When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll? With Nikki Giovanni, it’s impossible: author of over 30 books, Grammy-nominated godmother of the hip-hop generation, National Book Award finalist, seven-time NAACP Image Award winner, university distinguished professor, dreamer, activist.
I choose simply “poet,” because to me, there is no higher title. And with Nikki, it’s also personal.
See, Nikki Giovanni altered the trajectory of my life. A lifetime ago, I came to Nikki’s writing class at Virginia Tech a lost and broken undergrad. My dreamed-of journalism career had just run off the rails. I was clinging to the idea of being a writer, but in truth, I had no idea what I was going to do. Like a lot of us at 20, I was scared and hungry for direction.
When I found my way into Nikki’s class, I had also found a way to drift through a couple of years of huge college lecture classes without ever saying a peep, without ever really engaging anything I was being fed. Unfortunately, our culture allows a white, 20-year-old college boy to avoid talking and thinking about a great deal of our shared and violent history, our glorious and horrible present, without ever knowing he’s avoiding the world outside his own tight skin.
But as you’ll see a little glimpse of here, Nikki Giovanni does not allow people to drift through life. She confronts. Her work and her life is about asking the hard questions, uncovering the deep meaning behind where we are as humans, as Americans, as sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers. I talked for the first time in Nikki’s class, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. I engaged in Nikki’s class, I wept in Nikki’s class, and laughed and lived in Nikki’s class. And by the end of it, I knew I wanted to do whatever it was that Nikki did—entertain, challenge, celebrate, teach, hold court—for my life’s work too.
More than 20 years since I last saw Nikki Giovanni, she’s still doing all of that and more. Shannon and I had the shared joy of talking with Nikki just before she enthralled a raucous, standing-room only crowd in Philadelphia. Yes, standing room for a poet. Such is the power of Nikki Giovanni’s presence.
Shannon had never met her, and as we were preparing, I explained a little of the energy we were about to experience: Tough, but fair. Expectant, but joyous. One of the few people I know who can ache for the world and make you desperately want to change it. But at the same time, make you eternally grateful you are living in this moment in time. Twin traits of grit and gratitude. And at 74, she suffers no fools.
This 3MS is a little snippet of the power of Nikki. What I remember most is listening to her voice emerge from previously mundane class conversation with a glimmer of insight, a story from her remarkable life—on its surface maybe not even connected to what we were discussing—and I would suddenly get the chills, I would well up, I would feel something or think something I’d never felt or thought before, and even in the moment, walking back to my apartment, I knew I’d never be the same. That’s the power of our teachers, or our guides, the poets among us.
Nikki’s latest book, A Good Cry, features the stunning poem “Baby West.” In it, Nikki confronts one of the defining moments of her life: her young-adult memories of her father’s abuse of her mother. Her witness results in the shattering line “And I knew my choice: Leave or kill him.”
Our conversation here picks up many decades after the results of that choice. Late in her father Gus's life, Nikki bought a house and invited him to come live with her and her mother. After what she’d seen and heard, imagine that decision, that grace. She explains to us here, in her inimitable way, some of the ground rules she gave Gus when he moved in.
She also talks about where the lineage of that indomitable will, that singing heart, that capacity to forgive comes from. What she has not allowed herself in her remarkable life, however, is to cry. And that repression, or the acknowledgement of it, is how “Baby West” ends:
It will not be
So I must learn
Still confronting, still learning to live, still living to learn.
Before we went on camera, I got to sit with and look into Nikki Giovanni’s eyes—something I would never have been able to muster the courage for 20 years ago—and say “Thank you. Thank you for being my guide and changing my life.”
How great a gift is that?