|Nikki Giovanni has long been known as the "Princess of Black Poetry." However, an examination of her body of work to date unquestionably reveals a poet who has evolved into a vibrant, passionate and stunningly honest voice whose influence extends to an audience well beyond one defined by race.
Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr. on June 7, 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee, she was raised in the Lincoln Heights area of Cincinnati, Ohio and attended the all-black Fisk University. In the late 1960's Giovanni became involved in both the Writers' Workshop and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committe.
In 1967, Giovanni became actively involved in the Black Arts movement, a loose coalition of African-American intellectuals who wrote politically and artistically radical poems which strived to raise awareness of black rights and the struggle for racial equality. The connections between literature and politics continued to influence her work for decades to come.
But Giovanni's gift for verse, as L. M. Collins of The Tennessean put it, "came to transcend the rhetoric of revolution and to form the essence of....love embracing life." The assassination of Malcolm X and the 1960's rise of the militant Black Panthers unquestionably gave her poetry of the 1960's and 1970's a certain colorfulness and combativeness. A recurring theme of her work during this era is the possible redundancy of poetry in the face of possible revolution. In her first three collections of poems, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968), Black Judgement (1968) and Re: Creation (1970), her work was urgently revolutionary and suffused with deliberate interpretation of experience through a black consciousness.
Following this period, Giovanni's single-parent experiences began to impact upon her work, as is readily seen in Spin a Soft Black Song (1971), Ego-Tripping (1973), and Vacation Time (1980) - all collections of poems for children. The themes of loneliness, family affection and disappointment began to surface during this time as well, and she began public readings of her work, which proved very popular and led to several recordings.
In the 1980's, she returned to political concerns, publishing in 1983 Those Who Ride the Night Winds, with dedications to black American heroes and heroines. But her tributes extended as well to non-blacks, notably John Lennon, Billie Jean King and Robert Kennedy. The very title of the 1983 Night Winds collection referred to "going against the tide.....people unafraid of trying to effect change. Her moving dedication of this volume reads in part...
".....to the courage and fortitude of those who ride the night winds -- who are the day trippers and midnight cowboys -- who in sonic solitude or the hazy hell of habit know that....for all the devils and gods....Life is a marvelous, transitory adventure......"
With a rare and wonderful warmth, accessibility and wit, and a sharp observation of the human condition, Giovanni reveals herself to be a woman of vision and caring, a poet with whom universal audiences can empathize and identify.
"...sometimes gentle, sometimes angry, and always moving..." J. Lester (The Guardian)
Now a professor of English at Virginia Tech, Giovanni recently survived surgery for lung cancer, and has published several volumes of essays and autobiographical reminiscences.
(Parts of this biographical portrait were taken from an article by Leon Jackson)
Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968)
|Selected Works of Nikki Giovanni
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