Poet Nikki Giovanni: Still
angry after all these years

The final invited guest for Emory's King Week celebration, poet Nikki Giovanni chose to honor the civil rights leader's legacy with some blunt, uncompromising talk for her mostly college-age, predominately African-American audience. "How can you be young today and not want to serve?" she wondered. "Because it's such a wonderful time.

"People are trying to tell you things to make you mean. There's no reason for you to be mean," she admonished. "It's important that this generation look at the world that's been given to you. We've given you 12 years, 16 years in order to learn something. No generation that has come before has been given that. That has to make you more generous."

If young adults kept mindful of those who've come before them, contended Giovanni, they wouldn't sweat the details. "Black people should be proud to pay taxes," she said, to a ripple of laughter. "It means that we're free, it means that we're citizens and it means that we have a job."

Giovanni, professor of English literature at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and author of more than 20 books of poetry and essays, speaks fluently to young people, switching easily from concerned mother figure to with-it friend. The message she hammers home to them-and strives to live by herself-is to think for yourself and be yourself. "I am just me," she told a reporter for The Washington Post. "I do not measure my soul by the tape of the white world."

Scattering poetry amidst social commentary, Giovanni read from her latest book of poetry, Love Poems. The book is dedicated to murdered rap musician Tupac Shakur, whose death affected the writer deeply. "What a beautiful boy to lose," concluded a poem she wrote about him. "Are you happy Ms. Tucker? Tupac is gone, are you happy?" The reference is to C. DeLores Tucker, the National Political Caucus of Black Women chair who has spoken out frequently against rap music.

Before reading the poem, Giovanni lifted her arm and showed a tattoo etched inside her wrist. It read "thug life," the same words Shakur had emblazoned on his abdomen. Giovanni explained to the audience that if those words were incendiary enough to murder a promising 25 year old, then she would take her chances and wear them too. "Sometimes," she added, "if we don't protect the outlaws, we can't protect the good guys."

In her youth, Giovanni was considered quite the outlaw herself. During the 1960s she was one of the better-known members of the black arts movement. Still extremely outspoken, articulate and mistrustful of authority, Giovanni's discourse ranged from the current debate on Ebonics ("I like anything that makes everyone nervous") to a lyrical, allegorical tale of the black woman's arrival in the United States spun from the Book of Genesis and James Weldon Johnson's epic poem, "The Creation."

Despite her sometimes harsh words, Giovanni's concern and compassion for the underdog are always made clear. Black people should never join in the choruses of gay-bashing and hateful rhetoric, she said. "If you and I are not the ones to reach up and beyond, then who's going to do that?" she asked. "Anything that's inclusive should be sought."

What's more, she added, our gestures toward others need not be on the scale of Dr. King's to be deemed worthwhile. "Most of us will do little things [for others]," she stated. "It's the little things you do that make for great people."

-Stacey Jones

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