Nikki Giovanni on Truth, Poetry, and Vampire Slayers
Poet, author, and professor Nikki Giovanni is one of the best-known voices of the Black Arts Movement. She has written some 30 books of poetry, essays, and fiction, and in 2004 was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. Teen Voices' SaChe Register and Ajané Searcy chatted with the "princess of black poetry" about Aretha Franklin, poetry slams, and our responsibility to speak the truth.
Teen Voices: What inspires you to write?
Giovanni: I'm fascinated by history, so a lot of my work has to do with that. I'm Black American, so obviously I'm interested in Black American history. I'm fascinated by history and I'm fascinated by science, so those are the areas that I write a lot about.
Teen Voices: If you could spend the day doing anything, what would you do?
Giovanni: Probably read. I really like to read, so I would like to be on a train or on a cruise ship with a book in the sun.
Teen Voices: So what kind of books do you like to read, what's your favorite genre?
Giovanni: Usually history books. I've always been interested in presidents, in periods of history. I'm reading a funny book now "“ amusing, I should say -- it's called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, and of course, the more you know about history, the more you can appreciate what Abraham Lincoln has done, even when he's slaying vampires. I loved it.
Teen Voices: You've received many awards, including the NAACP Image Awards for Literature, the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters, and many more. Does one stand out to you and why?
Giovanni: I think they all do, anytime I win an award I'm very proud of that. Some I was able to share with my mother before she died, and some have happened since then, but I'm always pleased that my contemporaries are finding my work exciting and they want to honor it.
The Black Arts Movement
Teen Voices: How and why did race impact your decision to start writing?
Giovanni: I don't know if race impacted my decision to start writing, because I've always been black [laughter].
Teen Voices: Can you tell us a bit about the Black Arts Movement?
Giovanni: The Black Arts Movement was really the artistic wing of the Civil Rights Movement. 1960 is the first college sit-in, but of course the first sit-in period was Rosa Parks in 1955, and of course Daisy Bates led the Central High School Nine in 1957. And so in 1959, when we were on our way to school, there was a feeling that we should do something, that this generation should do something , that we should not continue to wait. And then we had the four young men in Greensboro [who conducted a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter], and that just ignited everything. But what the people were doing needed to be articulated, and some of us, like me, had a talent in writing, and so we began to write, to say what we're doing [around civil rights] and this is why we're doing it. And so Black Arts came out of that.
Teen Voices: Did you feel that writing was the only way to get your voice out during the Black Arts Movement?
Giovanni: Well for me, Nikki, yes, but for people like Aretha Franklin, her voice came out through song -- Aretha was an incredible part of Black Arts and she was a singer. I don't think it would be considered by Aretha as Black Arts, but it definitely was. And Otis Redding and the blues singers; Otis Redding wrote "Respect" and it was Aretha who took it and made a national anthem out of it. So we had many different ways, there were people in theater, there were people in movies, there were many different people expressing a desire for people to be free.
Teen Voices: We were reading your poem about the Black Arts Movement and we noticed that Malcolm X was a big part of it. In what way did you feel a connection to him?
Giovanni: I had a connection with his wife, Betty [Shabazz]; we are birth sisters and we were friends. But Malcolm X was clearly the most important voice in the 1950s and 1960s. His assassination was a great loss to America, because his voice was an honest voice, and Robert Kennedy was an honest voice. I think the loss of those people as a part of our public discourse has led to people like the Bushes and other unethical people -- people who lie to the public.
Pages: 1 2
Tagged as: authors, Black Arts Movement, black power, Civil Rights Movement, interviews with famous poets, Nikki Giovanni, poet, Poetry, writing