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Activist and poet Nikki Giovanni talks life, work and politics

Nikki Giovanni addresses a crowd of students and community members in the Alexander G. Hill Ballroom. Photo by Maddie Jaffe ’17.
On Thursday, Feb. 23, as part of Black History Month and with funds from Macalester’s Lectures Coordination Board (LCB), Nikki Giovanni — a widely-known African-American poet, activist, professor and commentator — addressed the Alexander G. Hill Ballroom. Her speech did not have a centralized topic, but moved between the subjects of black womanhood, outer space, slavery, politics, the body and religion, among others.

Giovanni, a prominent author of the Black Arts Movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, mentioned her political views throughout. Giovanni spoke of the right of transgender people to use the bathroom, her disappointment in both Democrats and Republicans, and the importance of giving immigrants opportunities.

One of Giovanni’s most provocative remarks, met with some stunned silence from the crowd, was that she was “proud” of white American women.

“[White women] thought that what they were supposed to do is grow up and get married, and somebody’s gonna take care of them, and that’s gonna be their life and oh, isn’t that wonderful?” Giovanni said. “And I’ve been so very proud to see them out in the streets saying, ‘You know, it’s my body, and I own it. And I’m not gonna let you take it over.’”

This remark was in part an outgrowth of Giovanni’s remarks on the specific plight of black women. “I think that we should own our bodies. And being a black woman, of course, I came up with the history, in America, of not owning myself. So one of the things that I, as a black woman, had to get used to is that I don’t own me,” Giovanni said.

Giovanni stated repeatedly her belief that it is not the responsibility of black people to “save America,” referring in part to her view that President Trump, whom she repeatedly called “that fool in the White House,” poses a risk to the country.

“Black people have pretty much done what we can do to save America,” she said. “That’s the truth. We have done damn near everything that any human beings can do. And if nobody can take advantage of us, that’s not our fault anymore.”

Giovanni read four of her poems to the audience — “Nikki Rosa,” “Tennessean by Birth,” “Ego-Tripping” and “Deal or No Deal” — without transitioning or announcing their titles, but instead simply bringing them up when she felt they were relevant, to enthusiastic applause.

The talk was followed by a brief Q&A session, in which attendees asked questions about Giovanni’s inspirations; how to stay current as a writer whose older work, such as “Nikki Rosa,” is still so popular; how she has remained outspoken when her black female identity could have shut her down in many circles; and what the role of art is in a time of turmoil.

Kava Garcia Vasquez ’17 expressed her identification with Giovanni’s approach and ideas.

“Especially as someone who comes from a community of storytellers and is definitely talkative and non-linear, I just really appreciate that nothing is a given with her,” Garcia Vasquez said. “She’s part of why I write.”

Garcia Vasquez also found Giovanni’s remarks about black women particularly poignant.

“Our citizenship has always been conditional,” Garcia Vasquez said. “So to be in a space with someone who can both critique, but also share space, share stories in a way that feels organic and lived is just such a refreshing break from this theoretical chiasma I constantly find myself in here.”

After a few minutes of taking pictures and autographing books, Giovanni became faint and was seated in a chair by Director of Campus Activities and Operations Joan Maze. Those still in line were instructed to leave. After a few moments, she recovered and was able to attend the reception that followed.

Giovanni was both more subdued and candid at the reception than in her talk. After a few minutes of nervous idling, students in attendance were urged to pull up chairs around Giovanni, creating a discussion circle in which students each shared their personal relationships to her work.

Giovanni listened thoughtfully to each student’s remarks, and often immediately replied with her own much lengthier speeches.

Among the beliefs she shared were that older people should be used more in contemporary activist movements and that Bill Cosby’s recently unveiled history of sexual assaults “made no sense” because of what Giovanni saw as the relative ease of obtaining a woman’s consent.

Giovanni also referred to her relationships with the writers Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, with whom she has had longstanding relationships, and joked about her surprise at Morrison’s winning the Nobel Prize.

Giovanni’s forthcoming book, A Good Cry, is due for release in October of this year.

March 3, 2017

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