Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 2

Nikki Giovanni's celebration of black women was accompanied by a celebration of black men. “Beautiful Black Men” appeared in her second book, Black Judgment. The second came out in in 1968, just a few months after her first book, Black Feeling Black Talk, and, like the first, the second was self-published. "Beautiful Black Men" mentions activities which we might judge unsavory -- but the poem reminds us that these activities, too, are carried out by human beings manifesting their beauty in all that they are and do.

Beautiful Black Men
(With compliments and apologies to all not mentioned by name)

i wanta say just gotta say something
bout those beautiful beautiful beautiful outasight
black men
with they afros
walking down the street
is the same ol danger
but a brand new pleasure

sitting on stoops, in bars, going to offices
running numbers, watching for their whores
preaching in churches, driving their hogs
walking their dogs, winking at me
in their fire red, lime green, burnt orange
royal blue tight tight pants that hug
what i like to hug

jerry butler, wilson pickett, the impressions
temptations, mighty mighty sly
don't have to do anything but walk
on stage
and i scream and stamp and shout
see new breed men in breed alls
dashiki suits with shirts that match
the lining that compliments the ties
that smile at the sandals
where dirty toes peek at me
and i scream and stamp and shout
for more beautiful beautiful beautiful
black men with outasight afros
* * *
Along with the celebrations of womanhood -- and manhood -- Nikki's poetry includes frank indictments of the way that gender is constructed: the demands placed on women, the enforced domesticity, and the double-standards used to judge and dismiss women’s poetry – the assumption that anything a person of color says must necessarily be unimportant. "A Poem Off Center" appeared in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978).

A Poem Off Center

how do poets write
so many poems
my poems get decimated
in the dishes the laundry
my sister is having another crisis
the bed has to be made
there is a blizzard on the way go to the grocery store
did you go to the cleaners
then a fuse blows
a fuse always has to blow
the women soon find themselves
talking either to babies or about them
no matter how careful we are
we end up giving tips
on the latest new improved cleaner
and the lotion that will take the smell away

if you write a political poem
you’re anti semitic
if you write a domestic poem
you’re foolish
if you write a happy poem
you’re unserious
if you write a love poem
you’re maudlin
of course the only real poem
to write
is the go to hell writing establishment poem
but the readers never know who
you’re talking about which brings us back
to point one

i feel i think sorry for the women
they have no place to go
it’s the same old story blacks
hear all the time
if it’s serious a white man
would do it
when it’s serious
he will
everything from writing a
to sweeping the streets
to cooking the food
as long as his family doesn’t
eat it

it’s a little off center
this life we’re leading
maybe i shouldn’t feel sorry
for myself
but the more i understand
the more i do
* * *
Born in 1943, Nikki Giovanni celebrated her 75th birthday a couple months ago, on June 7. Through her late-20s, 1968 through 1972, poems were pouring out of her. Those were the years that saw publication of four books: Black Feeling Black Talk (1968), Black Judgment (1968), Re: Creation (1970), and My House (1972). She gained fame those years as a foremost author in the Black Arts Movement, offering a strong and militant voice for Black Liberation. She’s been called the Poet of the Black Revolution.

I mentioned that Giovanni speaks with both righteous anger and tender joy. In “The Great Pax Whitie” -- from Black Judgment (1968) -- the anger at America’s persistent and destructive racism is in full voice. The title evokes the “Pax Romana” – the Roman Peace, during which areas under Roman control were taxed and subject to Roman military control. There was a kind of peace, but no independence, no liberty. It was peace through suppression and oppression. The White empire parallels in that regard the Roman Empire. 

The Great Pax Whitie
In the beginning was the word
And the word was
And the word was nigger
And the word was death to all niggers
And the word was death to all life
Andthe word was death to all
peace be still

The genesis was life
The genesis was death
In the genesis of death
Was the genesis of war
be still peace be still

In the name of peace
They waged the wars
ain’t they got no shame

In the name of peace
Lot’s wife is now a product of the Morton company
nah, they ain’t got no shame

Noah packing his wife and kiddies up for a holiday
row row row your boat
But why’d you leave the unicorns, noah
Huh? why’d you leave them
While our Black Madonna stood there
Eighteen feet high holding Him in her arms
Listening to the rumblings of peace
be still be still

He wanted to know
And peter only asked who is that dude?
Who is that Black dude?
Looks like a troublemaker to me
And the foundations of the mighty mighty
Ro Man Cat holic church were laid

hallelujah Jesus
nah, they ain’t got no shame

Cause they killed the Carthaginians
in the great appian way
And they killed the Moors
“to civilize a nation”
And they just killed the earth
And blew out the sun
In the name of a god
Whose genesis was white
And war wooed god
And america was born
Where war became peace
And genocide patriotism
And honor is a happy slave
cause all god’s chillun need rhythm
And glory hallelujah why can’t peace
be still

The great emancipator was a bigot
ain’t they got no shame
And making the world safe for democracy
Were twenty millon slaves
nah, they ain’t got no shame

And they barbecued six million
To raise the price of beef
And crossed the 38th parallel
To control the price of rice
ain’t we never gonna see the light

And champagne was shipped out of the East
While kosher pork was introduced
To Africa
Only the torch can show the way

In the beginning was the deed
And the deed was death

And the honkies are getting confused
peace be still

So the great white prince
Was shot like a nigger in texas
And our Black shining prince was murdered
like that thug in his cathedral
While our nigger in memphis
was shot like their prince in dallas
And my lord
ain’t we never gonna see the light
The rumblings of this peace must be stilled
be stilled be still

ahh Black people
ain’t we got no pride?
* * *
Nikki Giovanni never married. She is the mother of one child, Thomas Watson Giovanni, born in 1969, which probably had something to do with the fact that she began writing children’s literature in the 1970s. Aside from organizing and parenting and writing, Nikki Giovanni is an English professor. She’s taught at Queens College, Rutgers, and Ohio State. For the last 30 years, since 1987, she’s taught at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

She’s expressed the anger of the nation’s injustices, as we’ve seen. Giovanni’s poems can also pause to take delight in simple pleasures. And those pleasures, in turn, become a metaphor for the affirming and nurturing power of community and family and love. "Winter Poem" appeared in My House (1972)

Winter Poem
once a snowflake fell
on my brow and i loved
it so much and i kissed
it and it was happy and called its cousins
and brothers and a web
of snow engulfed me then
i reached to love them all
and i squeezed them and they became
a spring rain and i stood perfectly
still and was a flower
* * *
Yet that web that waters us into bloom can then turn around and constrain. Women are expected to fill positions of service and support – passively waiting for a fulfillment that never comes. "All I Gotta Do" is from Re: Creation (1970).

All I Gotta Do

all i gotta do
is sit and wait
sit and wait
and it's gonna find
all i gotta do
is sit and wait
if i can learn how

what i need to do
is sit and wait
cause i'm a woman
sit and wait
what i gotta do
is sit and wait
cause i'm a woman
it'll find me

you get yours
and i'll get mine
if i learn
to sit and wait
you got yours
i want mine
and i'm gonna get it
cause i gotta get it
cause i need to get it
if i learn how

thought about calling
for it on the phone
asked for a delivery
but they didn't have it
thought about going
to the store to get it
walked to the corner
but they didn't have it

called your name
in my sleep
sitting and waiting
thought you would awake me
called your name
lying in my bed
but you didn't have it
offered to go get it
but you didn't have it
so i'm sitting

all i know
is sitting and waiting
waiting and sitting
cause i'm a woman
all i know
is sitting and waiting
cause i gotta wait
wait for it to find
* * *
See also:
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 1
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 3

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