In the Presence of Greatness, Nikki Giovanni

It was like being at a ballgame when the crowd starts to go nuts at, “O’er the land of the free…” Duke student Adeyemi Adewuyi hadn’t even finished his lovely introduction when the audience leapt to their feet and began raucously applauding and stomping their feet. The party was starting barely five minutes late, but when Nikki Giovanni exited the green room, the people would wait no longer. They gave it up for her—and though my knowledge of her work is slim, I got caught up in the hype. The room was filled with love and Ms. Giovanni’s smile told us she was feeling it too.

On March 2, 2015, Nikki Giovanni was keynote for Duke University’s Blackburn Literary Festival held at the Nelson Music Room. She stood before a crowd of 200 people, mostly student-aged people of color. I was one of three white men in the room. Her topic was “Diversity as Art: Art as Diversity.” She immediately commanded the room.

Giovanni is 73 years old and referred to herself as a “little old lady.” She opened by telling us that she’d just spent some time in the hospital after suffering a seizure that, she believes, resulted from not allowing herself to cry. “Us writers, especially poets, hold our stuff in,” she said, “And right now I’m learning how to cry.” The room went hush as she let everyone absorb that in their own way. She said her time in the hospital forced her to cancel a date with Common. “Not a date like that,” she said. I’m old enough to be his mother!”

She then answered a question nobody asked: “How do I know what to write about? Well, I write what I want and if folks like it, great. If not, fuck ‘em.” The audience’s response propelled Giovanni on a stream-of-consciousness delivery of fantastic stories, lesser-known American history, humor and wisdom. For the entire hour I was in awe, trying to capture and everything she said. She spoke to my writing, but mostly she spoke to our shared experience of being alive. I’ve done my best to paraphrase some of her words:

“William Shatner should have gone to Spock’s funeral. I don’t care what his excuse was, it wasn’t good enough. People don’t die twice, Shatner! We can’t be too busy to pay some respect!”

“Cops shouldn’t have guns. I’ve always said this. People need either power OR authority, not both. Cops got both. A good teacher can walk in a room and say, OK everyone, quiet down, and they quiet down. Cops come in shooting. They don’t know what to do with power AND authority. And I’m not just picking on white boys—I’ve got white friends, you know!”

“Creative writers need to go to strange places, like Antarctica or the space station. We need to let skilled people use their imaginations to help create a better world. There are ideas out there to be shared. As writers, as intellectual people, we need to be constantly giving so that the community can build on it. You folks here at Duke have money…well, you do! You ought to make something like this happen–Antarctica, of course. Not space.”

“Once, as I boarded a flight in Philadelphia, I saw Rosa Parks seated in a row with her assistant and a white man. I knew I needed to sit next to her so I decided to bogard the white guy. You got to be careful with white men, though. I didn’t want to ask him for the seat or tell him that he was sitting in the same row with a historical figure. He’d think he had something there and try to stay. So I just walked up and crossed my arms, looked down at him and said, Well? You gonna move or what? And he said, Oh yes ma’am, sorry ma’am. I leaned over and introduced myself to Ms. parks, then apologized for intruding and she said, Oh honey, black love is black wealth.

Giovanni implored the room to get passports and see the world. “Put it on your Christmas list.” She begged folks to keep their sanity through all that’s going on. “If you have to make a choice between sanity and happiness, choose sanity.” She said if we start doing things that tax our sanity we will eventually lose it. She claimed to be unambitious—saying, “I do what I want to do…But I say yes as much as possible. How else can I expect to expand my world?”

Giovanni said, “Black people should get all the credit they deserve.” She told the story of the Pullman Porters — ex-slaves hired by George Pullman to work as on railroad sleeping cars. The Pullman Porters were secretly responsible for maneuvering 14-year old Emmit Till’s remains from the Mississippi Delta back to Chicago where the truth of his murder could be told. Till’s mother insisted his brutalized face be photographed which drew popular attention to the case, making it one of the early landmarks of the African-American civil rights movement.

When Giovanni mentioned hillbillies, the room laughed. She said hillbillies are the only people left in the US who can be joked about without it seeming rude. I wasn’t sure wehre she was going with this, but then she told us that Appalachian people were always ready to help escaped slaves. She said a hillbilly kid may have come in the house to say, Pa, there’s a negro in our front yard, but you can be sure they’d help them, which makes them an integral part of history, too.

She talked about Fannie Lou Hamer, the voting rights activist and civil rights leader from Mississippi. Giivanni said Hamer, “should be on a stamp, at least.” A member of the audience asked about Giovanni’s relationship to Tupac Shakur and she told us about his mother. She also said she was worried about Kanye West. She said he, “seems to have lost his way.” But then she circled back to voting. “I could stand up here and tell you all to vote and you’d all think it’s a good idea. Tupac did the Vote or Die campaign and kids did what he said. He had power. I’d bet if you could look into the truth of his death you’d find that’s why he was killed.” She said that just going to the polls was important. “Just write your mama’s name in, but show up!” Then Giovanni rolled up her left sleeve to reveal her one and only tattoo on her forearm. It said, “Thug Life.”

Giovanni told her own creation myth that led into her reading her poem, Ego Tripping (shared below). When someone asked about her five decades of relevance she said she’s gotten to the point where she genuinely believes she’s a good writer. “But I (also) continue to get better and bring things together that don’t normally go together—like the Middle Passage and space.” She said black people have always been explorers and need to keep experiencing and sharing. She said, “Agree with me or not, but I’m pretty smart and I know I am right.”

Her final words to the audience were, “Life is a good idea. It’s good to live it,” to which the room once again erupted as if she had just nailed the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl. It was a banner event. I felt lucky to be in her presence, and in the presence of such an energetic group of people who all, no doubt, left the theater with bursting hearts.

Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
the tears from my birth pains
created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
out the sahara desert
with a packet of goat’s meat
and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
so swift you can’t catch me

For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
He gave me rome for mother’s day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
jesus
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filings from my fingernails are
semi-precious jewels
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
across three continents

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…

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