History and the People Who Make It: Nikki Giovanni

This month, we — Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) — present excerpts from an unusual interview on Jan. 19, 2016, with Black poet Nikki Giovanni [G] and then PhD student, Randi Gil-Sader [S. Excerpts collected/edited by Donovan Carter. 

S: Okay, thank you so much for doing this interview, Dr. Giovanni. I read some of your other interviews, so I want to start off a bit differently. I want to just start with a word association. So I’ll say a word and you tell me first thing comes to mind. All right: Tennessee. 

G: I was born in Tennessee. I’m a Knoxvillian by birth, and as we know, Eastern Tennessee was the difference in the Civil War, because middle Tennessee, Nashville, went with the money. And of course Memphis, Western Tennessee, went with the South and if it hadn’t been for Knoxville and that area deciding that they were gonna stay with the Union, we would have had a different outcome for the Civil War. 

S: All right. Next word: poetry. 

G: I write poetry and I enjoy it, and I encourage other people to do it. I try to teach, not poetry, but strength in your own voice. I try to teach my students that what’s important is what you know and how you express it. 

S: Okay. All right, Muhammad Ali.

G: Muhammad was a friend. I haven’t seen him lately. Both of us are getting old. Ali is maybe two years older than I am, but when the government stripped him of his title—he of course did poetry and Richard Fulton, who did some speaking handling for Ali, asked me, because a lot of people were afraid of getting associated with Ali who was good looking, a sweet guy, and he asked me would I do it. Would I read poetry with him, would I travel with him, and I said “Yes.” 

S: Okay, Black.

G: I am and it’s a term — it’d be very seldom that you would hear me use the term African-American. The term that I traditionally use is, of course, “Black Americans,” because we are Americans, and we are Black, and we are the people, and I will speak about that this evening. 

Black Americans are the people who had to create themselves. So when we came to America, we had to make a decision: “Are we going to be Americans or not?” We are and, of course, color’s gonna come in. If we look at our fellow Americans, we look at German Americans and British Americans. Now we look at Caribbean Americans, and now actually we’re looking at Africans who have become here but we didn’t have any place to go back to. When we were brought here, in slavery, but nonetheless when we were brought here, we knew that we had no place to go, so whatever we were gonna be we had to create ourselves, here. 

S: Okay. Two more: Middle Passage

G: Middle Passage is the most incredible, incredible historical situation as you know and that is something that I talk about a lot because the fact that we could come from enslavement to what was going to be, as it was at that point, America and come with a sanity, learn a language, create a food, create a music, create a people. 

Where would we be without Black Americans, it’s incredible, and middle passage is what I’ve been working on with NASA. And I’m so excited about that because I really really want NASA to send more Black people into space, and I want Black youngsters, not just — and I like scientists, it’s not that, but we need the creative people to go into space and we need to put the energy into getting the kids just to go up to the space station and come back. They’re in good shape; go up and come back and see what it is that they see. 

I was disappointed, for example, in The Martian because I thought of all the things for a movie, and I think that they should remake it. What we need on Mars is a Black woman, and I was laughing yesterday: “We need a Black woman with some grits.” Or maybe a yam. But we need a Black woman because to have a White man up there who’s gonna grow potatoes is illogical.

S: See, that was my last word association: outer space.

G: I’m a big fan and I think that it’s so important that we get youngsters. We really have to get the inner city youngsters and, if I may, the Appalachian youngsters involved — the Appalachian whites are involved. If you look at who were our first astronauts, they’re all Appalachians, but we need to get our Black kids involved so that we can begin to envision space as where we are and how we create ourselves, and how we get along with … So we know that we need Black women to be a part of space because they get along with and find a way to love everything, because we found a way to love people here in America. 

S: … You wrote a poem called “Woman Poem” and you have a line where you say about Black women, you’re either a sexual object and you say “And no sex if you’re fat; Black women get back, be a mother, grandmother, something strong, something, but not a woman.” What inspired that particular line and that particular perspective? 

