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Re/VIEW: Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni by Deborah Feingold

“Giovanni brings a voice of discernment and solidity to our disquiet times. She sees the pandemic as carving out a spiritual space within us.”

Quarantined at her home in Christiansburg, Virginia, Nikki Giovanni listens to Dizzy Gillespie and chats on the phone over her morning coffee and grits “like grandmother used to make.” The poet is always “trying to get a little work done.” This October she published her 28th book, Make Me Rain. It’s the latest offering in a career that took off in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and has included co-writing a book with James Baldwin and earning a Grammy nomination for best-spoken word album.

Giovanni brings a voice of discernment and solidity to our disquiet times. She sees the pandemic as carving out a spiritual space within us: “We are Zooming each other. We are talking to each other more. People are writing who haven’t written before. I think a lot of this is moving toward the spiritual, a being-in-touch with each other. This virus that is making us stay in has brought out another part of our hearts.”

While her heart has grown, it also hurts, thinking about “the governor of Michigan being stalked by extremist militia and black men getting shot in the back by police.” She remembers teaching her son to drive: “Put your hands on the wheel. The policeman’s name is ‘Sir.’ Leave your hands on the wheel. I can pay for a ticket but I can’t buy a new son.”

And she looks to the Black mothers who have buried their children: “I can’t imagine how Mary stood at the bottom of the cross with the beloved disciple John. And as Jesus transitioned, she cut him down, cleaned him, and put him in the tomb. Can you imagine how Mary felt?”

After they put him to rest, “John was so wise. He took Mary to Turkey and cared for her.” She sees this act as in tune with Black Lives Matter organizers who have taken in families suffering from police violence. “They have told the story ... and their story has gone around the world. Mr. Di- vine,” she says, drawing out the word, “standing on the neck of George Floyd thought, ‘No one will remember this man,’ but now the whole world does. As the old Aretha Franklin song says, ‘Let’s call this song exactly like it is’—jealousy and cowardice.”

In this period of racial reckoning, Giovanni believes we should look toward what people are doing right, especially Black folks. She finds hope in education and poetry. Having written 13 books for children, she shares a script for parents and teachers: “What we need to do, starting with kindergarten, is teach our children that if anybody asks you who you are, you tell them, ‘I’m a child of God.’ You’re a child of this Earth. Be proud of that, instead of afraid of difference.”

Giovanni believes poetry leads to “a path that looks at where we are and where we are going.” She sees her work as part of that light, a way of guidance. “Poetry has evolved for Americans” she continues, “from the spirituals on up to rhythm and blues, to jazz, and now, to rap. My generation opened the door so that today rappers and poets could use their words as they wanted to.”

“All poets are in love. So the first poem in my new collection, Make Me Rain, is a love poem. We know that water is the beginning of life and that nothing will grow without it. I love that, because water changes. In that poem I say, ‘let me be ice on your tongue, let me come in.’ I think it’s so wonderful, because that’s what love is. Ultimately, I want to be a cloud. And when I become a cloud, I become rain again. That’s what’s going to keep us all alive.”

Read “Winter Homes” by Nikki Giovanni