Nikki Giovanni: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

Nikki Giovanni is an African American poet, writer, activist, and educator born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her poetry and writing have helped shape the Black Arts movement. Read on to find out more about the poet and some of her important poems.

Beginnings of a Legend

A revolutionary, an artist, and a dreamer walk in a room to thunderous applause. Surely you would join if you watched the African American poet, writer, activist, and educator Nikki Giovanni take the stage. Nikki Giovanni, originally Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., was born on June 7, 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Giovanni and her sister grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio but traveled to Knoxville every summer to visit their grandparents. She attended Fisk University for undergraduate studies and enrolled in the graduate Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs at The University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.

Giovanni was influenced by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. She was heavily involved in the Black Arts movement in Cincinnati and after graduating from Fisk University, she organized the first Black Arts Festival in 1967.

She is also a lung cancer survivor who contributed to the anthology Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors.

Nikki Giovanni with her typical direct look.
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Writing Career

Nikki Giovanni's poems are described as being ''politically, spiritually, and socially aware.'' A description, she, herself, ascribes to her own writing, especially when she began being militant. Her writing has been inspired by African-American activists and artists: including Maya Angelou. Issues of race, gender, sexuality, and the African-American family are present in her work.

Her self-published first collection called Black Feeling, Black Talk came out in 1968. Since then, she has had 18 collections of poetry published.

She has also written books for children including Jimmy Grasshopper Versus the Ants in 2007 and Rosa in 2005, a picture book about the civil rights figure Rosa Parks.

Aside from her own writing, Giovanni edited several collections and anthologies of essays and poetry.

In addition to writing, Giovanni also teaches. She has taught at College Mount St. Joseph and since 1987 she has taught at Virginia Tech University where she still works as a distinguished professor.

Nikki Giovanni speaking at Emory University in 2008.
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Awards and Honors

Giovanni has won several awards and recognitions including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1970, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Dedication and Commitment to Service in 2009, an unprecedented seven NAACP Image Awards, the Langston Hughes award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters in 1996, and was the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award. Several magazines have named Giovanni Woman of the Year, including Essence, Mademoiselle, Ebony, and Ladies Home Journal. Additionally, she served as a poetry judge for the National Book Awards.

Important Poems

Nikki Giovanni is a prolific writer and has been publishing poetry for over 45 years. In this lesson, we will go through some of her more popular works.

In ''Nikki-Rosa'' from her initial book of poems, Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement, Giovanni writes about remembering specific images from her childhood. This poem came out in 1968 during segregation, yet recalls earlier events when Woodlawn, the setting of the poem, would have been even more racially divided. She writes about perspectives on race by showing how positively she thought of her childhood and how negative white people would think of it. For example, she writes of taking a bath in ''big tubs that folk in Chicago barbecue in'' which seemed great from her perspective, but not from white people's perspective. In terms of the racial divide in the poem, the word 'black' was capitalized, emphasizing its importance, with blacks being referred to as 'us' and whites referred to as 'they.'

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