“Black Talk”: Exploring Nikki Giovanni’s Speeches for the Undergraduate Writing Classroom

The following talk was delivered at the third annual Symposium on Teaching Writing at HBCUs, held at Morehouse College, September 27.

*    *     *

The most memorable lecture I have ever attended was delivered by Nikki Giovanni almost 20 years ago. Giovanni was in her late 50s then and had recently tattooed “thug life” on her forearm aNikki Giovanni Thug Lifes homage to the slain Tu Pac Shakur; she was delivering her talk to a predominantly white audience at Florida State University. Giovanni, who I had then known as only a poet, began her speech discussing the “alien nature” of Black people who remained humane under the inhumane conditions of the Middle Passage and slavery. I didn’t know it then, but her talk was pieced from her poem, “Quilting the Black Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).” Riddled with profane language, Black vernacular, and a griot’s loquacity, Giovanni’s delivery maintained my attention, and like the little girl in Giovanni’s poem, “A Poem for Flora,” who heard about Sheba and wanted to be like her, I heard Nikki Giovanni speak and wanted to be like her.

Alas, as a rhetoric and composition scholar and first year composition teacher trained in traditionally white male spaces, I have created a composition classroom that mirrors a patriarchy void of womanist orators (as well as one that has failed to consider the delivered poem as speech). Instead—and as an attempt to decenter the white man—I introduce my first-year writing students to the art of rhetoric by way of Black canonical works by King, Malcolm X, and most recently, after realizing the absolute way to decenter the white man is by way of the Black woman, Sojourner Truth. However, after attending the Furious Flower’s 2019 Living Legacy Seminar with Nikki Giovanni, which re-minded me of Giovanni’s oratorical genius, I have re-imagined Nikki Giovanni’s works for my composition classrooms.

My presentation, tentatively titled “‘Black Talk’: Exploring Nikki Giovanni’s Speeches for the Undergraduate Writing Classroom,” aims to invite composition teachers to consider integrating Giovanni’s speeches into their undergraduate composition classrooms, particularly within lessons regarding rhetoric. Although Giovanni’s poetry, like “Nikki-Rosa,” garners much attention in English classrooms—for it is often anthologized—her speeches (like most by Black women poets, novelists, and essayists) are often neglected. Nikki GiovanniHowever, as evident in Giovanni’s 2007 “We Are Virginia Tech” speech—which, according to americanrhetoric.com, is one of the 21st century’s top 100 speeches and, argues Robin Bernstein in “Utopian Movements: Nikki Giovanni and the Convocation Following the Virginia Tech Massacre,” “united the Virginia Tech campus in its moment of crisis” (341)—Giovanni’s speeches are just as rhetorically rich and culturally relevant as King’s “I Have a Dream.” Unfortunately, however, Nikki Giovanni’s speeches aren’t as accessible as King’s. And while many factors may contribute to such inaccessibility, one thing I know for sure, Nikki Giovanni isn’t acknowledged as an orator or philosopher.

As a matter of fact, according to Virginia Fowler, Giovanni’s biographer, academiciansGiovanni Books don’t love Nikki Giovanni. Although she’s revered as one of the greatest African American poets, particularly as it relates to the Black Arts Movement in which she has almost been pigeonholed, there is very little traditional critical scholarship on Giovanni’s work, which spans across 50 years and just as many collected poems, children’s books, essays, edited anthologies, and transcribed conversations—with Baldwin and Margaret Walker, I must note, whose credibility amongst the Black Literati may eventually write Giovanni into scholarly discourse. Nevertheless, I think Brittney Cooper in her Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women sums this neglect best:

Though we know the names of women like Mary Church Terrell and Fannie Barrier Williams, Pauli Murray and Toni Cade Bambara, we still know far too little about the actual content of their thinking. Many Black women thinkers labor under the exigencies of historical triage. Their names exist almost like family photos relegated to a wall we rarely touch. We know they are important. We memorialized them with honored places on the wall of our offices and libraries and in the histories we write. We celebrate their voluminous firsts as founders of organizations, published writers, recipients of advanced degrees, and more. But then we shelve them, as though preservation is the most apt way to show respect for their critical intellectual labor. Such acts are rooted in notions of both care and carelessness. We care enough not to let these women be thrown away, but in many respects, the dearth of critical engagements with most of [these] women . . . suggests a lack of critical care in handling their intellectual contributions. (1-2)

The same Black Literati who has fallen short, if you will, of including Giovanni amongst the Black canon not only to be read—cause we do read her “Ego Trippin,” “Nikki-Rosa,” and “The Great Pax Whitie”—but critically analyzed for its attention to black feminist/womanist theory, civil rights rhetoric, and Africana spirituality, are the same elitist, traditionalist Black scholars who maintain the marginalization of rhetoric and composition in their English Departments and National Conferences. On top of all that, with PWIs also marginalizing (if including at all) Black voices in their esteemed Rhetoric & Composition Graduate programs, integrating Nikki Giovanni’s speeches into traditional first year writing classrooms where students receive basic rhetoric and composition training—in Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals, in composing a literacy narrative and argumentative essay, and in writing about composition studies—is not even a figment of one’s imagination, and at one time, not even my own. Until the Furious Flower.

The Furious Flower, the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, founded in 1994 by Joanne Gabbin, distinguished scholar and professor at James Madison University, where the center is housed, “is committed to ensuring the visibility, inclusion and critical furious_flower_logo-240x300consideration of Black poets in American letters, as well as in the whole range of educational curricula” (www.jmu.edu). Its name is taken from a line in Pulitzer Prize winning poet’s Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1968 “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” in which she writes: The time / cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face / all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace. Gwendolyn Brooks was the center’s 1994 honoree; Nikki Giovanni was its 2019’s, of which I was a participant.

When completing the application to participate in The Furious Flower’s 2019 The Living Truth: The Life and Work of Nikki Giovanni week-long seminar for K-12 teachers and professors, I was asked (and asked again on the first day of participants’ roundtable discussion) particularly what about Nikki Giovanni’s poetry interests me so much that I wanted to study her works—in the midst of her physical company and instruction. And I, unabashedly admitted, I am not so enthralled with Giovanni’s poetry as I am with her delivered speech—and like her written word, she has delivered 50 x 50 x 50 x 50 speeches, and I want to read and study them—along with her essays, which carries the rhythm of her oratory. A few days later, I caught Nikki Giovanni (who insisted I call her Nikki) and Virginia eating their lunch, and I swooped in and privately shared my interest with them, about which they both agreed collecting Giovanni’s speeches for study and critical analysis a great idea. “But, there’s one problem,” Nikki said. “My archives are closed to the public until I die.” “Got damn it,” I said (and I’m pretty sure I said “got damn it” cause, well, I was talking w/Nikki, and she curses).

(Continue reading here.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s