My strange new respect for Nikki Giovanni

GiovanniAtTechDuring Virginia Tech’s convocation to mourn 32 murder victims last week, Nikki Giovanni did more with just 258 words than anyone else achieved in the thousands of other words preceding hers (MSNBC video; MP3). It was an electric moment. Her speech came alive for me with the second paragraph: “We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.”

Amid all the cliches that began almost immediately about “the healing process,” it was bracing to hear someone say directly that, no, healing was a way off, and would need to remain so for a season.

Learning in subsequent reports that the legendary poet had previous and altogether unpleasant encounters with Seung-Hui Cho added more power to her words.

Giovanni appears to have discussed Cho with a number of reporters on the same day, so there was a mini-surge of reports last Wednesday about their battle of wills.

I think Allen G. Breed of The Associated Press did the finest job of weaving Giovanni’s story into the broader narrative of how the English professors at Virginia Tech tried to handle their time bomb of a student:

Police asked Giovanni not to disclose the exact content or nature of Cho’s poetry. But she said it was not violent like other writings that have been circulating.

It was more invasive.

“Violent is like, ‘I’m going to do this,’” said Giovanni, a three-time NAACP Image Award winner who is sometimes called “the princess of black poetry.” This was more like a personal violation, as if Cho were objectifying his subjects, “doing thing to your body parts.”

“It’s not like, ‘I’ll rip your heart out,’” she recalled. “It’s that, ‘Your bra is torn, and I’m looking at your flesh.’”

His work had no meter or structure or rhyme scheme. To Giovanni, it was simply “a tirade.”

“There was no writing. I wasn’t teaching him anything, and he didn’t want to learn anything,” she said. “And I finally realized either I was going to lose my class, or Mr. Cho had to leave.”

From an interview with CNN there is this oddity — a smart ass challenging the authority of a professor who has spent much of her life challenging authority:

Giovanni said at the start of each class there would be a “ritual” in which she would have to ask Cho to take off his sunglasses and cap.

She said what scared her, and prompted her to ask for campus security to keep a watch on her, was the poetry he wrote for the class.

“He was writing just weird things,” she said. “It was terrible. It was not bad poetry, it was intimidating.”

She said when she told him to stop writing such poems, he argued back.

“He said ‘you can’t make me’ and I said ‘yes, I can,” she said.

But what I found striking of all was Giovanni’s willingness use a word — evil — that we hear less than sick, bizarre, crazy or troubled whenever another mass murderer bursts into view:

“I know that there’s a tendency to think that everybody can get counseling or can have a bowl of tomato soup and everything is going to be all right,” she said. “But I think that evil exists, and I think that he was a mean person.”

Giovanni encountered Cho only once after she removed him from class. She was walking down a campus path and noticed him coming toward her. They maintained eye contact until passing each other.

Giovanni, who had survived lung cancer, was determined she would not blink first.

“I was not going to look away as if I were afraid,” she said. “To me he was a bully, and I had no fear of this child.”

Photo by Eric Draper, The White House (via Wikimedia Commons)

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  • johnnybarleycorn

    From Nikki Giovanni’s poem -Thr true import of present dialogue…..”do you know how to draw blood? can you poison……..can a nigger kill a honkie?….can you piss on a blond head? can you cut it off?..can you splatter their brains in the street…..” just type in google- nikki giovanni kill nigger.

  • johnnybarleycorn

    maybe cho read giovanni’s poetry.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    johnnybarleycorn–do you live in Whiskey Creek? :)

    I’ll do a google of those terms. First I want to read the words in context. Then if this is indeed her thoughts, rather than an example of a genre she condemns, then it may be a case of hypocrisy, although this was pointed out in this statement:

    From an interview with CNN there is this oddity — a smart ass challenging the authority of a professor who has spent much of her life challenging authority

  • Jerry

    For those that might want to sample her poetry, check out I would not go out of my way to read things like:

    when i die i hope no one who ever hurt me criedand if they cry i hope their eyes fall out and a million maggots that had made up their brains crawl from the empty holes and devour the flesh that covered the evil that passed itself off as a person that i probably triedto love

  • Brent

    JohnBarleycorn [great traffic album/song]–

    I am a poet [broke;normal] so let’s put this in context. Giovanni’s poetry is BAD, to me and also you. Her heyday was in the 60s/70′s where actually, no matter what you think or I think, a revolutionary paradigm did shift in this world. Her vulgar, agressive poetry served a need, I’m sure, but it’s before my time. It’s not my cup of tea, either, and she has a tin ear and no sense of technique. Again, who cares? 1]It’s poetry, expression and 2]she was just giving back to us, in words and attitude what her and blacks have suffered for years [decades and decades]. We must sidestep racism.
    I just read in an article the other day the words of a female slave testifying before Congress in 1898: “I was owned like property and traded…and this after 19 centuries of Christianity…”
    When I read that it was like an awakening.
    I grew to respect Giovanni, also like the writer of the article, ON THAT DAY, for her refusing to “move on” and telling the world VTech would take their time. Her speech was great. We all have our moments.

