“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 positive change. 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 facing the 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. So I’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.” Or we 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 no different 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 is a burden, 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 hate Donald 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.
Amy Coney Barrett? Yeah. She was like, Well, you can have the baby and
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
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
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 also a 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
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.
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