Performance » Spoken Word

Straight Talk With Nikki Giovanni

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Nikki Giovanni has made us laugh and cry. She’s made us angry and reminiscent. But most importantly, she’s made us think—about life, politics, race, education, gender, religion and outer space. For more than 40 years she has held our attention with her essays, poetry and short stories.

This Saturday (Nov. 21st) she'll capture it again as the featured speaker of Indianapolis Public Library's Fall Fest 2015.

While in town, the University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech will read poetry, talk about her latest book, Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, and interact with some of the city’s young poets, writers and rappers.

“I’m excited about what the young people in Indianapolis are doing,” says the 72-year-old award-winning poet and activist who has Thug Life tattooed on the inside of her left forearm in honor of slain rapper Tupac Shakur.

Just like her tattoo, Giovanni is all about expressing herself.

During a recent phone conversation about her work and upcoming visit to Indianapolis, Giovanni was as candid with Sky Blue Window as you’d expect from a woman who has made her living as a social commentator.

Sky Blue Window : While in Indianapolis you will interact with teens involved in the Slammin’ Rhymes Challenge X as part of Fall Festival. What does it mean to connect with young poets, writers and thinkers?

Nikki Giovanni holds the unprecedented honor of being the recipient of seven NAACP Image awards.  - COURTESY NIKKI GIOVANNI
  • Courtesy Nikki Giovanni
  • Nikki Giovanni holds the unprecedented honor of being the recipient of seven NAACP Image awards.

Nikki Giovanni: It’s wonderful because when I was their age I got to meet the older – it’s really funny to think about yourself as older – writers and, of course, Indianapolis is the home of Mari Evans, so that right there is so wonderful.

I grew up in Cincinnati, and once I went to graduate school, I was in New York, and got to see just about everybody. … I think it’s important that we get to talk to the kids and they get to talk to us.

I’m not trying to tell them what to do or think, because that’s not my business. They have taken, I should imagine, what my generation has offered. We were, of course, the generation of segregation. And they are the generation of essentially post segregation. But post segregation does not mean integration, and I think that’s the one thing they have to make an adjustment to, that’s trying to figure out where they fit in all of this.

SBW: In your book Racism 101, many of the things you wrote about are still going on today. An example is your essay on how black students can survive on predominantly white campuses. That calls to mind the recent boycotts at the University of Missouri. Do you think it’s ironic that what you wrote about in 1994 is still a topic in 2015?

NG: I think it’s a damn shame, I can tell you that. I’m very proud, as all of the old people are, of what the kids at Missouri did and that they stood together.

And, of course, having the athletes, having the football team come into that was just terrific because it shows that we do stand together. …

The president, Tim Wolfe, should’ve had a conversation with the kids. Not the black kids, but with the white kids, because the black kids are not racist. The white kids are the ones that you need to talk to and I think everybody is forgetting that.

SBW: You’ve always been unafraid to speak your mind, to say wholeheartedly what you feel or believe. Has that always come easy for you?

NG: To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve been unafraid of speaking my mind so much as I’m afraid that if I don’t speak my mind I won’t be who I think I am. I’m more afraid of being a coward than I am of being bold.

SBW: You published your first collection of work, Feeling Black, Black Talk in 1967, during the Civil Rights Movement and the year before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You were 24 at the time. How did those two historical milestones shape your writing and thinking?

NG: Of course, Dr. King’s assassination affected the whole world, and Jack Kennedy was assassinated before that. What it showed is that we are dealing with people who are not sane. They are willing to go to extremes and that needs to stop. And we need to speak up. My generation, we did the best we could. I’m just a poet, so I’m not thinking I’m changing the world. I’m not a fool. I just wanted to say that I’m trying to do the best that I can do. And, of course, we had wonderful people who were leaders like Nina Simone. And she’s just going to put everything on the line to say that this is what we have to do. We had good leaders and good people.

SBW: You’re in a unique position of being active for two pivotal movements: Black Power and Black Lives Matter. What are the most important lessons people leading the Black Lives Matter movement should take away from the Black Power Movement?

NG: …They don’t really need us to tell them what to do. I think it’s one of the things that older people forget when they’re talking to younger people or when they’re talking to people on another level of movement.

