The understanding of the intersections between race, gender and national consciousness has long been part of the unique genius of one of the most celebrated poets of our complicated times. Nikki Giovanni has been shedding her light on our social consciousness through riveting literary work since graduating with honors from Fisk University in 1967.
The poet, activist and professor has reeled audiences into a world of power and self-awareness for decades. Now she’s captivating a new audience with new verses of grief, sorrow, laughter, growth and healing in her powerful new collection, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter.
She recalls her relationships with loved ones who have gone on, including her late mother, Yolande Cornelia Sr. She colorfully and sometimes playfully draws space and time through raw emotions. Giovanni’s writing extracts a pureness at heart, by expressing moments of truth that should provoke tears but that many so often repress.
“I know crying is a skill. … Maybe I will learn,” she writes. “My mother did when she thought I was asleep.”
Crying is necessary, as Giovanni expressed. Especially after the death of a family member, friends, loved ones or others who have made a deep and lasting impact on the lives of others.
“My mom died some years ago,” Giovanni told The Undefeated. “There’s so much to do, and you’re holding things in. And then my aunt died. And so again, you’re holding a lot in, you’re trying to get things done. I was thinking, you know, I could use a good cry. And my doctor’s always teasing me, and I tease him too. He’s a nice guy and he’s cute, and he’s always saying things like, you know, you have to learn to take it easy and stuff like that. And I thought, and said to Gregory at one point, I don’t think that I need to take it easy. I think that what I need to do is to learn to cry. And I’ll get it out. So he and I have been arguing about that ever since, because I think that everybody needs a good cry.”
A Good Cry reveals in-depth emotions about Giovanni’s thoughts on the late Ruby Dee, poet Maya Angelou, Fisk University, her roots, her home state of Tennessee, Black Lives Matter and even sports.
Giovanni’s work, as described on her website, has “spurred movements, turned hearts and informed generations. She’s been hailed as a firebrand, a radical, a healer, and a sage; a wise and courageous voice who has spoken out on the sensitive issues, including race and gender, that touch our national consciousness.”
Now, Giovanni takes readers to the most intimate part of her life: drawing the geography of her heart and how it has shaped her. She reveals her family history to put the reader into her development through childhood and adulthood. Her energy offers a glimpse into the mirror of her soul and yours.
Her selfless acts over the years are also displays of the respect she has for herself and others. Her arm bares the words “Thug Life” after the rapper Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas and later died in 1996.
Giovanni’s life is multitudes. She loves watching football. Her favorite sport is tennis. Included in her new collection are pieces about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Black Lives Matter, volleyball and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
How do you feel this particular piece of work differs from the other pieces in your body of work?
A Good Cry is more vulnerable. You know, as you grow older — I’m a big fan of growing old, by the way, and I think it’s important as you grow older, you’re learning more and you’re looking at the world a little differently. When you’re young, you’re impatient, you think, ‘Oh, I gotta get this done, I gotta get this done. I gotta make people understand.’ And then you start to get a little more mature, and it’s like, well, let me share this and let me share that. And I think that’s kind of wonderful to just to try to figure out where you are and how you’re going to go forward with it.
What do you think involves learning how to cry?
It helps to have a good friend, and so if you can cry with a good friend, you’ve got a really good thing going. But it also helps to just accept the fact that things are not going, or things are going as you, things, are changing. And you really want to make a difference. You want to let it out, and then you want to go take another step. And I’m at the stage now that several of my friends have lost their parents and or losing their aunts and uncles. You know, these things are going on. And it’s sad. And we’re always saying to people, oh, you’ll, it’ll be all right, you’ll get over it. But you won’t get over it, and it won’t be all right.
You have to deal with it, you have to bring it in and say, OK, this is why I’m upset, this is why I’m crying. And I think it’s important. And of course I love the blues, so the blues definitely lets you let it out. That’s why the blues was invented. It gets the emotion out. And I think A Good Cry is a much more emotional book than any of my other books.
I read your piece in The Huffington Post you wrote that really intersects race, sports and culture. And I really liked the last few lines of it. ‘Kneeling was a sign of love … our athletes who are kneeling and asking the Constitution, will you be mine?’ How do you think that sentiment can be communicated going forward by athletes?
The athletes are doing what they understand, what they want to do. They’re doing their job. I’m a football fan. And you are watching all the people in the stands, many of whom are of course not black. And they’re cheering for the players on the field, many of course who are. And then they’ll come off the field and not like black people. It’s like, you know, y’all got to get over it. If you’re going to cheer for us, then keep it up — you cheer on the field and off the field.
You were born the child of athletes. What’s your favorite sport?
