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Ego-Tripping

Ego-Tripping

Nikki Giovanni
1972

INTRODUCTION
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
POEM TEXT
POEM SUMMARY
THEMES
STYLE
HISTORICAL CONTEXT
CRITICAL OVERVIEW
CRITICISM
SOURCES
FURTHER READING

INTRODUCTION

The poem “Ego-Tripping,” written by Nikki Giovanni, was first published in 1972 in a collection of poetry titled My House. Best known under this shortened title, the poem's full title is actually “Ego-Tripping (there may be a reason why).” The poem is also included in a children's book of poetry, titled Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People, which was published the following year. This latter book includes illustrations by George Ford that offer positive images for children that reflect a feeling of black pride. The illustrations and words advocate strength and power; whatever can be imagined is possible. Giovanni eschews periods, commas, and other forms of punctuation. There are no pauses or places for the reader to stop and catch a breath. The title, “Ego-Tripping,” suggests an ego so large that the author is tripping over it, but that is not the poem's purpose. Giovanni's first trip to Africa was in 1972, the year of the publication of this poem. Many of the great ancient African civilizations, the Egyptians, the Carthagians, and the Ethiopians, contributed to the greatness of Greek, Roman, and Norman life, and in these civilizations, much of modern life finds its origins. Giovanni aligns herself with these beginnings and the possibilities they offer in “Ego-Tripping,” as she celebrates being black and female. Her style is both original and individualistic and is accessible to all levels of readers. Giovanni's love for “Ego-Tripping,” is evident, since she has recorded it on at least

two compact disks, placed an audio file of her reading it on her website, and included it in at least three of her poetry collections, the two collections noted above and The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, published in 1996.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Born Yolanda Cornelia Giovanni on June 7, 1943, Nikki Giovanni grew up in Lincoln Heights, a predominately black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up, she frequently visited Knoxville, Tennessee, the city of her birth and the home of her grandparents. When she was fourteen, she moved back to Knoxville to live with her maternal grandparents. Giovanni enrolled at Fisk University after her junior year at Austin High School, under an early admission policy, but was expelled at the end of her first semester when she left campus to visit her grandparents at Thanksgiving. After a new Dean of Women replaced the one who had expelled her, Giovanni returned to Fisk. She graduated with honors in 1967, with a degree in history. After graduation, Giovanni moved back to Cincinnati. After her grandmother's death only a month after she received her degree, Giovanni began to write poetry as a way to deal with her grief. Most of the poems that she wrote during this period of grief were later published in her first collection of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk, in 1968. At the same time, Giovanni enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work but soon left the program.

She received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and was able to move to New York City, where she continued writing poetry while enrolled at Columbia University's School of Fine Arts; she dropped out of their M.F.A. program during the first year. A second collection of poetry, Black Judgement, was also published in 1968. Giovanni began teaching, first at Queens College and later at Rutgers University, and then gave birth to her only child, Thomas Watson Giovanni, in 1969. Re: Creation, published in 1970, was the third and the last of Giovanni's books to have a revolutionary tone that advocated militant change for the black community.

Single motherhood softened Giovanni's poetry, and she also began writing poetry for children. The following year, she published her first collection of poems for children, Spin a Soft Black Song and also published a lengthy autobiographical essay, Gemini. Also in 1971, Giovanni recorded a spoken-word album, Truth is on its Way, with the New York Community Choir. This bestselling album received the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers Award for Best Spoken Word Album. My House (the first collection to include “Ego-Tripping,”) was published in 1972, while a second children's book, Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People, was published in 1973. Both of these books included the poem, “Ego-Tripping.”

Giovanni has received a number of awards, including being honored as Woman of the Year by Ebony Magazine (1970), Mademoiselle Magazine (1971), and Ladies Home Journal (1973). She was also named to the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame (1985) and received the Governor's Awards from both Tennessee (1996) and Virginia (1998). Giovanni was also awarded the Langston Hughes Medal for poetry (1996) and the Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award (2002). Giovanni's children's book about Rosa Parks, Rosa (2005) was selected as a Caldecott Honors Book. Between 1968 and 2005, Giovanni published thirty-two books and many essays and individual poems. She is a prolific writer and also a teacher. Giovanni has been a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) since 1987. In 1999, she was given the title of University Distinguished Professor, the highest award given to university faculty. She resides in Virginia.

MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • A recording of Nikki Giovanni reading her poem “Ego-Tripping” is posted on her website: http://nikki-giovanni.com/egotrippingqt.shtml.
  • Although she did not publish the poem until the following year, Giovanni reads “Ego-Tripping” on a 1971 recording titled Truth Is on Its Way. This is her first recording, and it was re-released on CD in 1993 by Collectables.
  • Giovanni reads “Ego-Tripping” on In Philadelphia, a recording released in 1997 by Collectables that is still available on compact disk.
  • Giovanni also reads “Ego-Tripping” on a short video titled Spirit to Spirit: Nikki Giovanni, released in 1987. This film was directed and produced by Mirra Bank and is distributed by Direct Cinema Limited. It is twenty-eight minutes long and was released as a DVD in 2007.

POEM TEXT

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
  the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
  that only glows every one hundred years falls     5
  into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
 
I sat on the throne
  drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe            10
  to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
  the tears from my birth pains
  created the nile
I am a beautiful woman                             15
 
I gazed on the forest and burned
  out the sahara desert
  with a packet of goat's meat
  and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours                          20
I am a gazelle so swift
  so swift you can't catch me
 
  For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
He gave me rome for mother's day                   25
My strength flows ever on
 
My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
  as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was                30
  jesus
  men intone my loving name
 
  All praises All praises
I am the one who would save
 
I sowed diamonds in my back yard                   35
My bowels deliver uranium
  the filings from my fingernails are
  semi-precious jewels
  On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew                           40
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
  the earth as I went
  The hair from my head thinned and gold was       45
  laid across three continents
 
I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended
  except by my permission
 
I mean … I … can fly                               50
  like a bird in the sky …

POEM SUMMARY

Stanza 1

“Ego-Tripping.” begins with a simple declarative statement. The speaker declares her origins as having been “born in the Congo.” Each line of the poem asserts the speaker's strength and power, as she imagines herself a female god. In the first section, the speaker claims that the sphinx and the pyramids are her creations. She professes to have walked to the Fertile Crescent, the area that encompasses the lands of ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. The Fertile Crescent is watered by the Nile, Jordan, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers and so is an important ecological, agricultural, and economic feature of that area. In the rest of this stanza, the poet incorporates both science and religion into her poem. In our galaxy, the MilkyWay, supernova stars burn out every 100 years. The death of a supernova creates an explosion that appears as a very bright star. Some scientists think that the star over Bethlehem might have been a supernova, and so the bright star can have religious significance. Giovanni's poem notes that the star “that only glows every one hundred years” gives “divine perfect light.” The final line of this stanza, the simple “I am bad” should not be understood as a literal statement. Instead, the phrase adopts 1970s slang, and “I am bad” should be understood as “I am awesome.” This final line of the stanza tells the reader that the poet is proud of her identity and her accomplishments.

Stanza 2

The second stanza of this poem clearly establishes the narrator as a goddess. She is the mother of Nefertiti, whose name means the beautiful or perfect woman. Nefertiti was a much loved wife, but there is no real knowledge about her origins. The poem's speaker can safely claim her as a daughter without contradicting history. Making Nefertiti's mother a goddess would not be unusual, either, since many of the Pharaohs claimed to be descended from their gods and goddesses. The narrator is also equal to Allah, since she “sat on the throne / drinking nectar with allah.” She sat next to him and not below him as a subject would have done. The speaker claims that her childbirth tears created the Nile River, which is the longest river in the world at 4000 miles in length. The Nile was so important in early Egyptian life that its flood and drought cycle became the basis for the Egyptian seasons. In the final line, the speaker asserts that “I am a beautiful woman.” This line establishes the speaker as female and also reinforces the image of her as supremely confident and proud of her identity as a woman. The last line refers back to the earlier reference to Nefertiti, the most perfect and beautiful of women.

Stanza 3

This third stanza continues the poet's claim to superlative powers. Her gaze is so powerful that she is able to look at the forest and burn “out the sahara desert.” The Sahara desert is the largest in the world, and so in keeping with the speaker's creation of the largest river in the world in the previous stanza, this stanza continues the speaker's claim to great fame and ability. The desert is 3000 miles wide from east to west and between 800 and 1200 miles long from north to south. Thus the poet's claim to be able to cross it in “two hours” requires a goddess of superior strength and power. To put this claim into perspective, flying this distance in an airplane would require more than two hours. The speaker, though, is “a gazelle so swift” she cannot be caught. The gazelle is part of the antelope family and is known as one of the fastest animals in the world. Gazelles are also herbivores, and so while the speaker carries goat's meat for her journey, the analogy of the speaker as a gazelle refers only to her swiftness in escaping those who see her as prey.

Stanza 4

In this stanza the goddess speaker again claims a child. In this case the child is a son, Hannibal. Hannibal was a great Carthaginian general. In the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.E.), Carthage lost important territories to the Roman Empire. In the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.E.), Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees with thirty-five elephants. He did not, however, succeed in taking Rome, although he did control large parts of the Roman Empire before being finally defeated. Hannibal is best known as a general who, despite winning almost all of the battles, finally lost the war. After losing several battles, Rome chose to just sit and wait until Hannibal was short on men and supplies. He was defeated at that point. Giovanni's lines in this stanza are correct in their reference to Hannibal's use of the elephant, but he was never able to give anyone “rome for mother's day,” or for any day. As has been the case with the previous stanzas, this fourth stanza ends with the speaker's affirmations that her “strength flows ever on.” Although Hannibal was ultimately defeated and killed, the goddess-speaker is not diminished. Hannibal was renowned for his strength, and the goddess mother's strength is matchless.