It happened to the Civil Rights Movement. When King and them, the Black Power Movement, when we came up, they (the older generation) said, “You all shouldn’t talk like that. This is not the way to do it.” We didn’t need any advice from them because we had already learned what they had to teach us.

I have my (Black Lives Matter) T-shirt and I think that what they’re doing I have a total respect for it. The people know what they’re doing and the people have always known what they’re doing. I think our job is to be supportive of the people.

Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, Nikki Giovanni will share her gift of words and wisdom as the featured speaker of Indianapolis Public Library's Fall Fest 2015. - COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
  • Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, Nikki Giovanni will share her gift of words and wisdom as the featured speaker of Indianapolis Public Library's Fall Fest 2015.

SBW: What, in your opinion, is the responsibility of writers today, and is it different than writers of past generations?

NG: I think your responsibility is your voice, and you have to tell the truth as you know it. Some of us are going to deal with the world. I think of myself as a political writer, and so I’m going to do that. Other people write incredible novels or just incredible work.

Some of the writers also had a story to tell about black Americans that wouldn’t necessarily come under the heading of political. But a part of our responsibility is to tell the story that you want to have told that is honest to you. That is truthful to you. And I think that is important, rather than trying to make yourself be something that you may not be.

SBW: What advice would you give to current writers — activists and thought leaders — who want to follow in your footsteps?

NG: I think the main thing is that you need to know something, and I say that all the time. You don’t have to write every day, maybe you should not even write every day. But you have to read every day and you have to learn something. I think it’s really important not to get excited about getting published because you’ll be published when you have something to say.

Your job right now is to find your voice and to honestly present what you have to present, to talk to the people and that’s a lot of running around.

My generation did a lot of running around. We went to a lot of libraries, a lot of Boys & Girls Clubs. We did a lot of going to talk to people. And in doing that, we learned a lot because we kept hearing story after story. And I think that’s incredibly important. Publishing is the end result. I think the first result is what you’re thinking and how you’re sharing it.

SBW: What topics are at the forefront of your mind these days?

NG: I’m a big space fan. I know that whatever it is we’re doing, Earth is going to have to find a way to respond better to space. We keep considering whatever life forms might be in space as alien. But we also have considered things on Earth that way.

We in the Christian community think that the Muslim community is alien. And the male community has considered women as alien. … I had the pleasure of having lunch with the head of NASA, and I said to him, “We’re never going to be able to go to Mars until we understand captive Africans (black Americans) and how we came through the Middle Passage. Until we can understand the Middle Passage and how we came through a very scary, horrible thing and were sane and arrived in this land and had to re-create ourselves, we are never going to be able to do space, and we’re never going to be able to accept.

So black American history is the most important thing that’s going on right now, and I don’t mean what the racists have tried to say about us. I’m talking about the real history of what our people have contributed to this Earth.

SBW: If you had to give one prescription for the imperfections of the human condition at this moment in time, what would it be?

NG: Patience. I would agree with Jesus, you have to learn patience. Or, He put it another way, He said, “Love ye, one another.” I don’t know if we’re capable of loving each other. Jesus was a little more hopeful than I am. But I know that we have to learn some patience with each other. We have to find a way to accept the fact that everybody, thank God, is not like us, that people bring different values to the table.


What: Poet, activist and educator Nikki Giovanni will be the featured speaker for Fall Fast 2015, presented by the Indianapolis Public Library’s African-American History Committee. Giovanni will speak at 2:10 p.m.

When: Fall Fest runs from noon to 4 p.m. This Saturday, Nov. 21st.

Where: Clowes Auditorium at the Central Library, 40 E. St. Clair St.

Info: www.indypl.org

Other Fall Fest performances:

12:10 p.m.: North Star Capoeira

12:35 p.m.: SITEAW Basket Balancing Race

1 p.m.: Indy Air Bears

1:25 p.m.: Krash Krew

1:55 p.m.: Brave Youth Society poetry readings

(2:10 p.m.: Nikki Giovanni)

2:55 p.m.: Slammin’ Rhymes Challenge X (awards presented by Giovanni)

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