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Nikki Giovanni Has Made Peace With Her Hate - The New York Times
Nikki Giovanni Has Made Peace With Her Hate
Nikki Giovanni Has Made Peace With Her Hate
By David MarchesePhotograph by Mamadi Doumbouya
“The door is open,” Nikki Giovanni told me, “and if I’m saying something that you don’t like, you can go out the door. Because I’m going to say what I think I should say.” The poet and longtime Virginia Tech professor, who will soon release the “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni,” a musical collaboration with the saxophonist Javon Jackson, was talking about her approach to teaching difficult material. She could just as well have been talking about her approach to life. Beginning with her first book, “Black Feeling, Black Talk” in 1968, and on through to “Make Me Rain” in 2020, Giovanni’s writing has expressed a great many forceful ideas — about love, race, politics, gender — but a large share of its power has always come from the sense that the poet is telling the truth as she sees it, to whoever happens to hear. “I cannot close my door,” says Giovanni, who is 78. “I just can’t let that happen.”
A common perspective about academia right now is that there’s a lot of dogmatic, rigid thinking going on among the younger generations. An opposing view might be that these students are just committed to what they see as positivechange. How do you see it? Well, people don’t like to ask me questions, because I give long answers.
You do you. OK, and I told you this was going to be a long answer:I am a space freak. As a little girl, I shared a bedroom with my sister. And I got to sleep on the side of the bed facingthe outside wall, so there was a window, and I would look out at the stars. I thought if I ran into a Martian and the Martian said, “Who are you?” what would my answer be? The only answer could be “I am an Earthling.” I realized — and have continued to realize — that it would be illogical if I were to tell the Martian I’m a Black woman. That’s because a Martian doesn’t know what Black is, and they don’t know what a woman is. So we know that race is illogical. It is a construct that is destructive. SoI’m watching, for example, the transgender kids now, and I think they’re doing something wonderful, because they’re saying about their gender what I had already recognized — and I’m not the only one; don’t misunderstand — about race. They’re saying they will not be blocked by what somebody else thinks they are. That’s a hell of a step. And if I could start Earth all over again, I would always make sure that if you had to answer the question, “Who are you?” then you’d have to say, “I’m an Earthling.” That way you don’t get trapped in what somebody thinks is your gender and your race. If Earth survives — there’s a good chance we’ll blow ourselves up — gender and race are going to go.
Generally speaking, does group identification strike you as a limited way of thinking about what it means to be a person? I sincerely — and I mean no disrespect — think it’s a stupid way. I know it must be difficult to let things go. But I am 78, and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen scared white men who shoot unarmed Black men because they say, “Oh, I was afraid for my life.” Orwe just let that kid — what’s his name? Kyle?
Rittenhouse? Yeah. I believe that it frightened him to think that he somehow might lose his life, and yet his life was no more important than anybody else’s. Couldn’t he realize that he was nodifferent from any caterpillar walking on the sidewalk? If you can avoid stepping on it, then it will be a butterfly. But he chose to step on the caterpillar. He chose to stop whatever beauty would be. Now all he will ever be remembered for is that he killed somebody. So we know what his life is going to be: nothing. And I’m glad. Somebody said to me: “Nikki, that’s not right. You’re supposed to be a Christian.” I am, but I’m not that Christian.
Couldn’t we feel anger at a culture that creates a situation where a 17-year-old is out on the street with an AR-15 and also hope for Kyle Rittenhouse to ultimately find some meaningful redemption after that awful situation? No. I don’t think there’s any hope for redemption for him. One of the reasons that I don’t is that I as a Christian know that Jesus didn’t love everybody. When he was on the cross, he turned to the man on the right to comfort him, and the man on the right said, “You say you’re God, but you’re up here with the rest of us.” Jesus, he realized, That’s a fool, and I’m not going to waste my time on a fool. He turned to the man on his left, and the man on his left said, “I do believe you are God.” And Jesus said to him, “You will be with me today in heaven.” You can’t assume that every fool is going to be saved. Because they’re not.
Who deserves empathy? Is showing empathy a burden? I don’t think empathy isaburden, and I’m not trying to say who deserves it. I’m saying that I can’t. If God says, “Nikki, I gotta write this check on you because you hate,” I would say, “I understand, because I do hate.” I hateDonald Trump. I hate what he’s done to our nation. So I will pay for my hatred. I don’t mind.
Just to return to what you were saying earlier about race being a negative construct:Do you think that your work has always suggested that?No, I don’t.
1 Giovanni has published more than 40 volumes of poetry and prose, including collections for children. She also has multiple albums of her poetry readings set to music, including the landmark “Truth Is On Its Way” from 1971.