Stanza 5

In the next lines, the speaker refers to two men who are renowned for saving mankind. The first reference is to Noah, who saved his family and the animals on earth, thus allowing the world to be repopulated after a period of sin and destruction. The goddess speaker accompanied her son, Noah, on his journey to preserve mankind, standing “proudly at the helm / as we sailed on a soft summer day.” Biblical text does not mention “a soft summer day.” Instead Genesis 7:12-13 states: “And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. On the very same day Noah and his sons” entered the ark. The speaker, however, suggests another meaning within these lines. The first line of this stanza refers to “new/ark.” Newark has significance in several ways. It is the birthplace of American dramatist, poet, novelist, and political activist, Amiri Baraka, whom Giovanni greatly admired. Baraka brought new life to black poetry and drama through the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, which he founded in Harlem in 1958 to provide a forum for poetry readings, concerts, and plays created by black writers. Then in 1966, Baraka established a black community theater in Newark, New Jersey, called Spirit House. His activism on behalf of all blacks, but especially black poets and playwrights can be read into Giovanni's words: “My son Noah built new/ark.” Newark is notable for another reason, as well. In July 1967, the city of Newark was the site of six days of racially based rioting that ultimately changed the city. After the riots, many white residents moved to the suburbs, and for the first time, black residents were given a voice in city politics. African Americans refer to the riots as the Newark Rebellion and consider it a rebellion against oppression. Only three years later, Newark became the first major northeastern city to elect a black mayor. In a sense, then, the “new/ark” provided not only a new start for mankind but a new beginning for Newark's black population.

The poet next undergoes a metamorphosis from goddess to Jesus. The speaker “turned myself into myself” and was transformed into the savior of mankind. The female deity has already claimed the Old Testament in a previous stanza; now she is not excluded from the New Testament, when she can merge into Jesus. Traditional biblical teachings embrace patriarchy and religion as a way to exclude women from roles that assert their independence. As a result, biblical texts make women reliant upon and subordinated to men. The goddess speaker turns those ideas upside down by claiming that Jesus is both god and goddess. She has even more power and adoration, given that “men intone my loving name.” Rather than a more generic use of mankind or people, the speaker makes clear that it is “men” who praise her.

Stanza 6

Just to make sure that the point is not lost on the reader, the speaker repeats twice: “All praises All praises.” The final line then refers back to the topic of this section, with a reminder that the goddess is the “one who would save.”

Stanza 7

In this long stanza, the focus changes to the many riches that the goddess has provided to mankind. She is responsible for diamonds, uranium, semiprecious jewels, oil, and gold. Again, the goddess speaker returns to the theme of ultimate self-confidence. She is “so hip” that even her “errors are correct.” Thus she can make no mistakes. To be hip is to be better than anyone and to be above whatever is common and usual. Modern slang also defines hip as someone who knows all the answers and who is beyond simple trends or fashion. To be hip makes the speaker the ultimate authority on all topics. This reinforces the goddess image, who in this stanza, also claims to have made the earth round.

Stanza 8

Having spoken in specific details through the poem, the goddess speaker ends the poem with a broader comment about her own perfection. She is “so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal.” In the first section of this line (“so perfect”), she claims herself to be flawless, lacking anything that would detract from her perfection. In the second section (“so divine”), she reminds readers that she is a god. In the third section (“so ethereal”), she expands upon her divinity, to reinforce the idea that she is celestial, heavenly, and not confined to earthly land. In the final words of this line (“so surreal”), the goddess speaker defines her existence as so fantastic that she cannot be understood, unless, of course, she gives permission. The surreal provides an incongruent juxtaposition of imagery, such as blowing her nose and “giving oil to the arab world.”

Stanza 9

These last few lines invite the reader to simply enjoy the poem and not question too closely. To reinforce this point, the poem ends with a line from a song by the singing group, The Temptations, called “I can't get next to you.” The phrase “I … can fly / like a bird in the sky” connects Giovanni's speaker to one of the important cultural experiences of the 1960s and 1970s—Motown and black music. The lyrics in this song say that a lovesick man can achieve anything, even “make the seasons change just by waving my hand.” Even with all those god-like powers, he is unhappy because it is the girl who is “the key to my happiness.” This old song by The Temptations acknowledges that women have the power and control over men. These lines assert that the male singer can have everything in the world but without a woman, his powers mean nothing. Giovanni's goddess speaker ends the poem with an affirmation of her complete power. The complete title of “Ego-Tripping” is “Ego-Tripping (there may be a reason why).” The content of the poem proves that there is a reason for the goddess to have so great an ego that she might trip over it. She is the pinnacle of female strength, power, wisdom, and achievement, and this poem celebrates all that women can and have achieved.

THEMES

Ethnic and Cultural Roots

Much of the setting of “Ego-Tripping” is in Africa. By making the speaker a strong and powerful goddess, Giovanni counters the oppression that so many blacks have had to endure in the United States. The first line, “I was born in the Congo,” establishes that the speaker is proud of her origins. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the center of vast mineral wealth, with exports of diamonds and oil, two of the riches that are named in Giovanni's poem as having been created by the goddess. Other areas of Africa export gold and uranium, also mentioned in Giovanni's poem. Egypt, with one of the oldest, most advanced civilizations in the ancient world, is also in Africa. The speaker claims this heritage as her own, even claiming one of Egypt's most beautiful queens, Nefertiti, as her own descendent. The great Carthaginian general, Hannibal, is claimed as another descendent. Africa is filled with meaning for black Americans, who look to the continent of their origin for a history that can make them proud and counter more than two hundred years of prejudice and subjugation. Giovanni's poem embraces her African heritage by creating a black goddess who is strong and proud of all that she has achieved.

Egoism/Pride

The full title of this poem, “Ego-Tripping (there may be a reason why),” suggests that one theme is egotism and pride. But as the subheading suggests, there may be a reason why the poet feels so compelled to boast. The poet uses this poem to celebrate a black heritage that is meant to counter some of the negative connotations about black life that are more prevalent in the media. Television and print media often reports on crime, drugs, poverty, and any number of other issues and identifies these as obstacles that prevent blacks from succeeding; but these are social problems that affect many people, regardless of race or ethnicity. The poem's speaker is a proud black woman, who is strong enough to be a goddess. She is the creator of civilizations, from the biblical Noah to the Egyptian Pharaohs. She is the creator of vast wealth and is not afraid to acclaim her strength. The speaker declares that she is “so hip even my errors are correct.” This poem makes an important point about pride—that it is important to be proud of both heritage and accomplishments. The speaker uses hyperbole to make the point that pride is not misplaced no matter how great or even how insignificant the accomplishment. The speaker's pride can serve as a model for women and young readers that they can accomplish much, if they have faith in their own strength and power. Giovanni uses this poem as a way to embrace the black pride movement that was part of the Black Power alliance of the mid-1960s.

TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Take the first line of Giovanni's poem and use it as the first line of your own poem, changing the last word to reflect your own birthplace. Write a poem of at least twenty lines by continuing this new first line to whatever conclusion fits your own subject or ideas. Write a brief paragraph to attach to your poem, in which you evaluate what your poem says about your life's story.
  • Giovanni's speaker identifies herself as a female of infinite power. She is a goddess in the Greek tradition. Research the role of Greek gods and goddesses in early Greek life and write an essay in which you discuss what you have discovered. Consider in what ways the Greek worship of these gods was similar to, and or different from, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic worship of just one god.
  • Giovanni's poem was composed early in the 1970s. Research the economic and social status of African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. Prepare an oral report in which you discuss the experiences of black Americans during this period and the role of the Black Power Movement.
  • Select a poem by any nineteenth-century female author and compare it to Giovanni's poem. In a well-written essay, compare such elements as content, theme, tone, and word choice. In your evaluation of these two works, consider the different approaches of these two poets. Do you think that Giovanni's poem is different in tone and content from the poem by the nineteenth-century writer that you chose? In your evaluation, consider the differences and whether those differences can be attributed to the historical context of Giovanni's poetry or to some other influence.

Mother Earth

The speaker identifies herself in the Mother Earth role of creator. The first Greek god was the goddess, Gaia, the Mother Earth from whose womb all life on earth was created. Mother Earth is also commonly known as Mother Nature, who is responsible for all living things and all natural occurrences, from weather to earthquakes. Whether called Mother Earth, Gaia, or Mother Nature, this entity is also known as the healer, who maintains the natural balance of all things and makes our world fruitful. The earliest religions felt a natural connection to Mother Earth, who has always been a female representation. Giovanni's speaker, as a feminine entity, assumes the role of Gaia, the mythological earth mother. In her poem, the speaker claims she gave birth to great deserts and rivers. She also connects her mythological identify to the religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition by claiming to be the mother of Noah and that she “turned myself into myself and was / Jesus.” In addition to the mythological Earth Mother, in the western tradition Eve and the Virgin Mary are also associated with the concept of the Earth Mother, and so Giovanni's reference to Jesus links nature with the mythological and with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whether a Mother Earth, Gaia, or just Mother Nature, women are creators and mothers, and are representative of strength, wisdom, and authority.