    But I don’t dig her poetry. Much of it is too angry for my tastes.
    You have to admit she was a much better writer than Cho….Cho had NO sensiblity or respect for the craft, therefore, to negate your argument, if he liked her work or not, she is an absolute NON-FACTOR in this kid’s literary development. I’m glad he’s off the earth. And not to be belittling, but if you read his two “plays” online, you’d realize he is coming from a radically different place than that 40-year old Giovanni poem you are quoting….

  • Ed

    I went to Va Tech & it’s a disgrace what’s happened to the university via the English department. I’m glad to see the posters here haven’t been fooled. I have no idea who Douglas LeBlanc is but he should learn to read up on someone before praising them.

  • BL

    Gosh. A black person in America who had her heyday in the 60s and 70s writing angry poems. I wonder what it’s like to be black? I wonder if Giovanni’s poems sound different when read in light of the black experience.

    I flipped open a Nikki Giovanni book published in 1999, “Blues for all the changes.” I found a long poem called “This Poem Hates.”

    Here’s how it starts:

    “people lose their lives over things smaller than birds or over things sillier than a fire the fire department said should be put out but the developer will not and I after all am just one slightly overweight woman living with one slightly underweight woman and a small though very noisy dog so of course it is only honest of me to say yes I am afraid of Kracker’s Pipe and Excavating Company and mostly because I believe R. Kneck Kracker is a bully which means he is a coward I am afraid he will incite some harm because he does not appear to have ever been told NO in the modern day and the fact that illegal burning is occurring and smoke is coming into all the homes but I am the one who calls the fire department and they say it must be put out but it is still burning and there is no permit but no one really cares about any of us little folk who only purchased a home with the thought of living in it and paying our taxes and growing our tomatoes and leaving our neighbors alone except for an occasional Hot enough for you and That was quite a rain last night and since we cannot afford to purchase our own politicians we get screwed and we probably always will…”

    Why am I typing? I guess I typed this because I can type fast.

    I just wonder, what it’s like to be a black person, a black poet? Did it give her extra insight into writing her poem for the Hokies? Extra insight into angry poets?

    Or maybe she’s just a disgrace to Virginia Tech as Ed said and Douglas LeBlanc doesn’t know anything about Nikki Giovanni. Maybe.

    But I appreciated the post.

  • JillHenri


    Here is a “poem” written by Nikki Giovanni during the 1960s:

    Can you kill
    Can you kill
    Can a ni**er kill
    Can a ni**er kill a honkie
    Can a ni**er kill the Man
    Can you kill ni**er
    Huh? Ni**er can you
    Do you know how to draw blood
    Can you poison
    Can you stab-a-Jew
    Can you kill huh? Ni**er
    Can you kill
    Can you run a protestant down with your
    ‘68 El Dorado
    (that’s all they’re good for anyway)
    Can you kill
    Can you piss on a blond head
    Can you cut it off
    Can you kill
    A ni**er can die
    We ain’t got to prove we can die
    We got to prove we can kill

  • Harris

    There are all kinds of Nikki Giovanni poems. That’s the point. The racism of the above is another part of the story, though, isn’t it? How does one understand the rage of the 60′s black poets without the racism?

    There is likewise an absurdity that we should hold others so tightly to the person they were at 20 while ignoring the person in front of us at 60–as if one doesn’t change, mature, and acquire new empathy. The mature Giovanni is a far different poet than her earlier self. Yet when we go back we can see something of that other person, too:


    childhood rememberances are always a drag
    if you’re Black
    you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
    with no inside toilet
    and if you become famous or something
    they never talk about how happy you were to have
    your mother
    all to yourself and
    how good the water felt when you got your bath
    from one of those
    big tubs that folk in chicago barbeque in
    and somehow when you talk about home
    it never gets across how much you
    understood their feelings
    as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale
    and even though you remember
    your biographers never understand
    your father’s pain as he sells his stock
    and another dream goes
    And though your’re poor it isn’t poverty that
    concerns you
    and though they fought a lot
    it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference
    but only that everybody is together and you
    and your sister have happy birthdays and very good
    and I really hope no white person everhas cause
    to write about me
    because they never understand
    Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
    probably talk about my hard childhood
    and never understand that
    all the while I was quite happy

  • Dennis Colby

    I’m with Douglas LeBlanc. Nikki Giovanni is a poet who had some interesting things to say about one of the biggest stories of the year. What’s with all the opposition research? Is she running for office?

