Acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni stirs Houston admirers
Transition is a word that transfixes powerhouse poet, professor and activist Nikki Giovanni.
After a half-century as a creative professional with friends including Maya Angelou, Nina Simone and James Baldwin, and enduring loss and cancer, her newest book -- “A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter” -- explores transitions of life while touching on the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, NASA and Black Lives Matter beyond the hashtag.
She spoke on aging, death, slavery and celebrations before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 1,000 Thursday at the University of Houston’s Cullen Performance Hall as part of the Houston Public Library’s quarterly author series and to mark Black History Month.
In an hour-long presentation that offered glimpses into her life and works, she spoke of the collection of poems and short essays and read two new works - about her love of libraries and black men - before reciting the beginning of a poem she’s still writing.
“Somebody heard my mother cry standing in the middle of the road. Somebody heard my mother cry standing in the middle of the road. Won’t somebody hug her, won’t somebody hug her, standing in the middle of the road,” she said.
She was introduced by Mayor Sylvester Turner, who declared Thursday “Nikki Giovanni Day” in the city.
The poet spent the morning touring The African American Library at the Gregory School in Houston’s historic Freedmen’s Town.
Her evening talk started with a quick turn to the sometimes-harsh realities of her life.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m 74, so, actually, I didn’t give a damn,” she said, laughing along with an audience that roared. “I didn’t. That’s the truth.”
Then she pivoted to a public service message.
“If you feel something, go do something about it. I did,” she said.
Giovanni, a University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech University, gained national attention a decade ago with her day-after-poem-turned-rallying-cry about the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that claimed 32 students, including several she knew. A young man she had asked to be removed from her class was identified as the shooter.
Her appearance in Houston followed another campus shooting on Wednesday that claimed 17 people at a south Florida high school.
“It’s a gun issue and it’s an evil issue,” she said.
During her talk, Giovanni spoke about her love of space and spirituals; praise of the black woman that’s been encapsulated in the #BlackGirlMagic social media hashtag; and her recurring subject of disdain: President Donald Trump.
“Black people, no matter what we’re going through, have found a way to bring joy,” she said. “We’re the people who are going to come through Trump because we’ve come through worse.”
Her lecturing and poems routinely reference history connected to ancient Africa, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and human rights struggles in the Americas; the innovation of enslaved chefs who made delicacies of discarded meats and vegetables; and the appropriation of black genius.
In another nod to transition, she compared the slave trade’s Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas to space travel. “You’re going from something that you know to something you don’t know,” she said.
Giovanni interpreted the musicality of black life with how Africans translated the culture they were leaving with the life they entered as chattel.
“Now we’ve got the black woman who is clearly the most important person on Earth,” she said. “She knows she has to offer comfort to her people.”
Giovanni’s activism stretches back to her days at Fisk University in Nashville and her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that collaborated with civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Dominating the 100 pages of her book are tributes to black female heroes, including her mother, grandmother, godmother, Angelou, Simone, actress Ruby Dee, rapper Tupac Shakur’s mother Afeni and Houston’s own Barbara Jordan, who was a pioneering Congresswoman and state legislator.
“One of the reasons we were able to impeach Richard Nixon is that we had Barbara Jordan. Very important,” Giovanni said.
She also celebrates her sisterhood, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, in a poem commemorating its centennial of service in 2013.
Giovanni links the cadence of her work to the blues, and the new book makes musical mention of such hits as “Candy” by Big Maybelle, the silky standard “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons” by Nat King Cole and “Shout” by the Isley Brothers, who she grew up with near Cincinnati.
What else is on the Nikki Giovanni playlist?
“I’ve got Kathleen Battle doing spirituals … but I’ve got Marvin Gaye,” she said.
Giovanni encouraged audience members to find joy despite their circumstances.
“Try to remember how to be black. We bring a lot of love,” she said. “Everything is living, it’s just a question of you understanding the life.”
She concluded her presentation by reading her famous and perhaps most-celebrated 1972 poem, “Ego-Tripping,” which ends:
“I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission
I mean ... I ... can fly
Like a bird in the sky.”
Cindy George is a Metro Desk reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/cindylgeorge.