I chose to share highlights from my candid conversation with poet and activist Nikki Giovanni as Sisters’ cap-off to Women’s History Month because she’s a living maker of history. But at age 76, she’s also shaping the future. She’s guiding a new generation of leaders as a distinguished professor of english at Virginia Tech, working on new books (having published more than 20) and exploring the world of literature with her granddaughter.
Visiting AARP’s national office to speak about activism at any age, she first thrilled our audience with a reading of two poems that center on opposite ends of life’s journey. “Nikki-Rosa” reflects on treasured childhood moments in a family rich in love, if humble in lifestyle. “Quilts” inspires us to consider our own and others’ value and legacy in the context of community as we age.
Then I asked her some prepared questions … or I tried to. But her fierceness defied the format. Giovanni doesn’t answer, she awes. Her stream of consciousness is more like whitewater rapids, with strong currents and unpredictable waves. Splashes of truth, droplets of tears, ripples of laughter, shimmers of hope. Here are some takeaways.
1. Own the power of words
“Words are powerful. And I think we should be careful how we use them. There are two things that my students don’t like. Everybody says, ‘I was raised.’ Corn, oat, peas, beans and barley are raised. Human beings are reared. And if you are hanging from a tree, you are not hung. You were hanged. You have to find the word that’s … right. And so I fight with my students about that.”
2. Discern and uphold the truth
"Words have to be respected, especially now. I feel so sorry for the youngsters in the room because most of the words you’re hearing are lies."
3. Nurture the friendships that nurture you
I asked Giovanni what she learned from the late novelist Toni Morrison. “The problem with being friends with famous geniuses is that they don't teach you. You just … you’re friends. You laugh about things; you do things together. But I wrote a poem for Toni in her passing. Toni, of Beloved, said, 'There’s nothing to show about slavery, there’s not even a bench.’ And so I wrote 'A Bench.' When my mom died, I called Toni ’cause I was sad. And she [was momentarily silent], and then she said, "Write. You have to write." A bench is a metaphor. We all have benches that we rely upon.”
4. Connect intergenerationally
“We who are older are going to have to do some listening, because the kids are going to do some things, and we think, Oh, we would have never done that. When I started flying, people dressed up. You get on a plane now and you know people have T-shirts on that are barely covering their butts. Things have changed. We, who are older, have to learn what they're doing.”
5. Set boundaries and demand respect
“If you would have asked me [as a young person] what was I doing Saturday night at 11 o'clock, I can tell you. I was listening to my father hit my mother, and it was something that I couldn't accept. As I got older, I began to realize, OK, I love mommy. Do I love Gus? Because he had a lot of problems.
Gus was mean. He had a stroke, and [I’d gone] home to help mommy. I decided that for the rest of his life, he was going to be nice to the woman that I loved. I bought a house for him, and I thought, OK, now you're living in my house. When you wake up in the morning, you are going to say to that woman, ‘Oh, honey, you look so good. Oh, breakfast was so wonderful, oh, I love you so much, I'm so lucky.’ This was the dialog. And he looked at me and I said, ‘And if you don't, I'm going to have you put away. And we will never [visit] you again.’ And all of a sudden, he had this revelation, ‘I need to tell Yolande how much I love her.’ [Audience laughter] Mommy, she said, ‘Oh, Gus is, he's changed.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you think so?’
I don’t think Gus meant to be what he appeared to be to me. He just couldn't take that step to say, ‘I am a poor, Black man who has not been able to do for my wife and my two daughters what other people have done.’ He was comparing himself to the wrong people. I laugh about it, but when I die and go to hell, I know Gus will be there. So, we'll be able to talk some things over. I do believe as we sit in hell and have a drink together, that he can explain."
6. Know your non-negotiables
Giovanni was widely praised for her healing and unifying convocation speech the day after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007. The tragedy took 33 lives, including that of the student shooter, and wounded 17 others. On her visit to AARP, she shed tears while speaking of students she lost. A year and a half prior to the killing, she’d been among the first to raise red flags about the shooter:
“I said, ‘Mr. Cho, either you have to leave my class or I'll resign.’ He said, ‘You'll never resign.’ I said, ‘Mr. Cho, you don’t know me, but I know you.' And I know evil when I see it. I teach on Tuesday/Thursday, and I said to my department head, ‘If he's not gone by Thursday, the next thing that'll be on your desk is my resignation.’”
7. Keep the faith
Giovanni holds dear the spiritual “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which was often sung at meetings during the civil rights movement. “I want to shout out Black men, because it's time that we said something. I wrote the book manuscript, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. The [hymn] is so important to me … just the idea that no matter what we go through … for our people to have come through 400 years, they were leaning on some everlasting arms and they knew it. They knew it. Black men are standing in the need of prayer. And so, I'm bringing that spiritual into that book.”
8. Celebrate life daily
“I've got a goldfish pond, and I've got benches out there. I have a dog. And I'll always have champagne. Sometimes you’re tired and you just go out, you just take your little glass of champagne and the goldfish are ... there's a frog, and the frog has a family in there. It's relaxing and it's wonderful. And I have good friends. I have people that I depend on, and I hope they know that they can depend on me.”
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