STYLE

Figurative Language

Giovanni employs figurative language to create images that are not necessarily intended to be taken literally. Figurative language allows the poet and the reader to use their imaginations to see the world differently, often through the use of simile or metaphor. In figurative language, the poet departs from customary meanings of words to help the reader understand a concept. For instance, when the speaker claims to have blown her “nose giving oil to the arab world,” her claim is obviously not a literal one. The speaker asserts her power by claiming to have created the world. The image created by these words is more imaginative than the more literal descriptions of how oil originates from the decay of organic plant and animal life, which is then compressed by heat and pressure and sedentary rocks into fossil fuels. Figurative language brings new life and imagination to this action. In that same stanza, the speaker claims that her “bowels deliver uranium.” This very figurative phrase creates an image that might be easier for many readers to grasp than the one that scientists struggle with—that uranium is caused by supernovas exploding. The creation of uranium, though, provides a connection to the explosion of a supernova, which created the image of the star in the first stanza “that only glows every hundred years.” Giovanni's poem can be enjoyed just for its imaginative use of language, but on a deeper level, there are some complex links between ideas that, if understood, create more enjoyment of the poem.

Free Verse

Free verse is verse with no discernable structure, rhyme scheme, or meter, and it allows the poet to fit the poetic line to the content of the poem. The poet is not restricted by the need to shape the poemto a particular meter but can instead create complex rhythm and syntax. Free verse is not the same as blank verse, which also does not use a rhyme scheme. Blank verse almost always adheres to iambic pentameter, while free verse relies on line breaks to create a rhythm. Free verse is most often associated with modern poetry, as it is with Giovanni's poem. There is no pattern of rhyme or meter to “Ego-Tripping,” and instead, the irregular line breaks give the poem more of a sing-song rhythm that is best appreciated by reading it aloud. Giovanni rarely employs conventional forms of either stanza or line structure. She does not adhere to any standardized meter; nor is there any use of stanza division. Giovanni also eschews punctuation and most capital letters, which are used not for formal names but only for the first word of a line that begins all the way to the left of the page. Shorter lines that are indented do not begin with a capital letter. Giovanni rejects all formal rules for poetry format and punctuation, and instead creates her own meaning using only language.

Modern Poetry

The label, modern poetry, like modern novels and other forms of modern literature, refers to the poet's strong and conscious effort to break away from traditional literary forms and themes. Modern poetry attempts to create a new world by changing perceptions of the old world. Modern literary works identify the individual as more important than either society or social conventions and emphasizes the mind and the poet's inward thoughts. The imagination of the poet often prefers the unconscious actions of the individual. Giovanni's poem suggests that poets are free of conventional ideas and free of the stagnant responses that are expected of most individuals. Her poem moves beyond the practical world and into a world that privileges imagination and creativity, just as modern poetry values these freedoms.

Parallelism

Parallelism refers to a repetition in style or words within the poem. This stylistic device is one way to express several ideas of similar importance in a similar manner or to establish the importance of a particular idea. Giovanni uses parallelism to establish tone and to create tension. For instance, the opening words of line 2 “I walked” create a structure that is repeated a dozen times in phrases such as “I designed,” “I gazed,” “I crossed,” etc. This repetition of style emphasizes the poet's strength. Another type of parallelism is in the poem's format. For example, the final line in each stanza also wraps back to the central idea expressed within the stanza. In the second stanza, Nefertiti is renowned for her great beauty. Her very name means beautiful or perfect woman. Then the final line of the stanza links back to her beauty when the poet says: “I am a beautiful woman.” This formula is repeated in other stanzas, such as the gazelle, who is linked to the goddess speaker who is “so swift you can't catch me.” Another example is in the stanzas on Noah and Jesus, which end with the speaker claiming that “I am the one who would save.” The final line reminds readers that Noah and Jesus saved others and their actions are now linked to the goddess speaker. This use of parallelism of words and ideas focuses the reader's attention on these lines and signifies that they are important elements of the poem.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The Civil Rights Movement

After the Civil War ended, Reconstruction was suppose to guarantee African Americans equal rights. In some cases, this appeared to be happening, but the reality of Reconstruction was quite different. In many communities, legislation was passed that was designed to circumvent the intent of Reconstruction. There were new laws that outlawed discrimination, but in several of the southern states, legislation was created that required that blacks pass educational and literacy tests before they could vote. Other laws, called Jim Crow Laws, required the separation of whites from anyone of black ancestry, who were commonly referred to as “persons of color.” This segregation was applied to schools, restaurants, theaters, public transportation, hotels, and even cemeteries. An 1896 ruling by the Supreme Court legalized this segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites. This kind of segregation continued for the next sixty years. Many blacks felt that if they fought to defend the United States in World War II that segregation would end, but there was little change in the lives of black Americans in the United States after the war ended. Finally, there was some movement to end segregation in the mid 1950s. In a 1954 ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared that separate educational facilities for black and white children was unequal and unconstitutional. The following year, a black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man and move to the segregated rear of a bus, where there were no empty seats. Her arrest led to a lengthy

COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1970s: Social activist and Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was an influential leader in the civil rights movement in the United States. He was assassinated in April 1968, but his legacy of peaceful resistance against social injustice continued to influence his followers long after his death.

    Today: The third Monday of every January is set aside as a Federal holiday in the United States to honor the work of Dr. King, whose legacy serves as a reminder that nonviolent resistance can bring about social change.

  • 1970s: Shirley Chisholm is the first African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress. She is a candidate for the U.S. Presidency as a Democrat in 1972 and wins 151 (some sources say 152) delegates before withdrawing from the race. She is a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. Chisholm serves in Congress from 1968-1983.

    Today: A total of twenty-five black women have served in the U.S. Congress, twenty-four in the House and one in the Senate. A total of fourteen black women serve in the 110th Congress in 2007. Women of all races hold only 16 percent of Congressional seats in 2007.

  • 1970s: The Black Aesthetic Movement is in full swing, bringing about a period of great literary and artistic development for African Americans. The movement is an effort to create a populist art that can be identified with African-American culture, through African-American publishers, theater groups, and literature. This movement asserts that black experiences, through art and literature, are different from those of other groups.

    Today: Although the Black Aesthetic Movement officially ended towards the end of the 1970s, its legacy is twofold. Academic studies of this movement flourish at college campuses around the United States. Another legacy has been a tradition of literature from writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, whose work portrays the African-American experience and appeals to readers of all ethnic and racial groups.

  • 1970s: Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, along with Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, are among some of the founding members of the militant Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. After a shootout between Black Panthers and police in Oakland, CA, Cleaver fled charges in the United States and sought protection from imprisonment, first in Cuba and later in Algeria. By the early 1970s, the Black Panther Party had changed its focus from militant resistance to social programs to improve the lives of black children.

    Today: The original Black Panther Party dissolved in the mid-1970s, but many of the original members are still active in less militant community groups. The Black Panther Collective began working with old members of the original party in 1994 to protest police brutality against blacks and to educate youth about African-American history.

bus boycott, which was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. This boycott resulted in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus company desegregating their buses. Parks was one of Giovanni's personal heroes and the subject of a children's book that she wrote, called Rosa. A succession of boycotts, sit-ins, and other nonviolent actions led to desegregation of many theaters, stores, and other similar venues. In spite of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the federal government remained reluctant to force school desegregation where they met opposition in the south. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson succeeded in getting Congress to pass a Civil Rights Act that forbid discrimination in all public accommodations. This new law also had the authority to withhold government funds to communities that maintained segregated schools. The following year the Voting Rights Act did away with many of the rules that southern communities had used to prevent blacks from voting. None of these changes occurred without turmoil and in many cases, violence and murder. These changes in the laws also motivated many young blacks to become more militant in their demands for equality.

Black Power

Black frustration over poverty, poor housing, and unemployment led to race riots in Los Angeles in 1965. In the following three years, there were many more urban riots in Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta, and in more than 125 other U.S. cities, including Newark, the site of one of the nation's worst riots, which Giovanni references briefly in line 27 of “Ego-Tripping,” with “new/ark.” The rage that was present during these race riots evolved into a demand for Black Power, which sometimes meant different things to many blacks. Some African Americans saw Black Power as a necessary violent response to injustice, but other people envisioned the movement as a way to embrace racial self-reliance and racial dignity and pride. While some members of the black community wanted a more violent defense against white racism and aggression toward blacks, other members of the black community saw Black Power as a way to achieve more political and economic power. Black Power also called upon blacks to take pride in their heritage. The movement divided into two primary groups, one that demanded black separation and economic and political self-reliance, and a second group that focused on integration and a true colorblind society, in which no individual's color or ethnicity was a defining feature of life. Giovanni's early poetry reflected the more militant side of Black Power, but in her poem “Ego-Tripping,” she moves more solidly into the nonviolent approach of Black Power by embracing black pride as a primary theme. Eventually the Black Power movement led to white women adopting some of the nonviolent protest strategies of Black Power to fuel the Women's Rights Movement.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

As has been the case with most poetry, Giovanni's collections were rarely reviewed by book critics, especially her earlier books. There are other ways, however, to evaluate the impact that her work has on her readers. In 1968, Giovanni self published her first two books of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement. The second book sold 6,000 copies within the first six months, with Giovanni distributing the book in a limited area. In a 1973 Ingenue essay that focuses on Giovanni's poetry, Lorraine Dusky notes that “Publishing houses consider a poetry book to be doing well if it sells 2,500 copies in a year.” By self-publishing her books, Giovanni had only limited distribution contacts, and so her feat of selling so many books, over twice as many as were typically sold, was a remarkable achievement that suggests she had already found a supportive audience. In Racism 101, Giovanni herself writes that she self-published her first books because she feared rejection, but as it turned out, that would not prove to be a problem. By the time that she published My House in 1972, she was already a popular and bestselling author. In a 2002 Black Issues Book Review article about Giovanni's work, Samiya Bashir comments that Giovanni's live readings of her poetry “rivaled the popularity of Amiri Baraka,” the iconic poet and dramatist of the 1950s and 1960s. “Ego-Tripping.” was included in the My House collection, which according to Bashir was “a watershed with an unheard of 50,000 copies, an unprecedented printing for a black poet at the time” (1972). In 1973, Giovanni staged a celebration at New York's Philharmonic Hall to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. In a combination of poetry readings and music, Giovanni entertained a sold out audience with readings that included selections from My House. In a review of the concert for the New York Times, columnist Laurie Johnston refers to “Ego-Tripping.” as “an audience favorite” and that the audience “clapped along in rousing rhythm” as it was read. Indeed, “Ego-Tripping” seems to be one of Giovanni's favorite poems, given her frequent readings of the poem. The audience's response to it at this 1973 concert suggests that it is a favorite with her readers as well.