Tennis. I used to play. I watch it. My mother was quite an exceptional tennis player, and she played during the days of segregation. They had the black tennis tournament, which was at Wilberforce. And Mommy made it to the finals one year and played Althea Gibson. Of course Miss Gibson defeated Mommy, but it was so great, she had the runner-up trophy. I wasn’t born then, but I love tennis. When Mommy was here, we went to the tournament every year. They have a tournament in Cincinnati just before the US Open.
Which tennis player do you love to watch most?
I am a big Venus [Williams] fan. Oh, my. If somebody said Venus is playing, you know, in Timbuktu and I’d say, ‘Oh, OK, if I can get a flight.’ I just love her; she’s such a classy young lady. And she’s come through some health issues and she’s held that together. Venus isn’t a friend, they’re too young, but when you meet her, she is just gracious. She’s just a gracious young lady. And there’s so many trashy, ugly, stupid people in the world that running into people like Venus is so wonderful. She’s my favorite athlete, period. I cheer, and I always will. Serena [Williams] is great, it’s not that. It’s that Venus brings it all together. Venus is the princess of tennis. She brings it all together.
Graduating from an HBCU (historically black college or university), Fisk University, how do you view the relevance of the education of HBCUs now?
We need the black education, and like all other schools, we need to have non-blacks coming to our schools. I’m a Fisk graduate, and if you look at what Fisk has brought, W.E.B. Du Bois invented sociology. The Jubilee Singers took the spirituals around the world. They became the Jubilee Singers because they were invited to England to present themselves, as it were — they stayed for quite a while — to Queen Victoria. And she awarded them ultimately 50,000 pounds. And they were able to save the school because the school was going bankrupt. And they stayed and she had the court painter paint a lovely portrait, which is right there in Jubilee Hall. And they became the Fisk Jubilee Singers in honor of Victoria.
It’s like, we’re going to let you sit anyplace on the bus now, so you don’t need your own school. Well, of course you need black schools, and you need the history that we teach and we need the diversity that these schools offer. So I’m very proud.
Do you recall the first time you knew your words had so much power?
Not really. You know, people will quote you. I think that probably people really liked Ego Tripping. And people would come up to me and I would say, wow, they were treating that poem like we treat some of the songs we like. Like when Aretha walks in, people go RESPECT.
So you have an idea that people enjoy your work. And I do so much with history, and I think that maybe I’ve opened up some doors that people haven’t considered before.
Are you enjoying your time at Virginia Tech?
Oh, my, yes. I like teaching and I like young people, and I know I’m one of the people who needs a rhythm. If I didn’t have a routine, I would get work done but I wouldn’t be as disciplined. So it’s very nice. I teach one class and I get up and I go into my office; the kids can drop in. I also get other work done while I’m there. But it’s nice to go and have an office and to sit and, you kind of get work done at a different rate. And I’m lucky because the sun, I have a corner office.
I know you’re still asked this all the time, but can you shed light on your ‘Thug Life’ tattoo?
Oh, my, yes. You know, when Pac got shot I was hoping he would pull through. I was really hoping, and he didn’t, as we know. And my mother was with us still. And I said to my mother, I said, ‘Mommy, I’ve gotta do something, I think I’m going to go get a tattoo.’ And she said, ‘Oh,’ because your mother, I don’t know about your mother, my mother did not want me to have a tattoo. And she said, ‘Where are you thinking about putting it, baby?’ My mother was never one of those people that said no, but she was like, and where you going to put it? And I said, ‘Well, I’m thinking about running it down the side,’ which I was. I was just going to run it down the right-hand side. And I could see that that shocked her — that was understated. And she said, ‘Well, I can see your point, Nikki, but you won’t be able to look at it if you do that.’
I said I’ll put it on my arm. You know, Pac had it on his abdomen. But I’m a girl, and he was in way better shape than I am. And I couldn’t put something on my abdomen and then pull my blouse up and share it with people. So it was on my arm. And I wanted his mother to know that we all miss him, that he was special to us.
What are you a fan of?
I’m a big fan of Black Lives Matter. I think it’s important, and I think we should acknowledge that, that Black Lives Matter are the people who made the Klan take their hoods off. But now the Klan has to come during the daylight. They have to let us know this is who I am. And I think it’s so wonderful, because without Black Lives Matter, that wouldn’t have happened. I think that’s wonderful. I think Black Lives Matter, and of course you’ve seen too, you know, White Lives Matter, All Lives, you know, you see that everybody’s got this response to it.
We’re the people who’ve been getting shot down, innocent people. Unarmed people being shot down. I love to see what the kids are doing. And it just gives me great pleasure to think that my generation has helped to bring this next generation up. And so I’m very proud that they’ve taken what we have to give, what we had to share, they have taken it and taken it to the next step. I think it’s wonderful. They should be very proud because they’re doing their job. I’m sure that their grandmothers sitting there saying, ‘Yeah, that’s my baby.’