constituted the audience for Black Arts poetry. Her most notorious poem from Black Feeling … is "True Import of the Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro," which asks, "Nigger/Can You Kill" and ends with a directive for "niggers" to learn how to kill in order to become "Black Men." Similar exhortations to violence appear in Black Judgement with calls for the destruction of oppressive whites and middle-class Black collaborators.
Giovanni's early radical poems often use ironic parodies of biblical quotes and influences. For instance, "The Great Pax Whitie" in Black Judgement uses lines from Genesis and the gospel song "Peace Be Still" to denounce America's practice of Christianity and democracy. This same volume, however, includes love poems; an early almost feminist poem, "Woman Poem"; and tributes to rhythm and blues singers. One of Giovanni's best-known poems, "Nikki-Rosa," is a sentimental tribute to Black family life and southern culture.
The strain of being a revolutionary, at least in print, had begun to show even in Black Judgement. "Adulthood" catalogues the many assassinations of the 1960s and ends with Giovanni wondering why she had not chosen a safe middle-class existence. In 1969 Giovanni gave birth to her son, Tommie, an event that seemed to move her further away from her militant stance. By the time of Re-creation (1970) the focus of the poetry was love songs, tributes to Black music, and ironic statements about racism. A most revealing poem, "Revolutionary Dreams," argues that a revolution would take place if she "dreamed natural/dreams of being a natural woman." In 1970 Giovanni also established Nik Tom, Ltd., a communications company, and edited and published Night Comes Softly, an anthology of poetry by black women.
In 1971 Giovanni published Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty Years of Being a Black Poet, a collection of prose pieces which was nominated for a National Book Award. Her other publications include poetry volumes: The Women and the Men (1975); Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978); and Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983), tributes to Giovanni's heroes from John Lennon to Phillis Wheatley. Her prose works are A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973); A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974); and Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles (1988), rambling and light essays in the tradition of Erma Bombeck. Giovanni's publications for children include Spin a Soft Black Song (1971), Ego-tripping and Other Poems for Young People (1973), and Vacation Time: Poems for Children (1980).
Giovanni's move away from radicalism in the early 1970s earned her recognition in more traditional circles. She recorded her poetry with the New York Community Choir, and the album Truth Is on Its Way was chosen the best spoken album in 1972 by the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers. Giovanni was given a Woman of the Year award by Mademoiselle and appeared on national television. Black middle-class organizations such as Omega Psi Phi fraternity and PUSH honored her work. Her quick wit and feisty personality made her a much sought after speaker on the college circuit. However, the new popularity in the white world won her the contempt of such radicals as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), who condemned her in a highly profane poem. Giovanni remained controversial. She visited South Africa at a time that progressive forces were calling for a cultural boycott—her opposition to the boycott of South Africa led to her being blacklisted by Trans Africa and she received bomb and death threats. Giovanni wrote in opposition to affirmative action (Sacred Cows … ). She glibly dismissed questions about her radical past and categorized herself as a rugged individualist similar to the heroines of the conservative novelist Ayn Rand.
Giovanni taught at Rutgers' Livingston College from 1968 to 1972 and was a professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, in 1990. She continued to receive awards and recognition and continued to publish into the 1990s. Recent works include: Racism 101 (1994) and The Genie in the Jar (1996).
For additional biographical information see the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Volume 41) and Giovanni's works Gemini and Sacred Cows. For critical information see Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work (1983); Eugene Redmond, Drum Voices (1976); Mari Evans, editor, Black Women Writers: 1950-1980 (1984); and Margaret McDowell, "Groundwork for a More Comprehensive Criticism of Nikki Giovanni" in Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism (1986).
For biographical resources about Nikki Giovanni see Tate, Claudia, Nikki Giovanni, Twayne Publications, 1992. For autobiographical resources or works see: Baldwin, James, A Dialog, Lippincott; Giovanni, Nikki and Walker, Margaret, A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, Howard University Press, 1983; Fowler, Virginia C., Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, University Press of Mississippi, 1992; Giovanni, Nikki, Racism 101, Quill, 1995; Giovanni, Nikki, The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow and Company, 1996; and Giovanni, Nikki, Love Poems, William Morrow and Company, 1997.
For on-line resources about Nikki Giovanni see: http://www.ulspvt.k12mi.us/ELibrary/ELGiovanni.html, http://athena.english.vt.edu/Giovanni/Giovannibiog.html, http://athena.english.vt.edu/Giovanni/Giovannipubs.html, and http://athena.english.vt.edu/Giovanni/Giovanniawards.html. □