Nikki Giovanni Uses Personal Stories to Challenge Others to be Their Best

She's a poet and author, activist and educator, and a mother and living legend. On Wednesday, Jan. 25, Nikki Giovanni entertained, challenged and inspired a packed house at the Manship Theatre as the keynote speaker of the 2012 LSU Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month Commemorative Celebration.

Author, poet and Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni was the keynote speaker for LSU's 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month Commemorative Celebration.
Photos by Rachel Saltzberg

A University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech, Giovanni is an outspoken storyteller who was born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1943, and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. A graduate of Fisk University, she published her first book of poetry, “Black Feeling Black Talk,” in 1968. Dubbed the “Princess of Black Poetry,” Giovanni has spent more than three decades as a writer and lecturer, publishing more than 30 books, and fighting for civil rights and equality.

“I found out who Nikki Giovanni was as a high school sophomore, accidently stumbling across her poem ‘Ego Tripping,’” said LSU senior Estefania Reichard. “I instantly fell in love with her words and passion as a poet.”

Named one of Oprah’s “Living Legends,” Giovanni is the recipient of more than 25 honorary degrees and has been named the “Woman of the Year” by Mademoiselle, Ladies Home Journal and Ebony magazines. A member of the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame, she was the first recipient of the Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award given out by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Having the honor to see Nikki Giovanni speak at the Manship Theater was one of the greatest privileges in my life,” said Ashton Toefield, an LSU freshman sports medicine major from Independence. “She is truly a woman of great character and integrity. It amazes me how she uses the form of writing and humor to reach her audience and become an inspiration to others as she did to me.”

The recipient of several NAACP Image Awards, Giovanni’s books have also been on The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists, and her book, “Bicycles: Love Poems,” reached the top spot on for poetry. In addition, she was nominated for a Grammy Award and received the Best Spoken Word Album award given by the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers.

“She is so much more than an artist or a poet; she is a historian, a professor, a natural and superb orator,” said LSU senior Mikana Scott. “I enjoyed being in her presence tonight as she is so down to earth and funny! Nikki Giovanni inspires me to continue to do what matters, to create positive change and to dream big.”

Speaking from the side of the podium because she said her short stature prevented her from being an effective communicator from behind the tall podium, Giovanni entertained the audience with her humor, inspired them with her poetry and personal stories, and challenged them to make a difference.

“The answer should always be yes,” Giovanni said, no matter the question. “If you succeed and finish what you started, great; but if not, then you can say you’re sorry.”

After starting her presentation with personal stories of her friendships with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, Giovanni quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Fierce Urgency of Now” speech given on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in Manhattan.

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today,” King said. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.”

“Her belief in enhancing lives for others now, and not waiting for tomorrow, emphasizes love and compassion,” said Scott, an African and African-American Studies major from the Cayman Islands. “Nikki Giovanni has followed her passion, has remained honest and equally committed to social issues.”

Giovanni, who read from a poem she wrote about King for an exhibition on his life at the Smithsonian Institution, talked about her belief that King knew he wouldn’t live to see his children grow up because someone would eventually shoot him, but that did not stop him from doing the job that was necessary. She also said she believes that if King were alive today, that he would still be fighting for those who can’t defend themselves.

“Her passion and respect of Martin Luther King Jr. was evident with new poetry that she read aloud, leaving the crowd appreciating Black History Month more than they probably ever had,” said Reichard, an international studies major and Ronald McNair Scholar from Alexandria.

Giovanni also spoke about Rosa Parks and the start of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. She discussed why Parks was the key to the start of the boycott, and how it was truly the women of Montgomery that got the boycott going.

“Nikki shared the personal relationship that she carried with Rosa Parks through her many stories, that tied into the importance of the civil rights movement and Black History Month today,” said Reichard.

In addition to her historical perspective and reflections, Giovanni discussed some of her other friendships, including her friendship with R&B singer D’Angelo. She also didn’t shy away from discussing more controversial topics, including reparations and the legacy of slavery, or challenging politicians including President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

“Nikki touched on subjects that many individuals would be worried to mention due to racial differences or because of their distinct controversy in society, but that’s what makes Nikki Giovanni who she is,” said Reichard. “She isn’t scared of saying what others don’t want to hear. She crosses the line every time with such a funny grace that only leaves you loving her. You might not always agree with what Ms. Giovanni may have to say, but you can’t help but respect her intricate thoughts tied with so many different funny stories.”

In answering questions from the audience at the conclusion of her presentation, Giovanni discussed how her upbringing in east Tennessee molded her into a writer. Giovanni talked about how the people of east Tennessee, including the likes of Dinah Shore, Dolly Parton and many other country musicians, are born storytellers and had she not been born there, she would have probably done something else with her life.

Giovanni considers her writing to not only be what she does, but is also who she is as a person. She uses her curiosity about the world and where it’s going that challenges her to continue to write. She also left the audience with a challenge to not be afraid to make mistakes.

“In the end, Nikki Giovanni left me with a desire to do so much more in life than what I even expect of myself, and I’m sure the same effect was spread to others in the audience,” said Reichard. “There is no doubt that Nikki Giovanni is a phenomenal woman.”