  • Stephen A.

    No, Dennis, she’s not “running for office.” But for some reason, conservative white preachers (and conservatives in general) always seem to be assumed guilty and somehow their motives have to be questioned and impungued (as if they’re “running for office”) while angry Leftists like tis – religious and/or political in their focus – are given passes and are allowed to not have their pasts delved into when they make public statements. It’s a blatant double standard.

    In general, you’re right. People shouldn’t be put under a microscope all the time. On the other hand, the media needs to be even handed. They currently are not.

    If this woman is a purveyor of hate in the classroom, as she was in her ’60s poetry, then that’s a huge issue. Then again, it’s probably commonplace on campuses today, making it a bit of a “non-story.”

  • Aylok

    Hey, guys, Douglas LeBlanc titled his post, “My strange new respect for Nikki Giovanni”. With that title it is clear that he was surprised by finding himself respecting her. In no place does he writes that he likes her poetry. I don’t see how anyone can criticize her for what she did about Cho and for what she said during the convocation.

  • saint

    Two Aussie’s view of Nikki Giovanni and the VT English department here and here.

    I note too that her website’s bio leaves out a lot of info about her BAM days and affiliations although The Guardian alluded to it in their praises.

    Her poem was aweful. Never mind which part of the poem was posted as the tribute at the VT English site, now replaced with the whole page sporting the entire poem.

    This is indeed a tragedy. But there’s still nothing like the prosaic soul of Nikki Giovanni.

  • saint

    P.S. I still can’t get over the “elephant” part – she equates humans with animals while complaining about Cho objectifying humans or whatever?

  • Dennis Colby

    Aylok: bingo. I think LeBlanc’s post is an interesting comment on those occasional news stories we read when people rise to the occasion.

    Tragedies like the Virginia Tech massacre seem to produce a lot of gassy, decontextualized therapyspeak like “healing process” and “seeking closure,” and it’s nice to hear someone say that human beings don’t always grieve so neatly, regardless of what she wrote 40 years ago.

  • saint

    I know where you are coming from Dennis but that was the first few lines of the poem. Then we get to the all inclusive (well only for some) list of trendy causes (although I suspect for the Iraqi kids she was referring to American bombs even though most Iraqis have been killed by other Iraqis and imported jihadis):

    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 a rogue army

    Neither does the baby elephant watching his community
    Be devastated for ivory
    Neither does the Mexican child looking
    For fresh water

    Neither does the Iraqi teenager dodging bombs

    Neither does the Appalachian infant killed
    By a boulder
    Because the land was destabilized

    No one deserves a tragedy.

    That part of the poem was the bit originally posted on the VT English site (and I wish I took a screen shot). Not milking a tragedy is she?

    And honestly, can you say “it’s nice to hear someone say that human beings don’t always grieve so neatly” while looking at that photo above?

    Or maybe I don’t get it because I’m Aussie.

  • cheryl

    In the avalanche of reporting on this tragedy, these clips help illuminate Cho’s personality (or lack thereof) better than much of what I have read.

    In my view, both Giovanni and Cho wrote bad poems, but Giovanni clearly gave a great speech when it was needed most at Virginia Tech and she deserves props for that.

    More than anything, however, I wonder about the English Department at VT. Why did a beligerent kid, who wrote horrid prose, refused to participate in discussions and cooperate in class, etc. receive enough passing grades to become a senior? I recall reading (in Newsweek, I think) that his commentary on other students’ work was surprisingly lucid, but he surely seemed to fall short of the grade in many other areas.

    I don’t get it.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    saint asks:

    And honestly, can you say “it’s nice to hear someone say that human beings don’t always grieve so neatly” while looking at that photo above?

    This moment occurred after the gathered crowd at Virginia Tech gave her an extended ovation, and just before it began chanting “Let’s go, Hokies,” and clapping rhythmically. Ms. Giovanni joined in that chanting with great energy. The video I linked to at MSNBC does not show the crowd’s reaction beyond a few moments of applause, but this video at YouTube does.

