I was not the only one impressed.
“I can’t tell you the number of people who have literally grabbed their chests or gasped out loud when they learned she was coming to northern Virginia,” said Renee Edwards, the mastermind behind the free author event with iconic poet Nikki Giovanni and who oversees the Fairfax County Library’s Programming and Educational Services Department.
“In the case of Nikki Giovanni, I chose her because I used her poetry as a classroom teacher, and I am a fan of her writing. I felt people would enjoy hearing her speak because she is a living legend.”
Ms. Giovanni, one of Oprah Winfrey's 25 “Living Legends,” has been awarded an “unprecedented” seven NAACP Image Awards, was nominated for a Grammy, has been a finalist for the National Book Award, has authored 3 New York Times and Los Angeles Times Best Sellers and she is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.
The next question you, my reader, are probably asking is, “Who paid for this free event?”
“In addition to using county funding, the library has support from library Friends groups, community partners and the Fairfax Library Foundation. For Ms. Giovanni’s event, The Alden co-sponsored this event with the library,” explained Edwards.
The simplest words I can use to describe my interaction with Ms. Giovanni, and you will agree as you become enlightened by her vision and wisdom, are: poets see what most people don’t.
Some artists do not like the term “African American.” In one of your interviews, you used the term “American black people.” Is this a better one in your opinion?
Giovanni: I used to say Black Americans, because we're Americans, and we are of color. But however, I'm not fighting with anybody about it one way or the other. We're not necessarily African simply because our African ancestors sold us to our European ancestors, and we are a mixture of both.
What is your position on dedicating certain months to celebrate Black history or women's history?
Giovanni: I think it's wonderful. I think because we have so many holidays that we celebrate other things: Thanksgiving, and we of course who are Christians celebrate Christmas, and we celebrate today that I'm speaking to you, [it] is President's Day. And God knows why we have that, presidents being such fools. That's the truth. But I think it's wonderful that we celebrate Black History Month just to remind our fellow Americans that there is a wonderful history of Black Americans, and it should be celebrated and it should be known.
I was amazed, for example, when Aretha Franklin passed. And the funeral, went to the funeral, and then — she was my sorority sister — she's Delta Sigma Theta, and when they went to bury her, she had her red shoes on. I was not there, but when they did the Omega Omega, and I said, "Oh look, I'm so glad they have the red shoes on," and a couple of my colleagues said, "Well, what does that mean?" I said, "Why is it that I know what things mean to you all, and you all don't know what things mean to me?" So, Black History Month is very important.
I'm curious about your grandmother's character. How did she develop this passion for social justice and public service?
Giovanni: I think all of the people in her generation ... Well, actually, I think the enslaved always had a passion for public service. We just didn't give them credit, and I must say that the enslaved also were incredibly intelligent people. And we never give them credit for that. We say that they were uneducated. They were not uneducated, they were undegreed, and my grandmother was no different. Those women, and especially the women, really put the Civil Rights Movement on their backs. They're the ones who cooked the food and saw to it when they were boycotting or whatever they were doing. It was the women who were also following up. They were making it possible for the boycotts. They were making it possible for the changes that had to be made. My grandmother's no different. She was born in Georgia. She's from Albany, Georgia. There's nothing in Albany, Georgia that was enough for anything but trying to make change.
But I feel that she was different. She was different than your mother, for example, different than your grandfather. She was more into making a change.
Giovanni: Well, Grandmother had a bit of a temper, and my mother came from another generation. They were looking at things very different, and of course we looked at things different. I say we. If you look at the three generations, we're all going to look at things pretty different. And we got to what my generation's finally saying, we're going to stop this. Something has to be done. But then the kids that came right behind us actually were going to be the Black Panthers, and they were going to say you need to get a gun.
So, everybody's doing what they think needs to be done. Grandpapa, in his own way, and perhaps I didn't give Grandpapa credit, but in his own way ... Grandpapa was a mild-mannered man, and he went about his work in a very quiet way. He's going to be the man who's going to help, and he did help build the church. He's going to help build a community. Grandmother's going to be the person that's going to help build the marches. You can see why they loved each other.
Interesting. You witnessed your father physically abuse your mother while under the effect of alcohol. Is this why you decided not to get married?
Giovanni: I really can't say that that's why. I would never choose my father. I think that he had issues that I found uncomfortable.
Are you not comfortable talking about your decision not to get married?
Giovanni: Oh well, actually yeah, I'm not. I think some things belong to me, and some things I like to, if I can, share with the public. But my decision how I lead my life, I think, is my business.
In your interview with James Baldwin, you shared how his generation was different than yours. How do you see this generation is different than yours?
Giovanni: Well, they put their foot forward, and I really do, I have such admiration for the kids coming after us. I really do. The Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement. And I say kids. I mean no disrespect, but it's so good to see that the youngsters are saying, "No, wait a minute. We can make some changes." And I think that my generation, we made important changes. We broke down segregation. So this generation now is living in a non-segregated world, which does not mean a non-racist world. It means non-segregated.
So, the question of that middle, racism, what are they going to do about it? I think that race is a bad idea. Not racism, but race. First of all, race is a construct, and I think that this generation is going to have to start adjusting to that, that it just doesn't matter. You can't have people convince you that you belong to a race, because you actually don't.