CRITICISM

Sheri Metzger Karmiol

Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the University Honors Program. Karmiol is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In this essay on “Ego-Tripping,” Karmiol examines Giovanni's poem as an anthem for women, a call to power and strength.

It is tough to undo a history of misogyny (hatred towards women) and patriarchy (male power structures) that promote women as weak vessels, whose words and actions put men at risk. Although it means combating a tradition of subordinating women that extends back thousands of years, the feminist movement has, since the early 1970s, tried to provide a voice for women that offers hope, provides strength, and suggests ways to fight for greater equality. Feminism does not, however, speak for all women, as writers and activists such as bell hooks (born Gloria Jean Watkins) and Nikki Giovanni have both stated in interviews and essays. These two women use their voices to argue for change for black women, but they do it in dramatically different ways. Where hooks insists that society change and that all women work together to demand an end to patriarchy, sexism, racism, and inequality, Giovanni calls for change from within. Giovanni's poem, “Ego-Tripping,” is a call to power and equality through pride. It is an anthem for black women, with its effort to inspire pride in women's lives. These are women whose lives are filled with accomplishments that need to be acknowledged. “Ego-Tripping,” celebrates all that women can, have, and should achieve.

WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Nikki Giovanni's Black Judgement and Black Feeling, Black Talk (both 1968) are her first collections of poetry. They are representative of her early revolutionary writing.
  • Nikki Giovanni's Racism 101 (1994) is a collection of essays in which Giovanni writes about what it means to be a black American and how she feels about her experiences with race and racism.
  • African-American Music: An Introduction (2005), edited by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, is a collection of thirty essays that explore the various genres of African-American music, including the music of slaves and religious hymns, both of which are interests of Giovanni.
  • A History of Ancient Egypt: An Introduction (1999), edited by Eric Hornung and translated by David Lorton, offers a good opportunity for readers to learn more about the country and events that Giovanni references in her poem. This book is filled with wonderful information about the history of ancient Egypt, including information about the society, politics, and artistic world of the ancient Egyptians.
  • Sharon F. Patton's African-American Art (1998) includes information about the artistic achievements of black Americans, including art from the 1800s and 1900s created by both slaves and freemen.
  • John Reader's Africa: A Biography of the Continent (1999) is a concise but thorough history of Africa. The book takes a multidisciplinary approach that includes history, anthropology, geology, and geography, as well as several other fields.
  • At Giovanni's personal website, the author has provided audio files of some of her poetry readings, as well as links to other websites with additional biographical information: http://nikki-giovanni.com/index.shtml.

In bell hooks' book, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, hooks makes clear that her view about feminism, with its inability and lack of any desire to help black women, is especially negative. Hooks states that black women knew “that they were never going to have equality within the existing white supremacist capitalistic patriarchy.” This is because the feminist movement had differing visions of what equal rights could be for women. Those whom hooks calls “reformist thinkers” wanted gender equality, while those women whom she labels “revolutionary thinkers” wanted to also end patriarchy and sexism. The reformist group, according to hooks, demanded rights for women “within the existing class structure.” In other words, the feminist movement, who were largely composed of reformists, abandoned black women because many white women were willing to settle for some equality in the workforce, and less male domination, and were not willing to risk losing what few gains they had won by pushing for more equality for all women. These early feminists were willing to settle for less, according to hooks, because it was in their best interests to maintain a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” since doing so allowed white women to “maximize their freedom within the existing system.”

This approach to equality does not benefit women who are poor or lower class or who are the objects of discrimination. Feminism, suggests hooks, has had no interest in helping lower class women, poor women, or women of color, since it did not benefit middle and upper class white women to do so. Hooks's bitterness is especially evident in her claim that these few privileged women “could count on there being a lower class of exploited subordinated women to do the dirty work they were refusing to do.” In her condemnation of those women who use feminism only to advance their own lives, hooks maintains that women with more social standing chose to abandon their less fortunate sisters, who have not yet achieved parity. According to hooks, white women cannot continue to abandon black women and must work with women of color for equality. She states that feminism is not about equality for some women but about equality for all women, and to achieve that equality requires rejecting sexism.

The issue of class is an important one to consider in discussing feminism. For women of higher socioeconomic class, only the right to careers and promotions equal to those given to men matter, but for many women, who are forced to work to survive, equality of salary is the issue. Many women don't have the option to just stay home; they must work and they need to earn what men earn. A study in 2007 by two Vanderbilt University professors reported that men continue to earn more than women for doing the same work. This was true in many fields, including accountanting, insurance sales, editing, and reporting, where women earned from 63 percent to 81 percent of their male colleagues' salaries. Women physicians, lawyers, and teachers also earn less than men, between 73 percent and 86 percent of their male colleagues' salaries, with teachers actually having the closest parity at 86 percent of male salaries.

Hooks is angry at white women whom she feels have forgotten their minority sisters; her perception is that the feminist movement has become more about maintaining patriarchy for men who felt threatened by feminists' demands than for equality for all women. This view of feminism as a white women's movement is one that Giovanni shares with hooks. In an interview with Diana Loercher, originally printed in the Christian Science Monitor and reprinted in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, Giovanni tells Loercher that she “sees the women's liberation movement as ‘very white.’” This is because black women do not yet possess all of those things that white women say are not enough. The majority of women who want equal rights are not poor; they are not needy; they are not the women who still lack housing, food, and basic necessities, which is still the condition of many black women. In a Black American Literature Forum interview with Carrington Bonner, Giovanni once again addresses feminism and the divisions between white and black women in the movement for equal rights. In responding to Bonner's query about why there are so few black women involved in the feminist movement, Giovanni responds that black women are interested in equality, and in fact, she argues that there “can't be a women's movement without Black women.” Giovanni further suggests that “the feminist movement didn't recruit or have Black women in leadership roles,” which accounts for some of the disparity of involvement for black women. However, Giovanni also claims that black women are still struggling for basic rights that are not on the feminist agenda. For instance, according to Giovanni, feminists “were arguing to be bank executives while we wanted to be in a position to have a bank account.” Like hooks, Giovanni argues that the feminist movement was too narrowly focused on equality between men and women, without solving the problems of poorer women and those who need basic assistance.

One way that Giovanni has worked to deal with the class struggle and inequities of black life has been in her efforts to shape black identity into a more positive force through her poetry. Changing people's perception of themselves is sometimes the first step in changing their lives. One benefit of the black power movement of the late 1960s was the way that it transformed into a black pride movement. Those people who did not see violent and militant actions as the solution to prejudice and hate, saw racial pride as a viable way to fight the system. Giovanni sees a natural link between being a woman, being black, and having pride in all aspects of life. Her poem, “Ego-Tripping,” presents a strong feminine speaker who is not afraid to say “I am a beautiful woman” or “I am the one who would save,” because that is how she sees herself. That is what makes her strong, and indeed, her “strength flows ever on,” especially as a mother. In her essay in Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women's Poetry, Virginia C. Fowler suggests that “Ego-Tripping” “exuberantly illustrates” that Giovanni's pride is “in her racial identity,” which “is due to her perception and experience of it as a female.” She does not separate being female from being black; nor does she see limitations that define her life based either on race or gender. She published her own first books of poetry, borrowing money to do so, when she thought that no one else would publish her work. She refused to fail. She had a child when she wanted one, defying a society that in 1970 condemned unwed mothers, and she rejected marriage because she did not want to be married. Fowler claims that “In her own personal life, Giovanni has consistently challenged traditional gender expectations, both those based on white norms and those based on black ones.” Fowler points to the women in Giovanni's life, especially her grandmother, who taught her “that women are the leaders for social change, the activists,” as an important source of her strength. In her earlier poetry, according to Fowler, “Giovanni's celebrations of blackness have tended to be highly inflected by gender, so that ‘black’ seems to become almost synonymous with ‘female.’” Her inability to separate race and gender is a primary way in which Giovanni's view of self merges to form a positive sense of identity that confronts inequality.

Giovanni feels very strongly that every person needs to deal with racism, inequality, and injustice. In a conversation with Frederick D. Murphy, originally published in the Encore American & Worldwide News and reprinted in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, Giovanni states that “I don't want to be the one Black who did not carry her end.” Her activism, which is evident in her prose works like Racism 101 and in her poetry are ways that she can “carry her end” in the fight for equality. In Peter Bailey's article for Ebony magazine, Giovanni says that black artists have a responsibility to “tell it like it can and should be.” This does mean, according to Giovanni, that black artists do not need to provide solutions to black problems. And in fact, “Ego-Tripping” does not provide an overt call to action or suggest in any way that the speaker/poet can solve anyone's problems. Instead, the poem is about ego and about being proud. Bailey notes that Giovanni has “an ego, a super one,” which of course is also evident in her poem, since the title is all about her “ego.” Bailey also points out that Giovanni “considers herself a good poetess,” who once has been quoted as saying “I'm an arrogant bitch, culturally speaking.” She is proud of her talent, but the phrase “culturally speaking,” also suggests that she is proud of her heritage and her life, and most importantly, proud of herself as a black woman.

