Nikki Giovanni is currently a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. A world-renowned poet and one of the foremost authors of the Black Arts Movement, she pioneered the expression of Black power through literature and, through storytelling, she carried on the Black thought tradition of recording history and experience. Nikki Giovanni sat down with Pyar Seth, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University studying the history of Black thought, health and well-being, policing, suffering, and violence. The two discussed rest, love, care, the processes of mourning and narrating loss, and poetry as an affective outlet for both the artist and the reader.
1. “Collect your check and go home.”
Pyar Seth (PS): Before we get started, I just have to take a moment to say thank you. I don’t come from a family of PhDs, but I do come from a family of folk that take education very seriously. And what that meant was that I had the privilege of having folk—every night—read to me. My mother used to read poetry to me before I went to sleep. And so, from a very young age, I knew about the work of Nikki Giovanni.
Granted, as a five- or six-year-old child, I didn’t always understand exactly what you were getting at. But from a very young age, you were a part of my story: that part, namely, of how I came to understand this thing called Blackness and being. Thank you so much for being a part of my story.
Nikki Giovanni (NG): Thank you. [Chuckling] Well, I thank your mother because she read to you. She got you into the habit of reading. You know, mothers are so important.
PS: They sure are! [Laughing] But anyway, to jumpstart the conversation, I want to open with a quote from Toni Morrison that I revisit often. She says, in The Source of Self-Regard, “Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.”
I see someone like yourself—as well as someone like a Toni Morrison or a James Baldwin—as doing a kind of therapeutic work, a kind of mental-health counseling.
Today, the question of the current moment, it seems, is, aside from Black folk emerging from an urgency and exhaustion with racism and violence, how do you understand the process by which Black folk connect with the affective happening of their world?
NG: That’s a hell of a question. [Laughing]
I would never speak for Toni. But Toni was a friend of mine. I always liked what her father said. At that time, Toni lived in Lorain, Ohio. She had a crappy job. When she came home, she said to her father, “I don’t think they liked me.” Her father looked at her and said, “Collect your check and come home.”
NG: And it made sense. They’re not going to like you.
I’m old. There are some things that young people today look for that my generation never looked for. Young people want other people to be friendly. You all want people to like you. You all want people to accept you. You all want people to understand you. I don’t know why. They’re not [going to]. They never have and they never will. Maybe they will. I don’t know. I just think it’s a waste of time.
I’m just a poet. All I can do is write what I understand and what I see. I’m not trying to make you well. If you’re sick, I’m the wrong person. You can’t call me. Don’t call me. I’m not your girl. If you’re sick, you need to deal with somebody else. If you got a drug problem, you need a clinic. Whatever it is.
I can help if you need a friend. I can be a friend. But if you have decided that somebody who doesn’t like you has to like you, then you are going to mistreat me. You’re going to come home, you’re going to beat me, you’re going to rape me, you’re going to do something to me. And all I’m trying to do is be your friend.
Black men in particular have to think about the question, What is a man? You all have let people who are cowards, who are fools, tell you that you’re not a man.
PS: I’m reminded of the work from Langston Hughes. As Hughes would say, there is reason for Black folk to be restless, angry, and ready to explode.
My follow-up, then, is: For Black folk, what does it mean to rest? Given the unrelenting injustice and violence that we continue to endure and see, how can we imagine a world, a future of Black rest, relaxation, and idleness?
NG: In my day, we used to come together, whether it was at the church picnic or we were just going by somebody’s house to sit down and have a beer with them. Whatever it was, we found comfort in each other.
Today, we’re not helping each other, which we should be doing. We should be reaching out to see what we can do for each other. We used to reach out and help each other. We used to care about each other.
Something has been lost, and I don’t know what. I wish I did.
But I know that Toni Morrison’s father was right. If you can’t do anything else, collect your check and go home.
2. “You have a right to walk out that door. I have an obligation to say what I believe. This is how we get along.”
PS: I often reflect on where can Black folk go to feel at home. Where can we go for some kind of relief, some kind of cathartic outlet? I have often turned to artistic expression, poetry in particular. And so, I want to transition into a question about poetry and your method, your writing process. Does the page or the poem usually match what you feel? When writing, do you ever feel more or less satisfied with the page or the poem? How are you finding the language to describe our current political condition and make sense of the affective happening within your world?
NG: I have a right to write what I believe. And I also have a right to write what I feel.
I haven’t been traveling much since March 2020 because of COVID. But when I was traveling around and doing poetry readings, which I really enjoy doing, I would say to my audience, “That door is open.”
I’m going to say what I believe. I’m not gonna make a joke out of you. I’m not gonna lock the door to keep you in. You have a right to walk out that door. I have an obligation to say what I believe. This is how we get along.
