Nikki Giovanni (1943 – ) Poet, Writer, Speaker, Activist, & Educator

“Writing is what I do to justify the air I breathe,”  a lucid statement from the exceptionally clever and widely read poet, speaker, author, and educator known as Nikki Giovanni.  This living legend first rose to prominence in the 1970s, after the self-publication of her book debut, Black Feeling, Black Talk.  Hailed as the “Princess of Black Poetry,”  Nikki provided a voice for the black experience. She has been named “Women of the Year” by Ebony Magazine, Mademoiselle Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal . She is a five-time bestselling author, whose resume of 27 books continues to shape conversations among diverse audiences.  In essence, Nikki Giovanni holds a wide range of honors and awards which include The Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award, seven NAACP Image Awards and twenty-seven honorary degrees.

Born on June 7, 1943 to Knoxville College graduates Gus and Yolanda Giovanni at Old Knoxille General Hospital, she was the younger of two daughters in a close-knit family. Her name at birth was Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr, however,  during the first three years of her life, her older sister (Gary Ann Giovanni) began calling her “Nikki.”

During Nikki’s childhood, the family would make frequent visits to their grandparents’ home in Knoxville.  It was during this period she gained an intense appreciation for black culture and heritage from her grandmother. This early exposure to the power of spoken language influenced Nikki’s career as a poet and engendered her sophisticated use of vernacular speech.

In 1947 at the age of four, she moved with her parents from Knoxville to a predominantly black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio.  In spite of the distance, she remained close to her grandmother. During her formative years, academics presented no problem to her, therefore she swiftly excelled.  By the time she reached high school, both her French and English teachers persuaded her to apply for early college admission.  In 1960, she enrolled in the early entrance program at Fisk University, her grandfather’s Alma Mater.

By early fall, a young, freethinking Nikki matriculated to Fisk University.  Wholly unaware of the staunch conservatism embedded in this small HBCU, nearly at the outset of campus life, she found conflict with the Dean of Women, Ann Cheatam.  The Dean’s ideas about the behavior and attitudes appropriate to a Fisk woman were diametrically opposed to Nikki’s ideas about the intellectual seriousness and political awareness appropriate to a college student. Unfortunately, the perpetual discord lead to Nikki’s expulsion.  On February 1, 1961, Nikki was expelled from Fisk after attending one semester.

After a few years precede by, Nikki decided to visit the University again for possible re-enrollment.  During this time, the former Dean Cheatam had a new replacement Blanche McConnell Cowan, whose personality was opposite of her predecessor’s. Dean Cowan purged the file in which Dean Cheatam gathered on Nikki and encourages her to come back to Fisk. In the fall of 1964, Nikki returned to campus, majoring in history.  With much support from Dean Cowan, Nikki strived academically and became a leader on campus.  She re-established the campus chapter of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). In addition, she attended writing workshops, and published various essays in Negro Digest on gender questions in the Movement.

In 1967, after graduating with honors from Fisk University , she returned to Cincinnati and established the city’s first Black Arts Festival. During this period, she began writing poems that are included in her first self-published volume, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968). The following year she moved to New York.

In 1969, she found work as a teacher at Queens College.  As a way to promote her second book Black Judgement, she hosted a highly successful Book-party at Birdland (the New York City jazz club) where she gave her first public reading. The event attracted hundreds of people and made the next day’s publication of The New York Times. As a result of the article, Nikki began receiving widespread attention from the media and multiple invitations to read and speak. In April of the same year, The New York Times featured her in an article entitled “Renaissance in Black Poetry Expresses Anger.” The Amsterdam News named her one of the ten “most admired black women.”

By the mid-1970s, she established herself as one of the leading poetic voices and has become one of America’s most widely read poets. Her autobiography Gemini was a finalist for the National Book Award, and several of her books have received NAACP Image Awards. Oprah Winfrey named her as one of her twenty-five “Living Legends.” She has received about twenty-five honorary degrees, in addition to being named Woman of the Year by Mademoiselle MagazineThe Ladies Home Journal and Ebony.  She was the first recipient of the Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, and has been awarded the Langston Hughes Medal for poetry.

Nikki Giovanni is one of the world’s most well-known black poets.  She presently resides in Christiansburg, Virginia. She is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech in Blackburg, Virginia where she English.

Books & Poems:

For a comprehensive list of Nikki Giovanni’s published works, please visit: nikki-giovanni.com

Poems: DreamsMothersNikki-RosaEgo TrippingBLK History MonthLegacies

 

Awards & Honors:

The Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award (first recipient)

Seven NAACP Image Awards

Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word Album

National Book Award nomination for Gemini

Parents’ Choice Award for The Sun Is So Quiet

The New York Times Best Seller’s List – 3 times

Legends and Legacies Award

The Langston Hughes Award

The Gwendolyn Brooks Award

Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech

Presidential Medal of Honor, Dillard University

Keys to more than two dozen American cities, including New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and New Orleans

Life Membership & Scroll, The National Council of Negro Women

Named one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 Living Legends

Phi Beta Kappa

State Historical markers in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Lincoln Heights, Ohio

The Tennessee Governor’s Award in the Arts

Tennessee Governor’s Award In the Humanities

Virginia Governor’s Award for the Arts

Woman of the Year, Ebony Magazine

Woman of the Year, Ladies Home Journal

Woman of the Year, Mademoiselle Magazine

American Book Award

Caldecott Honor Book Award

Carl Sandburg Literary Award

Moonbeam Children’s Book Award

Tennessee Writer’s Award, The Nashville Banner

The Appalachian Medallion Award

The East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame Award

ALC Lifetime Achievement Award

Art Sanctuary’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Artist-in-Residence. The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts

Distinguished Visiting Professor, Johnson & Wales University

Duncanson Artist in Residence, The Taft Museum

Poet-In-Residence, Walt Whitman Birthplace Association

The Cecil H. and Ida Green Honors Chair, Texas Christian University

The Hill Visiting Professor, University of Minnesota

Sankofa Freedom Award

The Legacy Award, National Alumni Council United Negro College Fund

The Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame

2000 Council of Ideas, The Gihon Foundation

A species of bat named in her honor (Micronycteris giovanniae)

Affrilachian Award

American Library Association’s Black Caucus Award for Non-fiction

Ann Fralin Award

Child Magazine Best Children’s Book of the Year

Cincinnati Bi-Centennial Honoree

Excellence in Leadership Award from Dominion Power

The SHero Award for Lifetime Achievement

United States Senate Certificate of Commendation

Woman of the Year, Cincinnati YWCA

Women of Power Legacy Award

 

Quotes:

“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.”

“We love because it’s the only true adventure.”

“Black love is black wealth”

“I come from a long line of storytellers”

“Nothing is easy to the unwilling.”

“I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

“Mistakes are a fact of life: It is the response to the error that counts.”
“A lot of people refuse to do things because they don’t want to go naked, don’t want to go without guarantee. But that’s what’s got to happen. You go naked until you die”

“You must be unintimidated by your own thoughts because if you write with someone looking over you shoulder, you’ll never write.”

 

Sources:

Nikki Giovanni
https://www.nikki-giovanni.com/

Poetry Foundation
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/nikki-giovanni

Biography
https://www.biography.com/writer/nikki-giovanni

Macmillan Publishers

Author

New Haven Register
https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/Princess-of-Black-Poetry-Nikki-Giovanni-speaks-11553009.php

 

Credits:

ReCreate Model:  Angela Howze

ReCreated Photographer: Jasmine Y. Williams nka Jasmine Y. Mallory

Photo Edits:  Jasmine Y. Mallory and Ciara Kelley