For Giovanni, poetry is one way to assert that she is in control of her life. It is also how she claims pride in who she is. In “Ego-Tripping,” Giovanni uses her goddess speaker to claim that she can control the production of riches and the creation of magnificent rivers and deserts. Using language as art, then, is one way that black women can showcase strength and power. Giovanni does it with poetry; other women do it with music. In a South Atlantic Quarterly discussion of how black women use music to assert their authority and power, Marcyliena Morgan points out the “power of women to discursively claim a space and challenge both patriarchy and feminism was born during the discursive struggles of the black power movement.” Black pride, then, was born out of the black power movement, when blacks decided that they no longer needed, in Morgan's words, “to speak in a deferential manner” to whites. This led to music that confronted prejudice and promoted strength and achievement. Morgan suggests that this new black discourse confronted white supremacy and “asserted a black presence … that reflected a different consciousness and a sense of entitlement.” Language no longer subordinates women; now, through poetry and music, language provides power and freedom. Black women, according to Morgan, “have worked to reframe family, womanhood, relationship, and sexuality to guarantee their right to represent women within the American life.” Giovanni is one of those women whose actions have redefined definitions of womanhood, especially what it means to be a black woman. Giovanni has not only helped women to imagine achievement and reignite black pride; she has also paved the way for another generation of women, who can now redefine themselves through her words and each can claim that she, too is “a beautiful woman.”

Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on “Ego-Tripping,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.

Diana Loercher and Nikki Giovanni

In the following 1973 essay, Loercher explains that Giovanni's poetry has evolved from the poetry of a black militant writer to the poetry of a woman who is proud of her black heritage. Indeed, Giovanni tells Loercher that her poetry has become more focused on people than on ideology.

In her poem “Ego-tripping,” Nikki Giovanni writes, “I am a gazelle so swift / So swift you can't catch me.”

The image lingers, for Miss Giovanni resembles a gazelle, with her topaz skin, lustrous eyes, and nervous grace.

It is rare to become a successful poet before the age of 30, and the fact that Miss Giovanni is black and a woman makes her achievement all the more unusual.

Raised in a middle-class family in Cincinnati, and a graduate of Fisk University, Miss Giovanni is the author of five books of poetry and a biographical essay about her grandmother called Gemini, nominated for a national book award this year. She also has received an honorary doctorate from Wilberforce University, and an award for outstanding achievement from Mademoiselle magazine. She now is an editorial consultant for Encore magazine.

One of her many speaking engagements recently brought her to Town Hall in New York City for a poetry reading. She easily charmed the audience with her earthy wit, incisive perceptions, and disarming candor, all delivered, like her poems, in a melodic, honey-tone voice.

Miss Giovanni's early poems, written in the turbulent '60s and collected under the title Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement are the poems of a black militant: angry, bitter, violent protests against racial injustice.

But gradually, as in her most recent book, My House, she has turned toward more personal and universal themes, and now deals with social ideas from a broadened perspective. Her poems now radiate black pride and woman pride—and also, most importantly, self-pride, that both depends on these categories and transcends them.

Miss Giovanni is a dedicated individualist who seems to value most highly (next to love perhaps) ideals of respect, responsibility, and flexibility.

In an interview held after the reading, the slender poet, who in certain lights looks like a 16-year-old, attributed the change in her poetry to “old age.”

“I think that I've had a logical growth, a logical progression. I don't know how long I could have kept writing the poems that I wrote, and I think that certainly my son's had an effect on my world outlook. Children have a way of softening you, I should think.”

Miss Giovanni continues, “I'm not trying to say that I'm 80—don't misunderstand—but a 21-29-year-old is very different from a person 30-39, and I don't like people who are 30 years old acting like they're 20. I don't believe in it.

“I think I'm now in what Victoria, [her press agent] and I call my ‘love period,’” says Miss Giovanni. “Black poets traditionally don't write love poems … But black people do fall romantically in love. I think I'm more interested now in exploring people than I am in exploring ideologies—mostly because I've explored the ideologies, and there's a limit. It's always going to come back to you—no matter who you are, no matter what you believe in—it's going to come back to you.”

Miss Giovanni feels that love for the individual and love for humanity “go hand in hand … But I don't think that you should ever confuse the two. I don't think you can ever approach a group passionately. There has to be some body.

But there is a residual that comes back and forth. In terms of black people, they've given a lot to me so that I do have a lot to give back. They call forth what I would consider the best in me, and I try to give back what I consider the best. In our case love is what we have and what we must built on.” These sentiments echo a line from one of her most famous poems, “Nikki-Rosa”: “Black love is Black wealth.”

When Miss Giovanni speaks of her three-year-old son Thomas, her face softens and the extent of his influence on her life is obvious. Some of her poems she has written for and about him.

Miss Giovanni does not consider herself a feminist, in the current sense of the term. She sees the women's liberation movement as 'very white, and I think that's probably as it should be. What black women have called drudgery white women are now viewing in terms of liberation. And certainly the issues of child-care centers … and equal pay are not new ones, and they're not something we have forgotten. These have been constant problems in our community because our community is a female-based community.

She continues, “I'm sympathetic of course … I think it has relevance to white women, and I wish them the best of luck. But I think it's going to be a long time before they have any black women involved in it or before black women and white women come together, because there's a lot of emotion.

“In my community if I would take the average woman and say, ‘Okay, what do you want,’ she wants a fur coat. And she wants a house. And she wants dresses. And she wants all the things that you all don't want. And you all sit there and say to her, ‘What do you need with it? It doesn't make you happy.’ It makes her happy. And if I'm going to talk to her I'm going to say exactly what I tried to say today, ‘Hey, you can have it, if that's what makes you happy.’

“My grandmother all of her life wanted a set of sterling silver for six so that she could set her table with sterling silver. I said she was going to have sterling silver for six before she died, and she was going to set her table with it. And you can laugh and say it's ridiculous—all of that. She wanted it and it was my responsibility, if I was going to be responsible, to get it, which I did.

“Feminism says, ‘Hey, you don't need it.’ I know when I'm talking to those ladies that they need it. And I say, ‘Hey, feminism says you can have it.’ That's the ideological breakdown.”

As for black people in general in the United States, Miss Giovanni does not feel that conditions have improved and is “very pessimistic about the President. I'm not happy. I'm not happy about any civil liberties. I'm not happy about the commitment that the administration refuses to make to anybody …”

She also points out that blacks, like white liberals, traditionally fear success, which they equate with corruption, and that they are “geared for failure.” But her attitude toward the future of black people is not one of resignation or despair.

“I think that in terms of black people as a group it's out there. It's just that nobody's going to hand it to you. It's a lot of work. But if you want it, do it. The worst that can happen is that you fail. It is better to fail, I think, trying to do something than to fail because you say ‘I'm gonna be cool. I ain't gonna try it.’ You're still a failure.”

Miss Giovanni speaks of her son as, in a sense, a microcosm of black manhood and black destiny. “I think that in terms of my baby he has the same chance that I had because he's probably receiving a very similar upbringing to mine. His chances are as good as my chances as long as he can understand, and it's certainly something that I would try to teach him, that there are responsibilities. Most people, I think, are not willing to shoulder responsibilities.

“Where I sympathize most with men is that there's nothing in the system that says that they can be wrong. There's nothing that says a man can say, ‘I made a terrific mistake, and I'm sorry,’ or, ‘That hurt,’ and sit down and cry. And I would hope, speaking of the feminist movement, that one of the things they'd do is give men the same space that they need. And I would hope that my son is enough of a man to be able to cry, to be able to be wrong, because once you can be wrong then you can be terrifically right. If you always have to be right, then you have to be safe which means you'll never do anything.”

Source: Diana Loercher and Nikki Giovanni, “Nikki Giovanni's Poems Radiate Black Pride, Woman Pride,” in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, edited by Virginia C. Fowler, University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 61-64.

Charles Hobson, Sheila Smith, and Nikki Giovanni

In the following interview, which took place very early in Giovanni's career, the poet talks about being a writer and teacher, as well as her reluctance to define herself or others according to how black they are.

Nikki Giovanni is a poet. To be more descriptive, she is (according to other publications) a revolutionary poet. When we asked what does the word “revolutionary” mean in relation to poetry (in relation to anything for that matter), Nikki replied this way:

“We (I) can't really be revolutionary anything without a revolution. I prefer to call myself a black writer, but I have no objections to the term “revolutionary” at all … All black poets, writers, etc., are revolutionary in the sense that they are read in print, seen in film, work in television. We're in places and doing things we've never done before. That's revolutionary. Besides, it doesn't hurt for people to get used to the word.”

Nikki has published her own work, two paperbound books of poetry entitled Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement. She did so not because she couldn't find a publisher (actually, she admits that she didn't even look for one), but because she prefers to control her own product. Nikki feels also that by publishing her own work it is made more available to the people who want to read it.

“All black artists must be responsive to their community … politically. An artist has to come out of his community.”

Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tenn. She's been writing for most of her 25 years … not only poems but short stories, novellas and essays. She studied at Fisk University. Did she study writing and poetry?

“No, I never studied poetry. Writing classes kill your writing.”

Nikki refuses to deal in negativism (as far as black people are concerned). She is one “revolutionary” writer who doesn't care to get into the who's-blacker-than-who game often played (with uneasy glee) by some “self-styled” revolutionaries.

“Why should I get into if Sidney Poitier is a black actor or if Julia is a black show. They're no less black than Black Fire (recently released book of black poetry) or Uptight. At least they reach millions of people while I only reach a few.

“We can't afford to be negative. You have to take care of business where you are.”

Many poets deal with the religious experience, in one form or the other. Does Nikki Giovanni?

“I'm spiritual. I can't negate religion (established). I believe in God. I believe that God is everywhere. God is love. I believe that God has to be black. He made people in His image and likeness. Most of the people of the world are black. I believe that the Church is a great archive of black music. I wouldn't go to a church that didn't have black music. I dig Gospel, especially James Cleveland, he's saying a whole lot.