In one of your children's books, you described humans as Earthlings.
Giovanni: Yeah, but that's what we are. We all live on this Earth, don't we?
I read online that Virginia Tech's shooter was a student in your poetry class—
... and that you requested that he leave your class—
... and described him as a mean person. What made you—
Giovanni: As evil.
Giovanni: Mean is one thing, but he was evil.
Evil, exactly. What made you see him that way?
Giovanni: Well, the reality is, and the old folks said that if you can't see the face of the devil, it means you're running with him. I think that the old folks were right. I saw the face of the devil. It had to go. I feel the same way about Trump, by the way.
In one of your interviews, you said, “We have matured, but we lack leadership.”
Giovanni: Oh, yeah.
Can you tell me more? How can we work on that? What can we do?
Giovanni: Well, the first thing we can do is make sure that the world doesn't change us. I say that to my students and when I'm giving poetry readings. We cannot necessarily change the world, and we've seen that. But we have to make sure the world doesn't change us, that we don't become crazy and evil. We want to be who we want to be, and I think that's incredibly important, because most of the kids that are coming up now, since they were born, practically, somebody has said, "Oh, what are you going to be? What are you going to be? What are you going to be?" Well, they're already. They don't have to “going to be” anything. Why is it that they are not sufficient?
Your vision for education is very interesting, and I'd like to know more about that or share with the audience. You said in one of your interviews that school should end at tenth grade and only two years should be added for a bachelor's degree. Is this still your vision?
Giovanni: Yeah. I think that high school is pretty much a waste of time, and anybody can see that. We need to have youngsters, black, white, … we need to have those youngsters come out at around the tenth grade and do something else with their lives for a little bit. Do some level of service. I think I said that. I'm sure I said that.
Giovanni: And if they want to go back to college — because everybody doesn't necessarily want to go to college — some people do, some people don't. And the kids that want to go to college, the youngsters, there are different things that they want to study. They don't want to go to college so they can learn how to run a computer so that they can be hired by Amazon and be underpaid.
Do you have a vision for how we should end racism?
Giovanni: I think that racism has to go. Racism is a theory, and I think we need to eliminate the theory, because race is the bad idea. I'll say it again, there is no such thing. There is no race, and I'm beginning to be convinced that there is no human race. That we are all living on this planet, and we have to find a way to get along with it a little better. We have to stop killing things because they get on our nerves. We have to stop poisoning the grass. We have to stop feeding the cows and pigs whatever it is they do to make them grow up faster. We have to recognize that we are all a part of this living thing called the Earth, and we have to prepare ourselves for life in a different form. Whether we go in or they go out or whatever happens, there has to be another life coming. It's really just obvious. We can see it. There has to be something else coming.
We have to remember that at one point this Earth was covered with dinosaurs, and dinosaurs didn't write, so we didn't get the book on what mother dinosaur said to her baby when she realized Earth is gone. And we have to think about that. We have to think about “are we prepared to let either human beings become better or to accept an understanding that human being are going to have to go,” because anything that can't get along goes. There’s no question about that. Whether it's your tonsils, doesn't matter what it is. I don't know your age, but there was a time that everybody had six fingers, that human beings had six fingers. And you'd go to school, and one of them would be cut off. You can ask somebody about that. You can look it up.
Whatever it was about that sixth finger(it was by your little finger) it was no longer necessary. So, we got rid of it. Mother Nature got rid of it. It changed how we handled our hands. So, I'm just saying that we're going to have to keep looking at things a little differently. And you say racism. I'm saying race is a bad idea. So if we're fighting racism, you can't. You have to fight race, because race is a stupid idea.
Let me ask about your work as a poet. So, when do you know when a poem is born?
Giovanni: I think you just should know. It's like, when do you know when the steak is done?
You described your writing as being able to "become children's book without changing a word." With all of these modern theories for writing poetry, I wonder, where did you get the courage to write such raw, simple and straightforward poetry?
Nikki Giovanni: Well, I had enough sense not to read most of those books.
That's a great answer. I know. You get nothing out of them when you read them.
Giovanni: That's true. It's true, and you have to be careful what you let influence you. What I wanted to do, and I what I want to do, it's good work. I don't want other people saying, "Oh, this is not. This is the way." The way you're doing it is the way you feel it and the words and the voices that you can put on paper. It's your words.
Thank you again. I know it's not easy, though. It's very hard to reach that level of confidence and at the young age that you started. I feel that you were focused from a very early age on what you want. Every step you took was greatly strategic. Just impressive. How did you know your path?
Giovanni: Thank you. All you can do is fail, and a lot of people don't realize that. Once you get over that, you say, "Oh." All anybody can do is say no. And once you get over that, "Oh, yeah. Well, they're going to say no." We've heard all of that before. "They're going to say no. They're not going to let you do this." Well, all you can do is what you believe you can do, and if you fail or if they say no, then that's that. You go on and keep trying to do what you do.
Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that probably somebody's going to shoot him. He's not going to let that stop him, because he's going to die one day anyway. So, he happened to die because he was shot, but he's going to die no matter how we look at it, because if you're born, you're going to die. And once you are not afraid of that, then you have control of your life.