Highlights of a Life
Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr. (Nikki) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on June 7, 1943. She and her family moved to the river town of Cincinnati, Ohio when Nikki was young. Giovanni gained an intense appreciation for her African-American heritage from her outspoken grandmother, Louvenia Terrell Watson Giovanni. “I come from a long line of storytellers,” she once explained in an interview, describing how her family influenced her poetry through oral traditions. “My grandfather was a Latin scholar and he loved the myths, and my mother is a big romanticist, so we heard a lot of stories growing up.” This early exposure to the power of spoken language would influence Giovanni’s career as a poet, particularly her tendency to sprinkle her verses with colloquialisms, including curse words. “I appreciated the quality and the rhythm of the telling of the stories,” she once commented, “and I know when I started to write that I wanted to retain that—I didn’t want to become the kind of writer that was stilted or that used language in ways that could not be spoken. I use a very natural rhythm; I want my writing to sound like I talk.”
Always intellectually bright, Giovanni graduated from high school a year early and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University, a historic black university. Unfortunately, Giovanni, unaccustomed to conservative rules for women such as those instituted by Fisk’s head dean, Giovanni was expelled from school in February of her first year. Compounding the difficulty of the year for Giovanni was the death of her grandfather, and she left Fisk and returned to Cincinnati to live with her parents.
During the three years she spent in Cincinnati, Nikki took classes at the University of Cincinnati, and then, in 1964, she returned to Fisk University, now headed by a new dean. Always interested in the craft of writing, Nikki served as editor of the campus literary magazine, Elan, and participated in the Fisk Writers Workshop. She was also passionately attracted to the burgeoning civil rights movement, and she worked to restore the Fisk chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She soon became known as a Black Rights poet. Giovanni graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in History, and soon after, she lost her beloved grandmother to death. The loss hit Nikki hard, and she quickly turned to her writing for comfort. She moved back once again to Cincinnati and planned and directed the city’s first Black Arts Festival, held in 1967.
In 1968 the world was rocked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nikki attended his funeral. Shortly after, she self-published her first book of civil rights poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk, at the age of 25. It sold an amazing 10,000 copies in its first year. The Harlem Council of Arts funded the publication of Black Judgement. Giovanni soon began to give public readings of her work, and to promote Black Judgement, she went to New York City and landed in Birdland, a trendy New York City jazz club. The event attracted hundreds of people—a standing-room-only audience—and made the next day’s metro section of The New York Times. She was named “Woman of the Year” by Ebony magazine in 1970, by Mademoiselle in 1971, and Ladies Home Journal in 1972. Giovanni was well on her way to literary fame.
In 1969, Nikki gave birth to her first and only child, Thomas Watson Giovanni. Her decision to have a child out of wedlock came from a conviction that the institution of marriage was not hospitable to women and would never play a role in her life. “I had a baby at twenty-five because I wanted to have a baby and I could afford to have a baby,” she told an Ebony interviewer. “I did not get married because I didn’t want to get married and I could afford not to get married.”
Giovanni’s academic career has been rich: in 1968, she became assistant professor of black studies for Queens College of the City University of New York; from 1968 to 1972, she served as associate professor of English at Rutgers University, Livingston College, New Brunswick, NJ; she returned to Ohio as visiting professor of English at The Ohio State University in 1984; she became professor of creative writing in 1985 through 1987 at the College of Mount St. Joseph on the Ohio, Mount St. Joseph, Ohio; in 1987, she served as the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA; in 1991, she was visiting professor in humanities at the Texas Christian University; and in 1989 Giovanni received a tenured teaching position at Virginia Tech, where she teaches today.
Giovanni is well known for her edited anthology of poetry by African-American women, and her writing remains immensely popular, especially her spoken-word albums. Decades before the emergence of hip-hop and rap into popular culture, Giovanni was recording her poems with gospel choirs and other music. In 1972, Truth won NARTA’s (National Association of Radio and Television Announcers) Award for Best Spoken Word Album, and The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, a spoken-word CD, was a finalist for the 2003 Grammy Award in the category of spoken word.
Giovanni believes the Black Arts movement isn’t about presenting black culture as “Hallmark” perfect, and she feels that “the hip-hop movement took that from us, as we took it from the Harlem Renaissance before us.” An an avid supporter of hip-hop, she calls it “the modern equivalent of what spirituals meant to earlier generations of blacks. She admires OutKast, Arrested Development, Queen Latifah, and above all, Tupac Shakur. “We’re missing Tupac like my generation missed Malcolm X,” she said. “It’s been … years and people feel like he was just here. He brought truth and we’re still trying to learn what he was trying to teach us.” Rather than trying to imitate black culture, “White rappers can get at the heart of racialism in America. “It would be great to learn from whites why white supremacy is so prevalent. Most people have rejected it, but they still know something about it they aren’t saying. I want them to jump into hip-hop and address it.”
Giovanni has served on a host of committees and in the performing arts, among them a stint on the Ohio Humanities Council, a participant in “Soul at the Center” at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Cochair of the Literary Arts Festival for State of Tennessee Homecoming. Nikki has given numerous poetry readings and lectures worldwide and appeared on numerous television talk shows. Her three most recent volumes of poetry, Love Poems, Blues: For All the Changes and Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, were winners of the NAACP Image Award, in 1998, 2000, and 2003.
In 1995 Giovanni was diagnosed with lung cancer. She had surgery at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati. She is living healthy today.
In 2001 Nikki was the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award.