“Dr. King was a religious man. That's why he was so great because he was a Christian (he proved that you can really be a Christian). He was the last Christian.”

There's a lot of talk about women's rights. What says Miss Giovanni about that?

“I don't deal with that. Black people are oppressed. Slaves are slaves. My role as a black woman is to be free … by any means.”

Nikki teaches at Queens College in New York City. She teaches English Literature and her class is reading books by black artists. Since she is very close to the current demands of black students for black studies (she teaches in the SEEK program which is geared towards black and Puerto Rican students), we asked her views on this.

“It's just a black way of looking at things. There is a black way of looking at things. We have the right to learn—like the white student—within our own cultural environment. It makes it easier to learn.”

Another typical interview question: “Why do you write?” This caught the articulate Nikki Giovanni off guard. Long pause. A big grin.

“Writing is what I do best. We're writers because we don't have any skills.”

A lot of writers can truly say this, but not Nikki Giovanni. She has a skill … the skill of the written word … the skill of the beauty and the power of words and the ugliness of words and the weakness of words. Words are usually so much scribbling on the naked paper. People like Nikki Giovanni make them more. They make them convictions, commitments, truths … sometimes not so pretty; they make them black realities.

Source: Charles Hobson, Sheila Smith, and Nikki Giovanni, “The Poet and Black Realities,” in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, edited by Virginia C. Fowler, University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 3-5.

Arlene Elder and Nikki Giovanni

In the following excerpt from a 1982 interview, Giovanni discusses her relationship with Africa, how poetry evolves over time, what it's like to have her own poetry taught in classes, and the responsibility of the writer.

Throughout her career, Nikki Giovanni's poetry has been valued, at least in part, as a touchstone to the latest political and artistic ideas in Black American writing. She, however, never considered herself a spokesperson for any group. She says she is a “we” poet whose work might reflect the thoughts of others but judges it the height of “arrogance” to assume one is the “voice” of a people; people, she is confident, can speak perfectly well for themselves. She feels that her poetry is richer now because she understands more than she did when she was younger; as if to accommodate that fuller understanding, she is experimenting with longer pieces, some of 1200 to 1500 lines. Her forthcoming book is Those Who Ride The Night Winds, to be published later this year by William Morrow.

Interviewer: I was interested in your trip to Africa. Have you been there several times?

Giovanni: I've been there three times.

Interviewer:interested particularly in terms of your poetry and if you found that it affected your poetry in ways other than as subject matter. I am thinking of perhaps more of an emphasis on orality than you were conscious of previously.

Giovanni: No. No more than Mexico or Europe, or, probably, the moon. No. Of course, you are always conscious, just because of the nature of the African continent, that you are on the oldest continent and the richest, and that you're with the first people on earth who were, in fact, civilized, but you don't all of a sudden say, “Oh, now I'm a part of that; there's a tradition here.” No, I don't think so.

First of all, it would be very difficult for me to be anything other than western, you know, because I am. I'm not wedded to tradition. I think that when we consider poetry, period, the nature of poetry, if we go pre-biblical, of course, we are going to get right into the African experience. And, of course, the oral arts in Africa are at an extremely high level. So you do have this involvement with the spoken word. I think that that is important, but I also think it's important to be able to write something down, so I don't have any conflict. It doesn't make my day, and it doesn't break it.

Interviewer: Has your attitude toward your relationship to Africa changed over the years, after your firsthand experience there?

Giovanni: I really don't think I have a relationship with Africa. I think I have a relationship with my mother, my son, a number of other things; I don't think I have a relationship with the continent. I enjoy traveling in Africa. I'm so happy: from the first time I went in 1972, until now, it's much cheaper to go, and one is more capable of going. And you don't really have to go through Europe; you can actually go from New York to Dakar without having to stop over, make what amounts to a courtesy stop in Europe. And I think that probably anybody who likes to travel would choose to travel to Africa at some point. I think to not go is a great loss. You are, as I said, on the richest continent, and you are among the first of civilized man. And I think that's an important part of your experience. I also feel, though, it's equally important to do other parts of the earth. I'm really looking forward to going to Antarctica. It's environmentally sound. I don't want you, or anyone, to think that I am denigrating Africa. Some people say, “well, why doesn't she have a relationship with Africa?” or “why doesn't she have her day made by going?” What I'm just trying to say is that you have to recognize, first of all, in 1982, Earth is a very small planet, and what we do is involve ourselves so that we are properly educated. I would still be remiss in my intellectual growth if I only did Africa. I would certainly be remiss if I did not do it. But it is not sufficient unto itself. We have to move around and utilize the best of all cultures.

I happen to be in an art that is almost overwhelmingly African because the poets started there. The first codification, of course, that western man recognizes is the Bible, and of course, we're still on the African continent—never understood how that became the Middle East, when the map says to me that it is Africa. You can see that, and we're very proud of it, but we also recognize that there are changes that have been made in the profession, and that those changes also are necessary to the life of the profession, in order for art to be serious, if I can use that-there must be a better word—to be viable. It has to remain alive; it has to remain adaptive to whatever forms. I have, of course, recorded some of my poetry: to gospel music in one case, and contemporary music, and some other albums just as a straight reading. It would be ridiculous, the only word I can think of, that I would live in an electronic age and not choose to electronically transmit my voice. That doesn't mean that I'm going to have the number-one-best-selling record. It's not likely at all; if I did, it would certainly be a fluke. But you do seek to use the tools that are available to you at that time. Always. You can't be so, I think the term is, purist. You get those people that say, “I would never print a book,” and I'm sure that when the printing press came, “that's not the way you do it.” And people continue to think that. I think that our obligation is to use whatever technology is available, because whether or not art is able to be translated tells us something about whether or not it's, in fact, living, whether or not it's part of us.

Interviewer: Whether it can be translated from one form to another, you mean?

Giovanni: To some degree. That's not the test of it, but to some degree. We were talking about a Shakespeare or a Don Quixote, particularly Don Quixote, but it has lasted so long. Not to denigrate Don Quixote, but essentially it's your basic soap opera. Every evening, the Spanish Court would gather, and somebody would read it. Well, it had to be interesting; it had to be true; it had to be something that people could connect to. And that's what you try to do. Now, I don't know that Don Quixote would make a great movie. Of course we did make it into a play, and I think we've done variations on the theme. I'm saying that you don't write for one medium to turn it into another. What I'm trying to say is that, as we are evolving, as the species evolves, we try to make use of all media. So if I were a poet when Gutenberg invented his press, I would say, “let me recite this, and you write it down, and we'll get it printed. And we'll see what this becomes,” because you don't want to ignore the possibilities.

Interviewer: And if I understand you correctly, what you see remaining is that human quality that you said is essential for vital art to continue.

Giovanni: Well, people have made changes. You take a poem like the Iliad which was composed over some 400 years by a variety of people. We give Homer credit because Homer started it, and I'm sure Homer is delighted to take credit for it. But it kept evolving, because it was a poem being recited. And just a mere translation, just coming from Greek into anything else, just coming from Athens into Sparta would change it as much as coming from New York into Atlanta. So that what you have is something that, in fact, is alive. And it is alive because it has met the test of people.

Interviewer: It's curious, isn't it, that something like the Aeneid or the Odyssey, maybe even something like Don Quixote, meets the definition of what we now call “folk art,” in the very real sense. And yet, “folk art” is not considered serious. Folk art is not important; it's not high art. What do you think happened in the course of our, as a people, listening to poetry, participating in poetry, that changed somebody's mind, anyway, about what was serious and what was not?

Giovanni: The rise of the merchant class. I really do. They did a lot for art. I don't take that away, because they were essentially an unlettered group, and what they did was to go out and purchase it, and at some points they were purchasing that which they understood. And as we got into “keeping up with the Joneses,” it would almost be: “Well, my poet read this poem last night”; “Well, my poet read this poem!” Neither one of them gave a damn … But what we got into was more and more exotic, and the poets began, of course, to read for each other: “Anybody can do what you did. Let me show you what I've done.”

Interviewer:I don't know if you know this or not, but you're being taught in a course at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville as an Appalachian writer.

Giovanni: Oh, that's fine. I was born in Knoxville. I think that's marvelous.

Interviewer: Do you ever think of yourself that way? You're being taught by a novelist named Wilma Dykeman, who is herself an Appalachian writer.

Giovanni: No, I didn't know that. I think that's great. You know, Agee is from Knoxville also, James Agee. Knoxville, for a little city, has produced a number of people that have done—I think—extremely well. I don't have any problem with being an Appalachian. I don't think of myself——I'm not particularly outdoorsy. We were talking about my nephew earlier. That would make his day, because he is off backpacking to Montana or something. I basically consider myself pretty urban, but because of birth I'm a Southerner, or in this particular case, I'm an Appalachian, actually, because the Tennesseeans are very different from the rest of the South. Well, Tennessee is the Volunteer State, because Tennessee went with the Union. So you go up into the mountains, and you've got a whole other situation altogether. So you had West Virginia seceding from Virginia, you know; you get into that kind of thing. I think it's interesting.

I think that birth largely has to be considered an accident; I don't know another way around it. It's just a way of identifying. If it's not going to be positive, then it's pointless, because nobody chose the circumstances under which they were born, nor the place, nor the parents to whom they were born, nor their gender, nor any of that. So if it's not going to be a positive identification, then you really should let it go.

Interviewer: And yet it's so hard to let go for many people, isn't it?

