Authors: Nikki Giovanni

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Identity: African American

Author Works

Poetry:

Black Feeling, Black Talk, 1968

Black Judgement, 1968

Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement, 1970

Re: Creation, 1970

Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis, 1970

Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children, 1971, revised 1987 (juvenile)

My House, 1972

Ego-Tripping, and Other Poems for Young Readers, 1973 (juvenile)

The Women and the Men, 1975

Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, 1978

Vacation Time, 1980 (juvenile)

Those Who Ride the Night Winds, 1983 (juvenile)

Knoxville, Tennessee, 1994 (juvenile)

Life: Through Black Eyes, 1995

The Genie in the Jar, 1996 (juvenile)

The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, 1996

The Sun Is So Quiet, 1996 (juvenile)

Love Poems, 1997

Blues: For All the Changes, 1999

Nonfiction:

Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet, 1971

A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, 1973

A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, 1974

Sacred Cows . . . and Other Edibles, 1988

Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, 1992 (Virginia C. Fowler, editor)

Racism 101, 1994

Edited Texts:

Night Comes Softly: Anthology of Black Female Voices, 1970

Appalachian Elders: A Warm Hearth Sampler, 1991 (with Cathee Dennison)

Grand Mothers: Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories About the Keepers of Our Traditions, 1994

Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking at the Harlem Renaissance Through Poems, 1996

Grand Fathers: Reminiscences, Poems, Recipes, and Photos of the Keepers of Our Traditions, 1999

Biography

Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni (jee-oh-VAH-nee) has been nicknamed the “princess of Black Poetry” because of her literary achievement as well as her Civil Rights activism and the artistic renaissance that grew out of the youthful, militant dimension of 1960’s protest. Her early career illustrates the close connection between Black Power politics and a radical black presence in the arts.{$I[AN]9810001122}{$I[A]Giovanni, Nikki}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Giovanni, Nikki}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Giovanni, Nikki}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Giovanni, Nikki}{$I[tim]1943;Giovanni, Nikki}

Nikki Giovanni

(Jill Krementz)

Giovanni is the daughter of Jones (Gus) and Yolande Cornelia Watson Giovanni, two social workers who met while attending Knoxville College. Her grandparents, John Brown (Book) and Louvenia Terrell Watson, helped to inculcate in her a strong sense of “blackness” and southern roots in Tennessee, even after Nikki and her sister Gary moved with their parents to Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of her father’s hometown, Cincinnati.

Giovanni inherited from her revered grandmother a deep devotion to family and a vigorous skepticism toward white people. Her autobiography reveals this strong influence. While attending Fisk University, Giovanni left for Thanksgiving to visit her family–her grandfather was ill and her grandmother needed her–without the dean’s permission; while this event led to her dismissal from Fisk, it clearly exemplifies both her family dedication and her fierce independence. Her deep connection to her grandmother broadened throughout her life to the acknowledgment of other black women as role models.

Returning to Fisk in 1964, Giovanni became part of the Civil Rights movement, which not only developed her social consciousness but also thrust her into prominence among young black leaders in the South. Although she developed her talent in traditional ways through campus literary activities, from this point onward she began to assume the role of spokesperson for the young, talented, and ambitious blacks who were becoming visible throughout the nation. As a founding member of the Fisk chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she became active in the Black Power and Black Nationalism movements promoted by national SNCC leaders Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, among others. Thus she gained an audience for her art, a stimulus to thought and feeling beyond family and books, a context for her personal experience of blackness, and political notoriety.

In 1967 she graduated from Fisk magna cum laude with a B.A. in history. In the same year her beloved grandmother died, and she returned home to initiate the first Cincinnati Black Arts Festival, which in turn gave birth to The New Theatre, a showcase for black dramatists and performers. After graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, she took an academic appointment at Queens College in 1968, received a grant from the National Foundation for the Arts, started a black history workshop in Wilmington, Delaware, and published her first two books of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement.

The free-verse poems in these volumes introduce an unfamiliar, young, contemporary black voice into twentieth century American literature. The formerly predictable black dialect of the rural South has made a radical change to the idioms, diction, and phrasings of urban black English. The apparently flippant mockery created by this style does not destroy the poetry’s intellectual texture; instead, the two combine to create an emotionally demanding experience for the reader. The theme of blackness as a personal, gender-related, and communal experience emerges here as Giovanni speaks to many generations, across a range of genres.