It is so important that people remember that. That’s what writers do. We write. You don’t have an obligation to read me. I would hope that you do. After reading, people come up and say “Nikki, that poem was really stupid.” Yeah, I know that. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re not. I just wrote what I believed. At that time, I wrote the best poem.
I am 77 years old now. There are poems that I wrote when I was 27 that I would never write now, because I’m older. I understand the world better, and I see things differently. But if I don’t change between 27 and 77, something is wrong with me.
I have to change. I have to have learned something. There has to be a change. We all have to know that. We have to know that. You will change at some point.
One changes when one’s writing. I was proud to be a friend of Toni Morrison, and if we look at a brilliant book like The Bluest Eye all the way over just to Beloved, let alone going all the way over the rest of her other work, you see a change; that’s what is important.
3. “What is the number one best seller?”
NG: Writers, by nature, are very arrogant. We don’t say that out loud; but we are. We believe in ourselves. So we write. I’m not trying to change anybody, but we write what we believe in. That’s the only thing that’s really important. It’s what you, what I, or what we believe. If you don’t believe in your own writing, then I don’t know where you’ll go.
The main thing is that you have to trust your voice. Once you trust your own voice, then you’re going to write well. A lot of people will say, “Well, you can’t say this,” or “You can’t say that,” or “Nobody’s going to read it.” This is not what you should care about.
The first question that I ask my all students, on the first day, is: What is the number one best seller? None of them—nobody—can answer. And I love that. Because if you don’t know the best seller, then why are you trying to write it? Instead, why don’t you try to write what you believe in?
You’ll be dead. That’s the point of being a writer. Most writers are dead. By the time their books became important, they were gone.
Anne Frank had no idea that her diary would be an incredible source of information. She had no idea. She was doing everyday life, just trying to say what she felt. If we look at some of the great books in the world, the people who wrote them didn’t know they had written great books. In many cases, the books were, in fact, not published until after the person was gone.
So the first thing you want to do is write the book that you believe in. Why do you care about those other people?
NG: If you’re going to be a writer, then you have to write what you believe in. So my process is I write as I believe.
You also have to read. I am a reader. If there is one thing to do today, it should be to read. Everybody says, “Oh, you need to write every day.” No. You got nothing to say every day. Nobody does. Anybody that says, “I have to talk to somebody every day,” good Lord! Who could live with you?
While I’m having my coffee, I read. First thing in the morning, I need to read. I tell my students that. Read. Our kids, the youngsters, they do not read enough these days. I don’t know why. But for me, there’s nothing as comforting as a book.
I read the same book over and over again. I remind my students of that too. But then they say, “Well, I’ve read that book once before.” But you don’t listen to a song once. You don’t eat barbecue once. You don’t make love once. You don’t do anything once. But read a book once? That’s ridiculous! You need to read again and again and again, because every time you read, you’re going to get something new, something fresh, out of it. And when you do, you may or may not want to write something about that. But you have learned something.
4. “There’s nothing supreme about being white.”
PS: Professor Giovanni, you’ve never had an issue with explicitly condemning racism and white supremacy, and I think your new text, Make Me Rain, is evidence of that. Can you speak more on the making and remaking of white supremacy in our contemporary society?
NG: If I may, I’m going to correct you on that word you used: white supremacy.
I’m not trying to say you can’t use that word. But there’s nothing supreme about being white. There’s nothing supreme about getting on a bus in 1955 and paying the same dime that Ms. Rosa Parks paid to get on that bus. What are Black and white seats? Seats are seats. What was that white man thinking? I’m supreme? What did he go home and say to his wife? What did he say at church on Sunday? I got a Black woman arrested? What’s supreme about that? So that I can beat a 14-year-old boy to death? So that I can shoot into the window of a woman in bed named Breonna Taylor and kill her? How did that get to be supreme?
That word has to go. There’s nothing supreme about being white. Being white is a burden because you have to learn to hate. You have to continue to remember to hate. You have to continue to remember that you’re better than me. But guess what? You’re paying the same dime.
I was watching the Super Bowl yesterday, like most people. Finally got tired of it. I was just like, “Oh no.” After halftime, I was gone.
I was watching Tom Brady and I thought, Tom Brady doesn’t have any business being a quarterback. A couple of years ago, he was throwing a football that he knew was deflated. He was doing it because he wanted to win. His thing was, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was deflated.” Of course you realized it was deflated! You’ve been playing football all your life! You are a cheat and a liar. And everybody knew that.
But a great young man like Colin Kaepernick, who is saying to America, “You got to do better,” hasn’t been signed by any NFL team. Or Michael Vick. A nice young man, and I like him a lot and I also taught him. And, of course, fighting dogs is not a good idea, because, well, I’m a dog person. But all of a sudden, Michael Vick couldn’t play the game, and he was one of the great quarterbacks. But a cheat like Tom Brady? Everybody is saying, “Well, Tom is really wonderful.” Hell, if I could cheat, I’d be wonderful too!
