Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 3

Amid the women’s world of clothes to wash, food to cook, Nikki's poems voice a recurrent theme of loneliness. With chores that don’t end, and relationships that do end, the celebration of strength and the saving grace of family and community do not save us from getting lonely, too, sometimes.


there is a hunger
often associated with pain
that you feel
when you look at someone
you used to love and enjoyed
loving and want
to love again
though you know you can’t
that gnaws at you
steadily as a mosquito
some michigan summer
churning his wings
through your window screen
because the real world
made up of baby clothes to be washed
food to be cooked
lullabies to be sung
smiles to be plaited
ribbons to be bowed
coffee to be drunk
books to be read
tears to be cried
loneliness to be borne
says you are a strong woman
and anyway he never thought you’d really miss him
* * * 

In “Boxes,” Giovanni expresses fatigue with the boxes of race and gender – and with the box of being strong, and even with the box of being poet. She writes, she says, because she has to. This reminds me to advice that is given to young people thinking about a career in the arts. Don’t do it unless you have to, someone might tell them. Indeed, twenty years ago when I was considering becoming a minister, I went to see my minister to ask whether she thought I should – and that’s what she said: Don’t do it unless you have to.

Well, I had to. Discernment of an inner compulsion validates a calling. But sometimes it’s just a box that we’re tired of. Sometimes we wish we didn’t have to.


i am in a box
on a tight string
subject to pop
without notice

everybody says how strong
i am

only black women
and white men
are truly free
they say

it’s not difficult to see
how stupid they are

i would not reject
my strength
though its source
is not choice
but responsibility

i would not reject my light
though my wrinkles are also illuminated

something within demands
or words
if action is not possible

i am tired
of being boxed
muhammad ali must surely be pleased
that leon spinks relieved him

most of the time
i can’t breathe
i smoke too much
to cover my fears
sometimes i pick
my nose to avoid
the breath i need

i do also do the same
injustice to my poems

i write because
i have to
* * *

The paradox is, the very boxes that make one tired are also the ones that give us identity. In the case of a black woman, it may be a prison in some ways. But she is determined to make that prison an identity to embrace and celebrate. It’s a delicate line to walk, a constant paradox to negotiate: To see clearly the wrong of racism and sexism, to be adamant and militant about overthrowing it – while at the same time honoring and celebrating the identity that racism and sexism created.

Poem (for Nina)

we are all imprisoned in the castle of our skins
and some of us have said so be it
if i am in jail my castle shall become
my rendezvous
my courtyard will bloom with hyacinths and jack-in-the-pulpits
my moat will not restrict me but will be filled
with dolphins sitting on lily pads and sea horses ridden by starfish
goldfish will make love
to Black mollies and color my world Black Gold
the vines entwining my windows will grow butterflies
and yellow jackets will buzz me to sleep
the dwarfs imprisoned will not become my clowns
for me to scorn but my dolls for me to praise and fuss
with and give tea parties to
my gnomes will spin cloth of spider web silkness
my wounded chocolate soldiers will sit in evening coolness
or stand gloriously at attention during that midnight sun
for I would have no need of day patrol
if I am imprisoned in my skin let it be a dark world
with deep bass walking a witch doctor to me for spiritual
let my world be defined by my skin and the skin of my people
for we spirit to spirit will embrace
this world
* * *

Nikki Giovanni is a professor of English at Virginia Tech, as I mentioned. As of 2007, she’d been on the faculty there for 20 years. A student in one of her poetry classes was Seung-Hui Cho. She found him overtly menacing and mean. She went to her department chair to have him taken out of her class. She said she’d resign rather than keep teaching a class with him in it. Then in April that year: the Virginia Tech shooting. When she first heard of the shooting, Giovanni immediately suspected Cho – which turned out to be correct.

Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on April 16, 2007. The Virginia Tech president asked Giovanni to speak at a campus convocation the next day. The chant poem she delivered to close the ceremony spoke to the horror, and also contextualized it. As she has done her whole long writing career, she faced tragedy frankly and found within it, identity and hope.

We Are Virginia Tech
We are Virginia Tech.
We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while.
We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.
We are Virginia Tech.
We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and
we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.
We are Virginia Tech.
We do not understand this tragedy.
We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS,
neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army,
neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory,
neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized.
No one deserves a tragedy.
We are Virginia Tech.
The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds.
We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid.
We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be.
We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities.
We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness.
We are the Hokies.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We are Virginia Tech.
* * *

Fourteen years earlier, in 1993, Giovanni had also evoked hope amid tragedy – the tragedy of slavery and the ongoing oppression of racism – when she spoke at the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon. A new day is always beginning. 

But Since You Finally Asked
No one asked us -- what we thought of Jamestown -- in 1619 -- they didn’t even say -- ”Welcome” -- ”You’re Home” -- or even a pitiful -- ”I’m sorry -- but we just can’t make it -- without you” -- No -- No one said a word -- They just snatched our drums -- separated us by language and gender -- and put us on blocks -- where our beauty -- like our dignity -- was ignored.

No one said a word -- in 1776 -- to us about Freedom -- The rebels wouldn’t pretend -- the British lied -- We kept to a space -- where we owned our souls -- since we understood -- another century would pass -- before we owned our bodies -- But we raised our voices -- in a mighty cry -- to the Heavens above -- for the strength to endure.

No one says -- ”What I like about your people” -- then ticks off the wonder of the wonderful things -- we’ve given -- Our song to God, Our strength to the Earth -- our unfailing belief in forgiveness -- I know what I like about us -- is that we let no one turn us around -- not then -- not now -- we plant our feet -- on higher ground -- I like who we were -- and who we are -- and since someone has asked -- let me say; I am proud to be a Black American -- I am proud that my people laboured honestly -- with forbearance and dignity -- I am proud that we believe -- as no other people do -- that all are equal in His sight -- We didn’t write a constitution -- we live one -- We didn’t say “We the People” -- we are one -- We didn’t have to add -- as an after-thought -- ”Under God” -- We turn our faces to the rising sun -- knowing -- a New Day -- is always – beginning
* * *
See also
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 1
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 2

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