As she began to develop her academic career through an associate professorship of English at Livingston College of Rutgers University, Giovanni pursued her interests in community projects through the Harlem Cultural Council on the Arts and in women’s issues through the National Council of Negro Women, which awarded her life membership in 1972. By 1969 her son Thomas Watson Giovanni had been born, and she had been selected as one of the ten most admired black women by the Amsterdam News.

Travels to the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe during Giovanni’s late twenties enlarged her definition of blackness and universalized her concept of the black struggle. This growth, heralded in her autobiography, Gemini, seemed to turn her toward the poetry of introspection, less dependent upon public events but no less intellectual. The next two decades reveal expansion that combines artistic achievement with successful career marketing: the establishment of NikTom, her own publishing company; four successful record albums combining poetry recitations with gospel music and rhythmic instrumentation; two television productions, one centered on her poetry and another a dialogue with James Baldwin; and published versions of the conversation with Baldwin and a complementary encounter with Margaret Walker, both significant to the criticism of black writers as artists and professionals.

Giovanni’s art appeals across the generations, from her poetry for young people to Appalachian Elders: A Warm Hearth Sampler, an anthology coedited by Cathee Dennison that celebrates the elderly. Giovanni’s professorship at Virginia Polytechnic and State University allows her to continue passing on her wisdom to the generations that follow; in addition, she received twelve honorary doctorates in the quarter century between 1972 and 1997.

While critics have often faulted Giovanni for a tempering of the radical, incendiary views that mark her early protest poetry, her 1994 collection of essays, Racism 101, reads as a 1990’s update of many of those attitudes and ideas that began her career. In her characteristic fervor–whether in poetic stanzas or political calls to action–Giovanni continues to rouse audiences and readers alike with a resonating, assertive, triumphant voice.

BibliographyBaldwin, James, and Nikki Giovanni. A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1973. Based on a conversation aired by the Public Broadcasting Service as Soul! in 1971, this friendly, informal conversation sheds light on Giovanni’s opinions regarding race and gender identity in America–foundational themes in much of her poetry. Includes a foreword by Ida Lewis and an afterword by Orde Coombs.Bigsby, C. W. E. The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Bigsby analyzes many recent contributions to African American literature, including the work of Giovanni. Useful to any student of contemporary African American literature. Contains bibliographical references and an index.Fowler, Virginia C. Nikki Giovanni. New York: Twayne, 1992. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Giovanni. Includes bibliographical references and index.Giovanni, Nikki. Conversations with Nikki Giovanni. Edited by Virginia C. Fowler. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. A collection of interviews with Giovanni containing invaluable biographical information and insights into her writing.Gould, Jean. “Nikki Giovanni.” In Modern American Women Poets. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984. As treatments of this affable, self-confident poet are wont to be, Gould’s discussion of Giovanni is warm and personal. Stresses her biography and particularly her precocious personal achievements; provides little direct examination of the poetry.McDowell, Margaret B. “Groundwork for a More Comprehensive Criticism of Nikki Giovanni.” In Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism, edited by Joseph Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill Publishing, 1986. An excellent source; McDowell points out biases and inconsistencies in criticism addressing Giovanni’s writings and sketches areas in need of further research.Madhubuti, Haki R. Dynamite Voices. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971. Radical African American poet Madhubuti offers a history and criticism of some poets of the 1960’s, of which Giovanni was one. Valuable, because he offers a contemporary look at the African American poetry scene. Contains a bibliography.Walters, Jennifer. “Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove: Poets Redefining.” The Journal of Negro History 85, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 210-217. The poetry of Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove is discussed. Both women are examples of self-defined African American women who found a voice through writing.White, Evelyn C. “The Poet and the Rapper.” Essence 30, no. 1 (May, 1999): 122-124. Discusses Nikki Giovanni and cultural rapper and actor Queen Latifah on racism, rap music, and politics, topics which have abundantly influenced Giovanni’s poetry.
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