Giovanni: Well, there is something you can do about it; you can change your behavior, if not your attitude. But I think, yes, we as a species need to let go, because it's enough that we do in life what we are responsible for. Somebody said, “we were calling you into account. Certainly we should not call you into account for your race, or your age, or your gender. You had nothing at all to do with that. You just happened to have survived. And the only reason we can complain about that is that you are alive. Because, if you weren't we wouldn't.” On the other hand, I certainly see no reason that we should reward you, particularly for any of those three things. It's unacceptable that we continue to reward men for having been male. They didn't sit up in babyland and say, “well I think I'll be a boy, or I think I'll be a girl.” It doesn't work out that way, so that we cannot continue to punish and reward people based upon something that they have absolutely no control over. It's illogical, just one of the things that human beings need to learn, and I should imagine at some point we will let go.

Interviewer: I hope so, but we were speaking earlier about the illogicality of human beings.

Giovanni: The rather interesting thing to me—I am a “Trekkie”—is that either we're going to come to a basic new understanding of what it is to be a human being, or we're going to destroy ourselves. So, I'm not blasé, but we would have to move away from a lot of things and pretty much all at once. We're talking race, gender, and age. It's not my fault I was born in the United States, and I shouldn't be disproportionately rewarded as to the world's minerals because of that. If that's the case, then everybody, all the little babies sitting up in baby heaven, will say, “well, I'm not gonna do Southeast Asia; I'm not gonna do Latin America. I want to go to the United States where I can disproportionately use up resources.” It just doesn't happen. And I think it's time that we shut down the industrial age. We are really quite capable right now. We're moving into robotics and cybernetics, and it's time that we let go. I'm not picking on the industrial age, but that's when you've got your little machine, and then you run out, and you get your colonies so that you can take their raw materials, and then you can send the manufactured goods back. And all of that is just tiresome. It's moved us along, and I don't have a quarrel with history, otherwise you'd spend all of your time debating whether or not your mother should have had you. But if it did move us along, it cannot now. What it does, it leads to irreconcilable conflicts which frequently erupt into some level of war, which increases the possibility of a great error.

Interviewer: Of total destruction?

Giovanni: Oh sure. Which would not surprise me. I'm much too cynical and much too aware of the nature of human beings to be surprised, but it would be a disappointment, because it is not necessary. For what we are trying to hold on to and what that offers us, as opposed to what we can possibly become, it's just not necessary to hold on to the 15th century the way that we're doing it.

Interviewer: Do you think it's possible for writers to express their convictions strongly enough or imaginatively enough to change the mind of anybody?

Giovanni: I don't think that writers ever changed the mind of anybody. I think we always preach to the saved. Someone from the Post asked me, how would I describe myself, and I said, “I'm a preacher to the saved.” And I don't think that anybody's mind has ever been changed. It has been enhanced by an already-meeting-of-the-minds. When the reader picks up the book and proceeds to begin a relationship, it will proceed based upon how that book and that reader are already in agreement. Because almost nobody really reads anything that they are totally … I mean, I couldn't read a position paper about the Ku Klux Klan.

Interviewer: You mean, you, literally, could not get through it?

Giovanni: I wouldn't even try. Why? Because I already know. To me it's like reading—which I guess I shouldn't say to you like this—, but it's like reading anti-abortion literature. I'm totally in opposition to their position. Unless I can read a headline that says they bring something new to the table, then no, I'm not going to do that, because I already know where they are, and what I'm going to do is look for a strengthening of my position, where I am. And everybody does that.

And again, I'm out of the tradition of the sixties that sort of crazily believed that there would be the poem that would free everybody. You would say to those people, “listen, fellows, that's not going to happen.” The big term, of course, was “sell out,” and everybody that didn't do what certain groups wanted—you know, Leroi Jones and all of them—everybody that didn't sort of hew the Black aesthetic line had “soldout.” No. There will never be the poem that will free mankind. We would be fools … anybody that thinks that is a fool. And I don't really know another term for that.

Anybody that thinks any one thing or one person can make a difference in your life … If we could crucify Jesus, you know, whom we recognize in the western world as being the Son of God, then you know we would shoot down everybody. Now there are people who charismatically do make a difference. We were talking about holding two [opposing] thoughts, but I do that a lot. There are people who charismatically embody an age. But they didn't create the age. They personified it, and people often overlook that. They really think somebody … they really think Disraeli made [his age]. He didn't. He was the one who could personify it. Or Jack Kennedy. Now, I happen to like the Kennedys. I find them interesting people to read about. But Jack didn't make the sixties. Nor did Martin Luther King. We honor them, and we recognize them, because they personify the best within us. But they didn't create it. It was the little old ladies that said. “I'll walk,” that made Martin Luther King. It was the kind that said, “even after his death we're antiwar. We're going to move even this image that we will maintain, but we're going to move it and make it much more.” People overlook that, because they think that you could do something. They'll tell you, “Fidel Castro liberated Cuba.” I'll be damned if he did, whatever you feel about Cuba. Fidel personifies that liberation. Therefore, to the Cuban people, it would probably be a loss had he been killed, say twenty years ago. I'm sure that they're ready to accept it now, not because Fidel was a loss, though of course it would be a loss to whomever loved him, but because he was the embodiment.

The same thing with our community. It was so unnecessary to shoot down Martin Luther King. And what happened there was that a man lost his life, but it was a message. And what it said was, “since we can't shoot a million people, we'll shoot this one, so that the million people will know that this is where we are.” And of course what you got from that was a perfectly logical response: “Mother Fucker, since you did that, we will get you.” So that you got, of course, the riots coming. There was no question that the Black community was going to respond to the white community. You sent the message, and we sent the answer. So that everybody said, “okay, well, tell you what, since I can't bring back my cities, and you can't bring back King, why don't we try peace.” And you just wish that people would function on that a little bit, and earlier. We recognize that at some point if the message is sent, and an answer is sent, that we still have to come back to peace.

Interviewer: Sounds to me, and correct me if I misunderstood you, that in all that, the role of the writer is very much like that of the historian rather than the prophet. Or possibly, the prophecy comes in—and I used the word, “role,” again, I realize, the function of the writer—is that the writer recognizes what you just expressed and communicates the meaning of some chaotic event or historical circumstance in whatever way he does it, and people read that because they recognize the writer as someone in whom they trust and believe, and possibly as a result of reading the meaning of what has happened, they are going to understand a little bit more of what's going to take place next, or, they will understand a little bit more of the consequences of behavior the next time something comes up. Not that they necessarily agree with what the writer said, but they understand a little bit more. And that's about all the writer can expect?

Giovanni: About all the writer can expect is to be read. That would probably be what most of us get. I think the word I was looking for is “vitality.” You were using “role” and changed it to “function.” But I think that the vitality of the writer, for those of us who are contemporary writers, who are writing contemporaneously—because some of us are literary writers who are not,—is that we are just a little bit of both. We're a little bit of a prophet, and we are a little bit of the historian. And we're saying, “this is the meaning that we find. You have to take what you can.” We are not Marx; we're not sitting there saying, “A is A.” We're not Ayn Rand either. We're sitting there saying, “I saw this through my eyes.”

The word that you used that I do like is, “trust.” There are certain writers that no matter what they have to say, no matter how much in agreement you would be with them, you simply don't trust the writer. I hate a damned liar. I really don't care what you have to say, or how awful you might think it is, or how awful I might think it is, but I hate a damned liar. Once you have given up that, once you have given up your basic integrity, then you have given up that, once you have given up your basic integrity, then you really have nothing else to offer. And maybe that's harsh, and I don't intend to be harsh. But when Norman Mailer, for example, had to pay off Marilyn, the book Marilyn, because it was plagiarized, I don't know what Mailer could write that I would read. It was hard enough to be bothered with his chauvinism and his crap before that, but to recognize that the man would be in a profession, but would take the work of somebody else … There's just no way. It couldn't happen. I mean, Norman's spirit could descend in this room, and he could start to read from something, and I'd say, “well I have to leave.”

Because the only thing you bring, the only thing any of us, any professional brings, is your honesty. You don't mind that the patient died on the table, as long as the surgeon wasn't drunk. It's sad if he did. It's sad to you; it's sad to the patient. It's probably sad to the surgeon. But you feel like, “well he tried.” And in my profession, if you're not going to be honest … It's not that you ask the reader to spend, which I think is ridiculous, 15 dollars upwards for a book, but that you're asking them for their time. Because they can go get another 15 dollars. That's not hard to do. You really cannot give back time; you think about the time you spend with a book. I mean, I'm a reader. You'd feel raped to think that you involved your heart and your mind and your time, that there were things you could have been doing, and you were sitting there reading a book to find out that it's essentially dishonest. You honestly came to that book. You chose it, and that it's a lie? I mean, it's not acceptable. Absolutely unacceptable. The profession is not really strong enough to me on your basic plagiarism. I know lawyers who worry about lawyers who are essentially dishonest. Because you can't always win. Those of us who are writers can't always be prescient, but we can always be honest. So that if we make a mistake, if we misunderstand something, if we're journalists and don't see something, that's all right, because we know that what was brought to bear there is the best that we have. That's all any of us are going to do, because you're going to miss a few calls there. One reason you don't shoot the umpire is that you know the guy is watching the ball. Now if you have to feel that other team gave him 10 bucks, then there's no game. There's absolutely no way that we can play the game. And life I think is like that.

Interviewer: It's tremendously fragile, isn't it, because it is back to “trust.” We talked before about the formula, learning how to write the formula and just repeating it, repeating it. It takes a while for the reader to catch on that that's happening especially if that reader has read that writer before and has developed his trust and liking and is willing to invest not only 15 dollars, as you say, but the time and the emotional energy. And so it's really a very fragile kind of delicate thing between writer and reader.