    The sense I had through all of this is that Ms. Giovanni has become deeply identified with the community at this school, which, I think it’s fair to say, is a broader community than she moved in four decades ago. I found it moving how she rallied this group to begin feeling glimmers of hope, even amid their grief.

    Attending a huge gathering and chanting what one would hear at a football game would not normally be my first choice for grieving. Nevertheless, I’m thankful for having witnessed this moment through television, I’m thankful for what Ms. Giovanni said and I’m thankful for the energy her words gave to the students and faculty of Virginia Tech.

  • saint

    Thanks Douglas.

  • Stephen A.

    I strongly disagree with Douglas on this one. I have gained NO respect for this race-hustling leftist professor, who (judging from the video) used her speech at the convocation to push a stridently political agenda.

    While this is nice and topical, I find the topic non-religious related. She did not mention religion in her commentary, nor God.

    Her poetry is acidic, and makes me fear what impact she has had on impressionable white, black and Asian students at VT. I sincerely hope her words that day don’t “popularize” her class.

    And yet, she seems to be this decade’s answer to Maya Angelou – someone who also had a horrific catalog of bitter, hateful screeds against whites and men in particular.

    The Oprahization of the incident will be complete when she’s Angelou-ized on her show and tens of millions of lemming women buy this woman’s hateful words.

  • Dennis Colby


    It seems you’re seeing this purely in political terms, which is probably missing the point. I understand people on the Right don’t like Leftist college professors. But I don’t think Douglas LeBlanc is asking for a blanket approval of everything NIkki Giovanni has ever done, just noting that she did very well in an awful situation.

    Frankly, I think Giovanni’s conduct has been completely antithetical to the therapeutic, feel-good notions associated with Oprah. Unlike the many people who argue that Cho acted because he was bullied, troubled, or otherwise victimized, Giovanni is fairly blunt in saying he was rotten, and that his rottenness was largely a deliberate choice he made. That’s not the kind of sentiment you’re likely to hear on Oprah’s show.

    Also, it’s ridiculous to comb through poems like they’re campaign speeches or votes in Congress. Artists are often difficult or even bad people who frequently say unpleasant or even offensive things. TS Eliot was a despicable antisemite and the word “nigger” appears in Rudyard Kipling’s work at a regular clip. Unfortunately, both men were brilliant writers and their works are still (justly) read today – even in university classrooms.

    I guess my reaction to Nikki Giovanni’s presence in all this was similar to LeBlanc’s: pleasant surprise. And I think that’s where the religious element comes in – as an illustration of redemption, of the idea that people can become better through enduring suffering. I hadn’t thought of Giovanni in years, but her words throughout this make think she’s a different person than she was before (although maybe not to the extent that those on the Right would like).

  • saint

    Just for the record guys, I don’t self identify as left or right but some Aussie bloggers have put me in the lean left camp. And well, Nikki Giovanni is already on Oprah’s 25 living legends list.

    But it also goes to Terry’s question in an earlier post. Is the situation so bad in the U.S. that Christian ministers cannot freely do what they are called to, that instead you have to rely on poets who equate people’s reaction to VT with that of baby elephants and (a somewhat inarticulate in public) President as Consoler-in-Chief?

  • ThatDeborahGirl

    Have you ever seen an elephant mourn it’s dead?
    Did you even know that they do such a thing?
    If you had ever heard an elephant’s trumpeting wail of anguish over a loved one that has been killed then maybe you would not be so quick to think and as plainly say that only human loss, grief and suffering are deserving of recognition.

    Man’s inhumanity is not only to man.

    I always respected Giovanni and to me it is not a strange or notion that this should be so. The person who said her poetry is “too angry” for me, made me lol with bitter frustration. White people, and you must be white because only a white person would say such a thing, amuse me with their notions that black people should never be angry; but again, my amusement is a bitter amusement that never fails to leave a bad taste in my mouth and wrings an exceedingly wry grin from my face.

    Comments like I’ve read here make me despair that even a large majority of white people will ever wake up. How you can turn Giovanni’s inspiring comments into a misguided dialog on whether or not she is racist or somehow just as violent as the shooter is shameful an obviously not true.

    Must people always twist the intentions of others and cannot you not see her words for what they truly mean?

  • Stephen A.

    People who are angry all the time are barely awake and have no time for forgiveness OR love. I suggest not living with anger and putting it behind you.