NG: This is true. He did. You can look it up, I didn’t make that up. There is nothing supreme about the whiteness of Tom Brady. There is cowardice and a cheat. He ought to be called what he is. Not to mention a whole bunch of other people. I just happened to mention Tom Brady.
PS: Reinventing language. This was also something that I saw as a theme in Make Me Rain. It is a text that is not only focused on stories of survival and self-love but also very much centered on family, heritage, and genealogies.
Earlier, you also mentioned a point on love. I was interested in hearing more about how you make sense of the relationship between the family and love. How has your understanding of family changed over time? Do you see your new text as a particular intervention, that is, a way to reinvent language?
NG: [Laughing] Family. The whole idea of family is really crazy. I always remind people, myself included, that we have pencils with erasers for a reason. If you had to choose, a lot of times, you’d be better off with friends that you call family because your actual family can make you crazy. They really can. [Laughing] But what makes us family is our love and respect for each other.
I’m a big fan of adoption because lately we have immigrant children we have broken up from their families. It’s good that we adopt each other. That people adopt each other.
There’s been an argument going on that white couples should not adopt Black children. But when you think about it, nobody is anything. We all have just this thing called blood going through us. As James Baldwin would have said, there’s more to being Black than meets the eye. There’s just more to it. I’m really sick of people trying to act like, “Oh, that doesn’t make sense.” Of course it does. Anytime you reach out to love something, it makes sense.
It’s time that when somebody asks, “What are you?,” you should say, “We’re Earthlings.” If anybody asks you who or what you are, say that. We’re Earthlings. If there is life on Mars or Jupiter—and I hope that there is—if they come down to Earth and ask, “What are you?” our answer has to be, “We’re Earthlings,” so that they can understand. Because if my answer was, “Oh, I’m a Virginian,” they would look at me and ask, “Well, what the hell is that?” That doesn’t make any sense.
We have to accept the fact that we are on this Earth together. It’s time that we moved out of that 10th-century crap.
PS: I want to keep this frustration concerning language and whiteness in mind. A few weeks ago, on Inauguration Day, Joe Biden made a call to unify the nation. How do you make sense of this call to unify and heal? And when should we be able to remain staunch in our condemnation of an opposing belief?
NG: First of all, I hope that Joe Biden remembers what Abraham Lincoln said. Lincoln thought we all could come together. I hope Joe Biden has more sense, because later when Lincoln went out to a show, he got a bullet in his head.
Joe Biden ought to know that this is not the way we have ever been in this country. Lincoln should have known that too. We needed to punish the South. They were traitors. Similarly, we need to punish Donald Trump. He is a traitor and he is trying to break up the country.
We’re not. Black Lives Matter, as far as I can see, we are not trying to break up the country. Those other people are. I was not standing on some stage saying, “Let’s go and kill Mike Pence.” It never occurred to me. Never occurred to me. And yet, when Black Lives Matter is out, he puts the National Guard on those peaceful, unarmed people.
If [Trump] doesn’t have to answer for that, then we are going to have another civil war. So Joe Biden has to think. If we want to unify the country, we have to make sure that we punish the people who tried to separate it. There’s no getting around that.
I have no idea what’s going to happen. I really don’t. But I know that it is incredibly important, because we’ve been through it before. Black people have been trying ever since we were brought here to America. Now it’s up to white people.
5. “You get to listen to their stories, which means that you are allowing yourself to let them know you care and you love them.”
PS: Related to the point on Black folk making the push to unify the nation—also on the day of the inauguration, we saw a really special young Black woman, Amanda Gorman, captivate the nation with her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” The piece acted as evidence of the role that poetry can play in the movement for racial justice. But I am also interested in getting back to this point that you mentioned on words.
Writing and language can be very powerful tools as we think about how to reflect and cultivate the human spirit. You also mentioned there being a strong relationship between language and change.
How are you making sense of the Black aesthetic these days? How do you think about Black art from a linguistic, musical, and/or visual perspective? Also, is there any part of the Black aesthetic that really resonates with you today?
NG: I, like all people, listen to, as we should, Tupac Shakur. He carried a message that simply had to be dealt with. It had to be listened to.
I only have one tattoo. It is on my arm and it says, “Thug Life.” When Tupac was assassinated, I wanted to somehow let his mother know that she was not alone in losing her son. It’s incredibly difficult to lose a child. I cried when I lost my dogs, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for a mother. When Emmett Till’s mother said, “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” that was so incredibly courageous. I was only 12 when Emmett was murdered, but I was older when Tupac died. I just wanted to share some of her sadness.
