Nikki Giovanni 101
Nikki Giovanni’s poetry combines fierce conviction, tender humor, and an unwavering devotion to telling her truth as a Black woman who came of age during the Black Power and the civil rights movements. As scholar Virginia C. Fowler writes, “she is the definitive ‘poet of the people,’” employing seemingly simple language to explore complex issues of race, gender, love, and politics. Born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Giovanni grew up near Cincinnati, Ohio. By the time she was in high school, she had become involved in the civil rights movement, which became an important part of her life and central theme in her work. She is the author of numerous works of poetry and nonfiction and several books for children. Three of her books were New York Times bestsellers, a testament to her accessible, deeply engaging poetry. Of her decades-long career, Ebony magazine wrote, “She has been there to chronicle the Black experience and interpret it for us in words we could understand and feel.” The following poems, presented chronologically, serve as a brief introduction to her poetry.
“A Historical Footnote to Consider Only When All Else Fails”
In 1968, Giovanni self-published her first collection, Black Feeling Black Talk, in which this poem appears. “No one was much interested in a Black girl writing what was called ‘militant’ poetry,” she wrote in her autobiography, so “I formed a company and published myself.” This poem, though more playful than one might expect of a “militant” poem, tackles the enormous political and social upheavals of the 1960s––and ends with a call for Black Power. It reflects Giovanni’s involvement in the Black Arts movement and in radical politics in the wake of the murders of prominent civil rights and Black Power movement leaders. Written for Barbara Crosby, a friend of Giovanni’s sister and a civil rights activist, the poem is casual in tone but serious in its critiques of existing power structures. Giovanni uses deliberate misspellings and reversals—such as “masterbate”—to sharpen those critiques further.
Giovanni used the proceeds from Black Feeling Black Talk and a grant from the Harlem Arts Council to publish another collection a few months later: titled Black Judgement, the book sold 6,000 copies in its first three months. It contains this poem, which poet Margaret Walker called Giovanni’s “signature poem.” “Nikki-Rosa” is an intimate look at the poet’s childhood, which continued to serve as a touchstone during the poet’s career. Written in 1968, three years after the infamous Moynihan report, which blamed Black families for the persistence of racial inequality, it’s a wry, tender defense of Giovanni’s family, in which “Black love is Black wealth.” Written in an accessible vernacular, the poem embraces emotional complexity. Giovanni bears witness to the challenges poverty and racism threw at her family: she references “Hollydale,” a new black housing development. Her family purchased stock in the venture but was unable to secure a home-building loan because of racist lending practices. But she also affirms the care and love that marked her childhood, offering a counter to the negative stereotypes too often attached to Black youth and Black families.
“Poem for a Lady Whose Voice I Like”
Giovanni was keenly aware of the dual challenges of racism and sexism Black women faced––including, in this poem, from Black men. This dialogic poem contends that despite what their critics say, Black women have a long history of talent, resilience, and struggle to be proud of. This poem, from Giovanni’s third collection, Re:Creation (1970), was written for the singer, actress, and civil rights activist Lena Horne, who negotiated a racist entertainment industry to become a major star. In addition to Horne’s talent and resilience, Giovanni was likely inspired by her attitude: at 80, Horne said, “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
According to scholar Fowler, when it came time to write My House (1972), the book in which “Mothers” appears, Giovanni “knew she wanted to do something different; she would not write any more ‘revolutionary’ poems.” Many of the poems in My House, such as this one, focus on family and personal life. Giovanni creates a feeling of hominess by faithfully reproducing the back-and-forth between the grandmother and granddaughter while removing capitalization and most punctuation. By writing in the third person, Giovanni can peer in from the outside on an event that seems as if it could have been plucked from her childhood. Though she guesses “nobody ever does” say what they really mean—certainly not this granddaughter and grandmother—as a poet peering in, she’s able to convey some sense of the legacy that passed between them.
“Laws of Motion”
At what rate does a pound of flour fall? What makes a political movement, and why do some movements move in the wrong direction? What causes two people to move toward each other, and what keeps them apart? These are some of the questions Giovanni asks in this dense, multilayered poem from The Women and the Men (1975), which weaves together an examination of love, desire, politics, and nature. She repeats phrases borrowed from science and math—“laws of motion tell us,” and if/then statements—to question the logic of what we thought we knew about these subjects. The poem suggests that certainty can be maintained only while keeping “very very still”—that is, while abandoning the effort to move through the world and toward one another.
Included in Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (2002), this poem takes a panoramic view of one of the civil rights movement’s most iconic leaders. Though it bears her name, Rosa Parks doesn’t appear in the poem until two-thirds of the way through. Instead, Giovanni begins with the Pullman Porters and their grassroots struggle that made possible some civil rights victories. In doing so, she suggests that the everyday defiance of overworked and underpaid people, such as the porters, are as necessary and worthy of celebration as the work of a few great leaders commemorated in history books. Giovanni uses Christian language and imagery—Parks “shouldered her cross,” for example—to remind readers of the moral roots of the civil rights movement. “No longer would / there be a reliance on the law; there was a / higher law,” she proclaims.
In her poetry, Giovanni often responds to topical events, including the deaths of black luminaries, as in this poem about Gwendolyn Brooks. Giovanni writes in her book of essays Sacred Cows and Other Edibles (1988), “I have even gone so far as to think one of the duties of this profession is to be topical, to try to say something about the times in which we are living and how we both view and evaluate them.” This poem, which also appears in Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (2002), is written in a style she first adopted 20 years earlier in Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983): with phrases separated by ellipses. These ellipses enable a fluid movement between elements, echoing the “reincarnating revolving / restructuring” undergone by Brooks and her poetry and allowing them both a kind of immortality.
You can explore the other Nikki Giovanni poems on the Poetry Foundation website, read some of the poet’s writing about her own work, and look at some articles and collections that put her work in dialogue with that of other poets.