Giovanni: I honestly think,—we were talking formula,—I think that formula is essentially dishonest. I'm not fighting with my fellow writers who are formula writers. I think it's essentially dishonest, but so is the circus, so is the Hall of Mirrors. And one of the things that I think happens to you when you are involved in that level of lazy writing is that you know what you're giving, and they know what they're getting. And I don't think that is a lack of trust. If I pick up a Frank Yerby, it's my fault. I'm not picking on Yerby, but it is, because I know exactly what he's going to do; What does the song say, “you knew I was a snake when you brought me in,”? I knew that. I happened to like Jacqueline Susann when I'm doing junk-like reading. I can pick up a Jackie Susann and know exactly what I'm going to get. I don't feel misused.

I think that is true of all of us. You kind of know what you're getting when you pick up a certain level of book. What I do have a serious problem with, though, is your basic plagiarism, because that is actually taking someone else's work and putting it off as yours. What we are saying here is that, if I'm Steven King, ninety percent of my writing is going to be macabre. Take it or leave it. I'm sure that he considers that he writes as honestly and as well as any of the rest of us. As a matter of fact, he has a lot more money to show for it. What I'm saying is, I don't think that's your basic rape, because it's Steven King. You might say that someone was unaware that all his books are just alike. But that is very, very hard to do. That is like saying I didn't learn anything from “LaVerne & Shirley” this week; I'm disappointed. You know damn well you are not going to learn anything from “LaVerne & Shirley” or whatever it is that you're doing on TV. That is not to say that all of television is a waste. It's just that you know if you turn on TV, seven to ten, you're going to get mostly crap, unless it's Thursday night and there is a show called “Fame,” which somehow or another is surviving; which makes my Thursdays. It's a great little show. I'm just saying, you've got to know that, and I don't think that that's the same level as your basic lie.

Interviewer: There is a distinction.

Giovanni: Sure. It's like your professor who reads the same notes every year. He's not lying. He says, “this is, for the level of energy that I'm willing to invest in this class, what you need to know. And if my notes have not changed in 5 years, that is not my problem. My subject hasn't changed, or at least it hasn't involved me.” But that is not a lie. That's not the guy who stands in the lab and manufactures results that he knows never came up. Sure. You get into that, and I think that has to be dealt with much more stringently. A professor of medieval poetry might be dull, but he's not lying.

Interviewer: It seems as if a very mysterious relationship exists between the reader and the writer, which is one, frequently, and I think, charmingly, of awe; that this person has the ability to use language that makes me put down my $15 or makes me take that book out of the library. Andthere is a love that develops there, because that person has that power over you, and trust, because any time you love, you want to trust.

Giovanni: I think that what essentially makes art so potentially dangerous is that it is totally egalitarian.

Interviewer: Explain that a little more.

Giovanni: Well, the term you use is “power,” that the person has power over you. I don't think so. As a matter of fact, the writer is totally vulnerable to people that we shall never see. We sit someplace and create something, or explain something, research, and develop certain ideas. We convince a publisher to publish it, or a museum to hang it, or a producer to put it on Broadway, and we are subject to the judgment of people who never even knew us. We could have been dead 800 years before somebody discovered us.

Last year, here in Cincinnati, last September, October, and I think a little bit in November, I did a program. I don't know really how to express it, but I was invited, and I went to a number of elementary schools here in Cincinnati. And the thing that surprised the kids was that I was alive. It may sound strange, but that was the biggest thing, and when you think about how many dead authors we read, it was really not unusual. Just last night, I was at Morehead State. Even going there, people are really looking at you like, “she's really alive,” and it's kind of strange. And, again, I think that the dangerous position is that we recognize not our power but people's power for themselves. The same way that I can sit here and decide whether or not Sy Hirsch, for Christ's sake, has written a creditable piece on Kissinger. That is a level of egalitarianism that most people don't have. Most people don't have to be bothered with that. Sy Hirsch should not have to worry about what some poet in Cincinnati thinks about his work. And I'm not saying that he does. I am just saying that I can make that judgment.

Interviewer: That certainly is a factor, but don't you feel power over your own interpretation of the world which really is not dependent upon how well someone else is going to agree with that?

Giovanni: Well, it really is, because if you are Ezra Pound and your interpretation of the world is markedly different from the country in which you happened to be born, you will find yourself adjudged insane, which is quite unfair. Do you understand? And that does happen, I think, frequently enough to make us take pause. You get into the whole thing with the Soviets and their writers and, of course, we with ours.We don't do ours the same way as the Soviets do, because what we do with ours is just buy them out. The end result is the same thing, and if we can't buy them out, we simply refuse to publish them; we kind of hound them out of the country, essentially. But it all amounts to the same thing. I think that I have a view of the world, that I have an obligation, if not just your basic right, to share. But I don't consider that, in any respect, that that connotes any power. I still have to go upstairs [even though] they're locking CETA out. I still have to go to IGA.

You know, the artist is not a god, and I mention Mailer because he's such a prototypical, awful artist. Of all the real dumb things that he's said recently, the most stupid had to be on the Jack Abbott case. As a writer, you just simply cringe that somebody is justifying murder because the guy can put three words together. It's totally unacceptable. The writer is not god. It's what we do for a living. It's not who we are. And I have a great resentment—you haven't ruffled my feathers on that one at all, but you will see the hairs on the back of my neck rise—because writing is not who I am. It is what I do. And I think that anybody who fails to separate what they do from who they are, and that is from Ronald Reagan to Lyndon Johnson to Pope John Paul to whomever, is in serious, mental trouble. You've got to separate yourself; unfortunately, a lot of people don't.

Interviewer: And a lot of the people who don't are Reagan, and Pope John, the people who are in power.

Giovanni: But, hey, lot of people don't.——The only reason we talk about the people in power is because that is who we know. You want to chart mental illness? We can go right up I-75 to Detroit and see a guy who has been laid off for six months who was a mechanic: who is nothing more. Now, we just don't talk about him, unless we are Studs Terkel. That appears to be a very human trait, but it also appears to be one that we have learned, because if we go back—again we are talking Africa or we go back to Chinese history, for two quickies and two good ones—you will see people and artisans, and what you did was not who you were.

Source: Arlene Elder and Nikki Giovanni, “A Melus Interview: Nikki Giovanni,” in Melus, Vol. 9, No. 3, Autumn 1982, pp. 61-75.

SOURCES

Bailey, Peter, “I am Black, Female, Polite …,” in Ebony, February 1972, pp. 49-56.

Bashir, Samiya, “Giovanni's World,” in Black Issues Book Review, Vol. 4, No. 6, November-December 2002, pp. 32-36.

Bonner, Carrington, “An Interview with Nikki Giovanni,” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring 1984, pp. 29-30.

Dusky, Lorraine, “Fascinating Woman,” in Ingenue, February 1973, pp. 20-24, 81, 83.

Fowler, Virginia C., “And This Poem Recognizes That: Embracing Contrarities in the Poetry of Nikki Giovanni,” in Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women's Poetry, University of Tennessee Press, 2002, pp.112-35.

Giovanni, Nikki, “Ego-Tripping,” in Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People, Lawrence Hill, 1973, pp. 3-5.

———, Racism 101, in The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni, Perennial, 2003, p. 508, originally published by Morrow, 1994.

hooks, bell, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, South End Press, 2000, pp. 37-43.

Johnston, Laurie, “For Nikki Giovanni, Her Poetry Is Her Way of Life,” in the New York Times, June 22, 1973, p. 19.

Loercher, Diana, “Nikki Giovanni's Poems Radiate Black Pride, Woman Pride,” in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, edited by Virginia C. Fowler, University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 61-64, originally published in the Christian Science Monitor, April 23 1973.

May, Herbert G., and Bruce M. Metzger, eds., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 9.

Morgan, Marcyliena, “Hip-Hop Women Shedding the Veil: Race and Class in Popular Feminist Identity,” in the South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 104, No. 3, Summer 2005, pp. 425-44.

Murphy, Frederick D., “Nikki,” in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, edited by Virginia C. Fowler, University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 104-12, originally published in the Encore American & Worldwide News, Vol. 4, May 5, 1975.

The Temptations, “I Can't Get Next to You,” lyrics by Norman J. Whitfield and Barrett Strong, produced by Norman J. Whitfield for Motown, EMI Music, 1969.

Wolf, Amy, “Why Do Women Earn Less than Men?; Two Vanderbilt Economists Explain This Persistent Issue and Show Which Professions Are Worst at Pay Parity,” http://www.sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/news/releases/2007/4/9/why-do-women-earn-less-than-men-two-vanderbilt-economists-explain-this-persistent-issue-and-show-which-professions-are-worst-at-pay-parity (accessed August 8, 2007).

FURTHER READING

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, Knopf, 2000.

This book presents a history of African-American life in the United States. The authors recount black history beginning with slavery's origins and exploring the kidnapping of men and women in Africa and leading up to the Civil Rights movement of the last half of the twentieth century. The authors have included maps, charts, and many illustrations.

Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr., et al, Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, Pantheon, 1992.

Toni Morrison wrote the introduction to this text, which is a collection of nineteen essays that deal with several aspects of black identity, civil rights, equality, and the public perception of race and gender equality. These essays explore important ideas about equality for black women, as well as illustrate that race and equality in the United States remains a complex issue for discussion.

Jago, Carol, Nikki Giovanni in the Classroom: “The Same Ol Danger but a Brand New Pleasure,” National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.

This book provides a number of suggestions for how to use Giovanni's poetry in the classroom. The author includes a number of Giovanni's poems and excerpts from several of her essays, along with suggestions about how to get students immersed and involved in Giovanni's poetry.

Sniderman, Paul M., and Thomas Piazza, Black Pride and Black Prejudice, Princeton University Press, 2004.

This book provides an often provocative look at race relations in the United States. The focus is on how black Americans view themselves and how they perceive that they are viewed by other groups. Some of the topics covered include black pride, black intolerance, and racism.

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