It was a different world. You’re talking to me almost 60 years later, and there are things that I have learned and things that Earth has learned. It’s very sad to me, David, that now we are standing a chance of the Supreme Court making slaves out of women. Because if they overthrow Roe v. Wade, what they’ve done is make women sexual slaves. We’re saying that women cannot control their bodies and that men don’t have to control theirs. That’s very sad. And I saw that woman on the Supreme Court — the last Trump appointee?
Amy Coney Barrett? Yeah. She was like, Well, you can have the baby and
2 In early December, during arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case effectively asking the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, Barrett asked a question related to the idea that adoption possibilities may obviate the need for abortion.
What?I thought,That’s 1,500 years old.I think it’s terrible. If I do go back on the road — I haven’t been traveling — that is going to be something that I’m going to point out: that women are becoming the new slaves, women are the new Blacks.
A cliché about older artists is that they find — and then can offer — a kind of equanimity or acceptance. What do you think people expect from you at your age?I think they expect me to continue being honest. There is one thing that I hear when I’m out or when I’m talking to people like you: People say, you know, “You’re still honest.” And I say: “I’m glad to hear that. I’m still trying to be.”
A poem of yours that I’ve been thinking about in particular lately, especially given all the current contention over the country’s history, is
3 From “A Good Cry” (2017), it includes the lines “There can be no Justice/Only revenge.”
What’s your hope today for how a new understanding of the past might change the present and future?That I don’t know. I’m in theclassroom, and everybody’s upset about discussing race. One of the first things I ask my students is“How many of you own slaves?” Of course, none of them do. “Then why are you afraid to talk about slavery? Why are you afraid of looking at the past? It’s not whatyoudid.” There’s no reason to be afraid of how we got to where we got. Some of it is sad, believe me. You look at
4 This is a reference to a 1921 massacre in which white rioters destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, an economically successful Black enclave that had been known as Black Wall Street.
Who incited that riot? We called it Black Wall Street. Were the rioters jealous? Jealousy is a bad idea. You have to be careful about what you think you want. You might say, “Nikki, what is the one thing you would really like to do?” I would like to beat
5 The celebrity chef and star of the Food Network’s cooking competition show “Beat Bobby Flay.”
But I’m not jealous of Bobby Flay. I just think that I’m a pretty good cook.
What would you make to outcook him? I would probably fry chicken. Because I’ve fried really great wings. You’re looking like you don’t know that!
You said your students are afraid to talk about race. Are you sympathetic to the idea of keeping certain words out of the classroom context? I think it’s dangerous. And there is no word called “the n-word.” For example, Countee Cullen: If we erase the actual word he used, we’re erasing a poem called
6 The Harlem Renaissance poet’s “Incident” is a brief, heartbreaking poem about the lasting hurt of being called a racial slur.
which should be read because it’s a beautiful poem. Whatever it is that was written, we need to be able to read it. To me, it’s that simple. Andyou can callmewhatever you want to call me. If I don’t like what you’re saying to me, I have a button here on the Zoom that says “off.” So do you. You have to be free. That’s what I hate about the vigilantism that’s happening now. And what is worth killing somebody for? I live on a mountain, and someone could drive down the mountain too fast and hit a squirrel. That squirrel has to eat, and so it has to go looking for food. Squirrel can’t go to Wendy’s or McDonald’s. So you should go down the mountain at five miles an hour. If you’re late you’re still going to be late. You’re not going to be on time because you murdered a squirrel.
I have one last question for — I try to like people, by the way. I do. But then they make you mad. Sometimes there’s a squirrel.
Squirrels happen.I read an interview with you where you said that you feel satisfaction because you know you’ve done your job. What do you think your job was? And what were the criteria for doing it well? My job was to be as truthful as I knew how. I am alsoa storyteller. We’re the dreamers. I still dream. I mean, we’re talking before Christmas, and I’m interested in how the Christmas story ended up with the three wise men following the star. The sky doesn’t change. Everybody knows that. So I was saying to myself, What was in the sky that they could’ve been following? And I thought of Mary’s umbilical cord and
7 Giovanni has a bat species, Micronycteris giovanniae, named after her.
carrying it. Nobody will probably agree with me that that’s what it was, but nonetheless we poets get to bring out what else the three wise men could’ve been following.You know, with Christmas,I said to my students, I hate the little drummer boy. This girl just had a baby, she’s in a manger, she’s got a bunch of animals, and he’s coming in saying, “Can I play on my drum?”
He probably could’ve read the room better. If that had been the little drummer girl, she would have come to Mary, started to help clean out the manger — done something useful. Instead he’s standing there bitching, I’m poor and all I have is this drum, and we’re supposed to say, “Oh, ain’t that sweet?” No, damn it. Do something worthwhile. [Laughs.] That’s my job: I try my best to get people to think. That’s what I do.