G: That’s just history. You start to look at the image of Black women, and she was a friend of mine, Lena Horne, and of course Lena is gonna be a beautiful woman; everybody’s gonna deal with that. But if you looked at Hattie McDaniel, she was gonna be — Hattie McDaniel, if I’m not mistaken, won the first Oscar [awarded to a Black]. And she was gonna be an object, but she wasn’t gonna be a full human being. Nobody can see Hattie McDaniel falling in love. 

They saw her as “Mammy,” and I was responding to those images of us.

S: … I’ve seen other places where you’ve called yourself a “Futurist.” When you’ve talked about space and looking forward. So I wanted to ask you that. You also talked a lot about, in other interviews, your mother. You said that, “We get poetry through our mothers.” Now what is a way that your mom or your grandmother or other female members have inspired the word? 

G: I think you pay attention to them. You see what they’re doing. And I’ve been very lucky because I learned to cook with my grandmother, but I cook with mommy, and I made beans the other day because it’s cold. And I just had this thing, I just wanted some northern beans and some jowl bacon, and it was so good. And I said to a friend, “But it wasn’t my mother’s beans.” And I cannot make my mother’s beans, because I don’t smoke and I think that a part of what she did — so there must have been something about smoking. 

I cooked with a lot of my friends, including Maya. And Maya and I used to love — because Maya thought she was, well, Maya was a good cook. I was gonna say she thought she was a good cook, but she was a good cook. But I thought I made better lamb. I made a rack of lamb. I thought my lamb was better and Maya thought hers was better, and we had this argument. And I used to cook with Edna Lewis, who was also a great chef, so, knowing those people and watching how they do things, you’re watching poetry. And I mean, I enjoy it. I was just very lucky to know the people that I know and had a lot to do with my age and had a lot to do with the fact that when you meet people and you like them, you continue relationships. 

S: … you mentioned in another interview about how we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. You’ve been a big proponent of Rosa Parks Day and why we need to celebrate her, so can you talk about that investment in her, what she represents? Because I know she was a friend to you also. 

G: She was a friend. Rosa was a friend. It’s not that I want to take Martin — I was just saying “Let’s not forget,” and we know we are going to have a woman on the twenty dollar bill. And so I’ve been a big fan and nobody listens to me, but I would love to have Rosa Parks on the twenty dollar bill. I just think it would make me work hard to get twenty dollars. 

S: It would! [Laughter] Can you tell us more about her personality and the time you spent with her? I think so much about her is relegated to that day on the bus, when in the last couple years you know she had a very robust life in activism in the communities. So what was your relationship with her? 

G: You have to remember that Ms. Parks lived next door to E.  D. Nixon, who was the head [of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott] — and she also was in the NAACP, and we have to recall that there was a rape in Alabama that she was sent up to investigate. Mrs. Parks was always involved, and so when people say she was just a tired old lady, they just don’t know what they were talking about. I happen to have just been privileged to have known Ms. Parks, and she’s wonderful. Nothing ever fazed her. She was always very calm no matter what was going on. She was not ever going to get upset about anything. I wish I was more like that you know… 

S: … One thing that I’m noticing just from the brief time talking to you is just your admiration of Black women across the board, and I wanna know: there’s a little phrase going around now, social media phrase, to describe Black women called “Black Girl Magic.”

G: Called what? 

S: Black Girl Magic. So when Black women are doing good things or when Black women are excelling, you say it’s “Black Girl Magic.” What do you think about the phrase? 

G: Oh, I like that.

S: You like that?

G: Sure. Because when you ask about Middle Passage, but the one thing again that when we look at Middle Passage, we know that these people didn’t speak the same language because they were from different — and we know as they’re coming across they had to find a way to talk and it had to be a Black woman that just started a song. It was a song and it had to be a Black woman that’s gonna bring that song to give us the way to talk. I’m a big fan of Black women. I mean how could you not be? 

My favorite part about this interview is how Ms. Giovanni relates her poetry to her womanhood. It is clear that she takes great pride in her Blackness, and the style, pain, and joy that comes from that. This interview is from over five years ago, yet goes to show how timeless and priceless relationships are. 

If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out the entire transcript at tinyurl.com/Iguana1554.  Remember to celebrate and honor Black History each and every day.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

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