Yolande Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni Jr. is a renowned writer and activist who prides herself on being "a Black American, a daughter, a mother, a professor of English." A native of Knoxville, she now teaches in Virginia—in addition to traveling and lecturing to packed audiences. She is, quite simply, a superstar in the world of spoken-word poetry. The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, a CD of her spoken-word performances, was nominated for a 2003 Grammy Award. She has received 21 honorary doctorates.
Giovanni, now 61, is a committed human rights activist who does not hesitate to directly confront problems facing people of color, women, homosexuals and other victims of discrimination and human-rights abuses. Her book, "Racism 101," is a collection of forthright essays about Americans confronting questions of race.
This Friday, Dec. 10, Giovanni joins the Maddrama Theater Company to perform "Expressions of a People: An Evening of Theater and Poetry" for the 12th annual Margaret Walker Alexander dinner theater at Jackson State University at 7 p.m. at the Margaret Walker Alexander Research Center. Call 979-2055 for more details.
The JFP spoke with Giovanni by telephone from her home in Virginia.
You teach at Virginia Tech. What type of teacher are you?
I'm teaching on the college level, so it's different from high school or elementary. I do a lot with the Socratic method. I ask questions and encourage my students to ask questions back so that they can come to their own conclusions.
How can poetry and hip-hop be used to precipitate political progression?
All art influences political progression. In the last election, we saw the rap and hip-hop communities come together, especially with Puff Daddy and "Vote or Die." Of course, it didn't influence the outcome, but it's still important for kids to come together. It brought the old rockers like me and the younger kids together.
In the 20th century, Dubois said that the central question was race. Can the same be said for the 21st century?
Race is always going to be a problem until the European mentality gives up its desire to be supreme. We're seeing that now with the Christian right as exemplified by Tony Blair and George W. Bush wanting to go out and start the Crusades again. They're starting a crusade against Muslims. I don't think there's really a question. Race is definitely still important.
At what age did you really realize that you are a gifted writer?
I never thought about it that way. I've been writing something all my life. I grew up where you were doing what they now call "writing across the curriculum." We just called it being educated. I have always enjoyed telling stories and connecting dots between certain events. I always thought it would be a good thing if I could earn a living doing it, and so far I have.
Is there a specific voice or perspective you provide to people?
I think I have a contemporary voice. When we look at my generation, which I think was a very important generation, we struggled with big questions like civil rights, peace, women's rights and gay rights. We have done an extremely good job of keeping these questions at the forefront. We've made a lot of progress, and hopefully my voice is reflecting my generation.
People say young people are disconnected from the civil rights struggle. How can we build bridges to make them more active?
I don't think we can say that the hip-hop nation, the urban kids, that they're not concerned about the state of world. I listen to Black Eyed Peas and Outkast. There's good music out there, and they're raising good questions. They don't do things the way we did, but we did them that way, and things should keep changing.
Nikki Giovanni's poetry is awesome, brash and cuts to the bone. In person, she is riveting; if you ever see her live, you'll never forget it.
All the things that you might have thought but never had the nerve to say, Nikki is yelling to the housetops, plus some things you never thought of, in the most outrageous but commensense way. Her forthrightness is taken to the max, but presented in such a unique perspective, that a person is unlikely to leave without some new understanding and new enlightenment, while having been highly entertained at the same time. Viva la NIkki!