By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Yolande Cornelia ‘Nikki’ Giovanni Jr, born in 1943, is one of the best-known African-American poets in the world. She has received numerous awards for her work, including the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award, while an album of her poetry, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Throughout her long and prolific career, Giovanni has written everything from poetry to essays, as well as poems for younger readers; she has also edited numerous poetry anthologies. But what are Nikki Giovanni’s best poems?
Below, we select and introduce ten of her finest poems which are the ideal ‘way in’ to discovering her work.
1. ‘Knoxville, Tennessee’.
Although her parents moved to Cincinnati, Ohio when she was very young, Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1943 and would later return there as a teenager, living with her grandparents. This poem is her tribute to the city.
The speaker of the poem is suitably childlike, praising the city in summertime when there are plenty of nice things to eat. The poem also celebrates the time young Giovanni spent with her grandmother, going up the nearby mountains and feeling ‘warm’ all of the time.
Here’s an early Nikki Giovanni poem, from 1972. Although the poem begins with Giovanni recalling her own mother’s habit of sitting in the dark, the plural in the title, ‘Mothers’, is explained in the final stanza, as the poet tells us how she taught her own son to recite a poem which her mother had originally taught to her one night when she was a little girl.
The poem doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the ‘pains’ as well as the pleasures of family, and is beautifully frank about how our memory can fail us: although the poet can remember her mother sitting in the dark, she cannot recall why her mother was sitting up that night when she taught her daughter the poem. What matters is that the poem, a short rhyme, has stayed with her for all these years.
3. ‘BLK History Month’.
This short poem from 2002 is about Black History Month, of course, but what makes it a memorable poem is the way Giovanni uses the imagery of planting and nurturing seeds to highlight the importance – indeed, the need – for a month which emphasises African-American history and educates people about it.
4. ‘Rosa Parks’.
Giovanni has written about one of the most significant Civil Rights activists, Rosa Parks, on several occasions (including writing a book for younger readers, Rosa).
Parks came to widespread attention in December 1955 when, during the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, she resisted racial segregation on a local bus and refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. Giovanni’s poem considers Parks’s role in the Civil Rights movement but also broadens the focus to consider the concerted movement which grew up around the bus boycott.
This 1968 poem sees Giovanni reflecting on her childhood growing up poor, but happy, in a Black family. The title is the nickname the poet’s sister, Gary, gave her while they were growing up.
The poem is obviously autobiographical – but to what extent? The opening lines make it clear that Giovanni is thinking about the experience of being Black in more general, universal terms.
This is a poem about failure, or at least perceived failure, in life: the speaker likens herself to a faded and worn-out tablecloth, which can no longer cover the table where families gather to eat together.
Starting with this simple simile, Giovanni then develops the metaphor, with her speaking expressing the wish that part of her will survive after she has ceased to be, like a square cut out of the tablecloth and woven into a quilt. That quilt will then keep a child or a lonely old person warm. A touching, beautifully written poem.
7. ‘Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)’.
The title of this 1968 poem is a clever pun: the speaker imagines themselves as a godlike being capable of building the Great Sphinx at Giza and drinking nectar with another god, but there’s a suggestion that their ‘ego trip’ is the result of some sort of drug-induced high.
And ‘high’ is indeed the word when the poem finally comes down to earth with a rather bathetic, familiar simile in the final stanza, as Giovanni deliberately brings her grandiose speaker back down to our level …
8. ‘A Poem on the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy’.
Robert F. Kennedy (1925-68) was well-known for advocating for civil rights during the 1960s, and when he was assassinated in 1968, Giovanni wrote this short poem in which Kennedy is likened to a tree that has been chopped down by thoughtless people who cannot contemplate the ‘beauty’ which the tree provides for others.
This poem is about a woman who prefers to solve her depression and anxiety (she lives constantly ‘on the edge of an emotional abyss’) by doing something ‘concrete’ and practical rather than dealing in ‘abstracts’.
10. ‘Poem For A Lady Whose Voice I Like’.
This 1996 poem contains possibly the best comeback whenever someone is accused of being ‘full of themselves’: it’s the payoff to a poem which takes the form of a dialogue between a man, who is putting down a Black woman, and the Black woman who responds, first with traditional biblical phrases drawn from the Book of Genesis, and then with more idiosyncratic ripostes.
It emerges that the ‘lady’ whose voice is being complimented in the poem’s title is Nina Simone, the great African-American singer. This poem, in which a Black poet salutes a Black singer, seems like the perfect note (as it were) on which to conclude this pick of the best Nikki Giovanni poems.