    As for her written words, they are hateful, spiteful and breed further resentment and perpetuate the cycle of hate and resentment. That she is doing this to youth is despicable, and she must be exposed, just as a hate-mongering white bigot or murderous Muslim terrorist’s words of hate and resentment would be exposed.

    The fact that reporters saw only a nice, grey-haired woman speak some interesting-sounding and inspiring-ish words without delving deeper is a deriliction of their duty to expose the truth. And clearly, if a white bigot had spoken at the event, and she or he had written words of hate in the past, they would be exposed in short order and they would be tossed out of a job, tenure or no.

    So please, dismount from the high horse.

  • lowly grunt


    Her anger and hate come from a specific place within her and she is expressing that place in her work. She is not advocating hate and anger — she is expressing it. (I guess, your interpretation, not mine.)

    If she were telling her students “write like me”, your argument against her would carry water. Show where she says that and I’ll stop thinking you are over reacting to poems you had to look for to share with the rest of us.

    In other words, stop crapping all over Doug’s post.

  • Mr. Unite Us

    The 1960′s were rough.

    Dr. Martin L. King Jr. John F. Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. We were on our way to losing 58,000 Americans in Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands came back wounded. When the war started, most Black Americans were still denied their human, constitutional, and civil rights, including the right to vote. Nikki Giovanni wasn’t blond cheerleader back then.

  • Mr. Unite Us

    Nikki Giovanni, warned the administration about Cho.
    At one point she said if he didn’t leave, she would.
    Perhaps if the administration had taken her concerns about Cho more seriously the 32 victims would be alive today.

    I still can’t understand why the adminstration waited, over two hours to tell people that 2 students had been murdered on campus.

  • Zena

    First if your going to write about the poem N*gger, please write the whole thing!! I understand in literature that everyone that everyone comes with an different opinion. I don’t know if I am the only Black person to answer this site but I have read that poem for years, what I got out it(if you had wrote the entire poem, which I will look for later) have you ever heard Chris Rock talk about the difference between Black people and N*ggas, there is a difference even if they call each other that.
    Black people are hardworking and want the best for their children, N*ggas are killing, robbing, stealing and just being a menace to society. To me in her poem N*gger she is talking to N*ggas she is saying, “Can you kill” “Can you kill” trying to evoke a response because if you know someone like that or from the streets they would proably say H*ll Yea!! AT the end of the poem she says “Can we learn to Kill white for black, Learn to kill N*ggers, Learn to be black men”. To me when she says this she saying stop blaming whites for your problems, Kill that N*gger mentality of being a menace to society, And stand up to become strong Black men!! Thats what I got out of it. Its seems to me as Americans we spend so much time worrying about the wrong things here Black and White, Lets not forget the people who died at VT, The Soldiers that are in Iraq, lets not forget the innocent Iraqi people that are dying for no reason, I truly believe that their are good people over there. Also lets us remember that war has never came here in recent years(not talking about the horrific events of 9/11) we don’t deal with tanks, and seeing soldiers with guns and bombs in the distance can u imagine what type of life these people live. Lets look at our own goverment who is shipping most of our Jobs overseas. This country, Our people are not above judgement from a higher being. Please vote responsibly

  • Zena

    The True Import Of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro (For Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts)
    by Nikki Giovanni
    Can you kill
    Can you kill
    Can a nigger kill
    Can a nigger kill a honkie
    Can a nigger kill the Man
    Can you kill nigger
    Huh? nigger can you
    Do you know how to draw blood
    Can you poison
    Can you stab-a-Jew
    Can you kill huh? nigger
    Can you kill
    Can you run a protestant down with your
    ’68 El Dorado
    (that’s all they’re good for anyway)
    Can you kill
    Can you piss on a blond head
    Can you cut it off
    Can you kill
    A nigger can die
    We ain’t got to prove we can die
    We got to prove we can kill
    They sent us to kill
    Japan and Africa
    We policed europe
    Can you kill
    Can you kill a white man
    Can you kill the nigger
    in you
    Can you make your nigger mind
    Can you kill your nigger mind
    And free your black hands to
    Can you kill
    Can a nigger kill
    Can you shoot straight and
    Fire for good measure
    Can you splatter their brains in the street
    Can you kill them
    Can you lure them to bed to kill them
    We kill in Viet Nam
    for them
    We kill for UN & NATO & SEATO & US
    And everywhere for all alphabet but
    Can we learn to kill WHITE for BLACK
    Learn to kill niggers
    Learn to be Black men