That’s about as far as I’ve gone into hip-hop. I’m just a John Coltrane person. I’m a Marvin Gaye person. That’s who I am, and I don’t mind it. I’m not trying to keep up. I’m not trying to be one of you. I appreciate what you youngsters are doing and where you’re going. I also know that there’s something coming, musically speaking. There is something coming and it’s going to be really interesting. I hope I’m around to see it. I know that something, another level, is coming. You can hear it. People are doing something else with music.
I don’t know where that will be, but I hope I’m able to stay around to be able to hear it. But I’ll always be able fall back on my spirituals. I’ll always fall back on my jazz.
PS: As I again think about rest, you mentioned jazz, spirituals, and Marvin Gaye; I want to hear more about how you have been navigating these dark times. Who else have you been listening to?
NG: I sincerely listen to the same thing. I have an old iPod, and it’s going to die one day and I’m going to be so sad.
It starts with Whitney Houston. She starts singing so wonderfully. It’s so nice. Then it goes through spirituals and it goes through Dinah Washington. And I like some old Cole Porter too. I must sound really old-fashioned, but Porter could write. Give him credit! He could write! So I listen to that. I have about two hours’ worth of music so sometimes, when I’m not sleeping well—I’m not that good of a sleeper—I’ll just go and put my music on and it’ll put me to sleep. Marvin Gaye is on there too, for sure. It’s always just wonderful to hear the old music.
I should probably know more about what your generation is doing. I’m not against your generation, but you asked me what comforts me—my music comforts me.
Something else that is comforting? My favorite movie: The Godfather.
PS: It is one of my all-time favorites as well. I love it.
NG: When the movie opens, Vito is rubbing the head of a cat. And Vito … and well, I’m sorry, but I knew something was wrong with Donald Trump when he didn’t have a dog. There is no leader in the world that, if they don’t have a dog, you don’t need to get rid of them.
NG: You’ll remember, Kay asks Michael at the wedding: “Who are these people? Michael, who is that?” And Michael, he says, “My brother, Tom Hagen.” And she says, “If he’s your brother, why does he have a different name?” He says, “When my brother Sonny was a kid, he found Tom Hagen wandering in the street … and so my father took him in—and he’s been with us ever since.”
Michael began to understand that you take care of people. Now, it’s also a movie about gangsters and shooting each other. I’ve seen it 800,000 times, but Vito was great man. He decided that he was gonna take care of the people that he ran into. He’s not looking for anybody. He’s not running an advertisement that says, “If you’re hungry and cold, please come see me.” He helps as he sees them. He’s saying, “I will help.” That’s the reason he’s doing that.
If we recall, he had a job, young Vito. But before he went home to his wife, he stopped, do you remember that? He stopped and he got the pear. He stopped and got the pear.
See, that’s the movie I want to see. We too, we Black Americans, we’ve seen it. In 2019, at Morehouse College, a Black man, Robert F. Smith, said, “I’m gonna pay for all of you, I finally have enough money, I’m going to pay your tuition, people.” People wrote in and they were angry: “Well, nobody did that for me.” Well, too damn bad!
But I’m happy that it was done. I’m happy that somebody said, “These are my sons. These Morehouse men are my sons.” Things like that, it’s just so wonderful. That’s the love story that needs to be told about Black people.
PS: Can you say more on that? It would seem to be the case, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but it would seem to be the case that you’re making a slight distinction between an ethics of care and love. Are you making a distinction between the two?
NG: If I’m making sense, care and love are really two different things because you can care for people, but they have to let you. So when we look at Tom Hagen, and when Vito brought him in, Tom let Vito care for him and he gave him a loyalty back, right? That’s where that love came from.
I don’t know if your grandmother or a great-grandmother is still around, but when you get to know them, you get to hear their stories. You get to listen to their stories, which means that you are allowing yourself to let them know you care and you love them.
I was watching Aretha Franklin’s funeral, and it made me so angry. Her granddaughter, she’s standing over the casket saying, “Dear Grandma, I love you.” And I wondered, did you say that when she was alive? Did she hear that? Because she doesn’t hear it now. Did you say that when she needed to hear it? Because it must have been difficult to be somebody like Aretha Franklin, where the world is always clapping their hands for you.
We’re back to what you asked—Where do you go to rest? Well, you should have some friends that you can go to. Friends that you can laugh with. Friends who are not going to laugh at you, who are going to be a part of you, who are not going to use you.
Am I making sense? That’s really all I know about care and love. You have to allow people to care for you. You need care, but you have to allow people to care. It goes both ways. I care for you, but you have to allow me. It is actually a very similar thing with love. You have to love me. And I, well, I have to let you love me.