poet and activist Nikki Giovanni will headline multi-day MLK celebration, "Art as Struggle and Exultation"
Nikki Giovanni knew Rosa Parks for 20 years. She knew the private woman behind the legendary civil rights hero. There was more to Parks than the historical icon who refused to give up her seat when bus driver James Blake ordered her to make way for a white passenger in December 1955. The Parks Giovanni knew had a radiant smile and a “wicked sense of humor.”
Giovanni contests the notion that Parks planned her famous arrest in advance. “She hadn’t planned it because there’s no way to plan for a James Blake. But she was always ready,” the world-renowned poet says. “She was ready, and that’s what we all want to be. When called upon to do something extraordinary, we want to be ready.”
Giovanni will discuss Rosa Parks during her commemorative address at the University of New Hampshire’s 20th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Thursday, Feb. 4. Her words will mark the culmination of a full week of celebratory events beginning Thursday, Jan. 28. Understanding Parks is paramount to understanding King and his legacy, she says.
“It’s kind of important to share the woman that I knew,” Giovanni says. “We cannot talk about Martin Luther King unless we talk about the foundation.”
In 2002, Giovanni became the first recipient of the Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award. That honor is just one of the numerous accolades that have been piled upon the poet, teacher and activist. She has been named “woman of the year” by Ebony Magazine, Mademoiselle Magazine and Ladies Home Journal. She has received the Langston Hughes Medal for poetry. She was named one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends.” She’s earned some 25 honorary degrees and has received the keys to more than two-dozen cities.
A native of Tennessee, Giovanni grew up in an all-black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. She published her first volume of poetry, “Black Feeling Black Talk,” in 1968, and quickly established herself as one of the most prominent writers in the Black Arts Movement, alongside Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou. Giovanni believes the story of black Americans is one best told by writers, not historians.
“Writers are the imaginative part of any story. No matter what the truth of any story is, it has to reside in the imagination,” she says.
Giovanni has now released close to 30 books, along with numerous essays and spoken word recordings. Her autobiography, “Gemini,” was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her children’s picture book, “Rosa,” climbed to number three on The New York Times Bestseller list. Three of her poetry collections have earned NAACP Image Awards. Her most recent book of poetry is 2009’s “Bicycles: Love Poems.”
Now a distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, Giovanni says she believes humankind has made significant progress toward reaching King’s vision for a just world, but there’s still a long way to go. She attended King’s funeral in 1968—the same year she published her first book of poetry. In her early poem “The Funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.,” she noted that the phrase “Free at last” was inscribed on his headstone. “But death is a slave’s freedom / We seek the freedom of free men,” she wrote.
“Death is not freedom, death is a cessation,” Giovanni elaborates. “We do seek the freedom of free people. There’s a lot more work to be done, and it’s good work.”
That work involves more than addressing race issues, alone. Freedom is a planetary pursuit, one that applies to all people, not just blacks and minorities. “Sometimes people forget that segregation was hard on white people, too, because you had to remember to be white,” she says.
Giovanni is discouraged by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As long as the United States continues bombing and murdering people, we will still be far from achieving King’s dream. “That’s a pitiful way for a powerful nation to conduct its external affairs,” she says. “There’s a lot of sadness in that respect.”
But she is encouraged by the humanitarian responses to tragedies like the recent earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. Giovanni’s modern prognosis on humankind demonstrates a mix of optimism and disappointment, of celebrating past accomplishments and aspiring for still greater triumphs.
Some of Giovanni’s new work in “Bicycles” reflects this binary of simultaneous progress and shortcoming. “We are all more than our experiences / And less than our dreams,” she writes in “I Am Glass.” A similar sentiment reappears in the book’s final poem, “We Are Virginia Tech.” “We are better than we think / And not yet what we want to be.”
“You have to aspire to something beyond the possibility, not to be frustrated, but just for the beauty of it, the sheer beauty of it,” she says. “You’re always striving to be a better person. There’s always something that you can do.”
Giovanni wrote “We Are Virginia Tech” in the wake of the fatal shooting spree that took place on the school’s campus in 2006 (the gunman was one of her former students). But the poem also points to the countless other tragedies, atrocities and epidemics that inflict constant suffering around the world.
That theme seems especially relevant after the tragic earthquakes in Haiti. Giovanni believes people can only navigate such hardship through poetry and art. She does not, however, consider her poetry a form of activism. “I’m just an artist. I’m not changing the world,” she says. “If Jesus couldn’t do it, I know I can’t.”
Today, the Black Arts Movement finds its most prolific, global outlet through hip-hop, Giovanni says. Just as old blues music gave birth to the rock craze, hip-hop is now spawning new forms of artistic expression. “It’s great because it is so inclusive and the kids all over the world have taken it up,” she says. “Black culture remains one of the fountains that we all drink from.”
Giovanni is close to reaching retirement age, but she says she won’t quit writing until she finds she’s repeating herself. Her poetry has changed during the 40-plus years since she published her first book, but she still finds new sources of inspiration.
“A 66-year-old woman doesn’t think like a 24-year-old woman thinks,” she says. “The sun strikes the Earth and there are these angles, and you keep seeing the Earth in a different way.”
Giovanni will also remain active in various forms of volunteer work after she retires from teaching.
That type of social activism will help people continue to advance toward King’s objectives. But she’s under no illusion that the world’s problems will be solved during her lifetime. As King once famously said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”
“We are part of the animal kingdom, and that is evolution, and evolution is a slow process. A hundred years is a blink of an eye,” Giovanni says. “We’re probably only a couple hundred years away. You and I won’t see it, but think about your grandparents. They would never have thought of this world.”
Art as Struggle and Exultation: a full week of events
I Am Here, Hear Me
Thursday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m.
MUB Strafford Room
Art Exhibit: Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that people all too often view themselves as they are seen through the eyes of others. That sense of two-ness, as experienced by men of color, is the theme of this year’s MLK art exhibit at UNH. The exhibit includes work by 30 young men of various racial and ethnic backgrounds from four area art institutions. They use art to assert their identity and defy cultural stereotypes.
Art to Heart: The Struggle for Human Rights in Spirit, Song, Poetry and Art
Sunday, Jan. 31, 4 p.m.
St. George’s Episcopal Church
Spiritual Celebration: This event will celebrate music and art as tools of protest. Artist, poet and activist Marta Sanchez will serve as the keynote speaker, joining musical guests Julie Leonard and the Calvary Baptist Church Dance Group. The inter-faith spiritual celebration will uphold the tradition of finding strength and resiliency through the singing of songs. The afternoon will be filled with music, poetry, movement, prayer and reflection on the struggle for justice, equality and human rights.
The Artist’s Corner: Nikki Giovanni
Thursday, Feb. 4, 2 p.m.
MUB Strafford Room
Poet and UNH Professor David Rivard will lead a discussion with poet and activist Nikki Giovanni, focusing on her latest work, lessons for today’s activists, her experiences in the Black Arts Movement and her continuing commitment to social change. Guests can participate in the conversation by submitting questions. Rivard has authored several award-winning collections of poetry and is editor of The Harvard Review.
A Sweet Inspiration: King, Poetry and Movement
Thursday, Feb. 4, 7 p.m.
Commemorative Address: Nikki Giovanni was one of the founding members of the Black Arts Movement, and she continues to write empowering poetry to this day. Her commemorative address will intertwine readings of her work with reflections on modern political and social issues. The event will also feature a vocal performance by UNH Professor of Music David Ripley, who will recite his song “Wounded Dove.” A reception and book signing with Giovanni will follow the address.
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