“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.

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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.)

big CLIT energy

Last Fall semester, my writing students, all English majors, & I were discussing Barbara Jordan’s 1976 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address. In classical rhetoricalBarbara Jordan fashion, Jordan begins her speech w/an ethical appeal that explains to & convinces her audience that her presence as keynote speaker signals a radical shift in not only the ideals that the Democratic Party holds, but in the notion that every American citizen has a right to The American Dream. Responding to Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” Jordan says, “[H]ere I am. And I feel — I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.” My students dug it; they appreciated Jordan’s whole speech: her articulate voice, her unwavering confidence, & her intellectual content. And according to them, her introduction truly “hooks” the reader & convinces her/him that Jordan is both a credible speaker & human being–a Black woman not to be messed with, for, as she in third person proclaims, “I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.”

In this current #metoo, #blackgirlsrock, #blackgirlmagic era we are currently in, my predominantly female classroom seemed to witness in the audacious Barbara Jordan the ancestral spirit that inspires Tarana Burke, Maxine Waters, Michelle Obama, &, if they let her in, will inspirit each of them as well. And so, as one student attempted to express Jordan’s rhetorical genius, she kinda went “goo goo gah gah.” And I get it, cause not only was Barbara Jordan an eloquent orator, but she was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives, & the first African American as well as the first woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. However, what I didn’t get was why my student, while reaching for words to explain Jordan’s genius, exasperatingly said, “I mean, Dr. Bryant, she got that BDE.”

Me: She got that what?

Student: that BDE

Me: What the hell is BDE?

Entire Class: (giggles) Dr. Bryant, you don’t know what BDE is? (giggles)

Me: (Str8 faced) Um. Nope. What is it?

Entire Class: (giggles some more and pans the classroom looking for one brave spokesperson) Dr. Bryant, for real. You don’t know what BDE is?

Me: (exhales, rolls eyes, shifts position, lays papers down, and places hands on hips–arms akimbo) Will somebody just tell me what BDE is already?

Female Student: Okay. Okay. BDE means ‘big dick energy.’ 

Me: What tha? Are y’all serious right now?

And then the conversation ensued.

I asked my students–18 of them in total, including only two males–why in this 21st century world would they put a dick on Barbara Jordan. She is a woman, a BLACK WOMAN, I exclaimed. (And if flipping the student desk in front of me wouldn’t’ve appeared violently crazed, I would have.) Nonetheless, in a poorly constructed argument, or whatever, my students collectively claimed to masculinize Jordan because she was strong & assertive; she was powerful, they said, like, she had big balls. (Whispers in my head: “Yuck! They’ve given her testicles too.”) Yes, I said to them, out loud.

big clit energy button
“I got that big clit energy” buttons designed by Kendra N. Bryant for writing students, 2018

Barbara Jordan was strong & assertive & powerful, like a black woman. Expressing my own exasperation, I asked them–in our shared language & all–“How y’all gone minimize, erase, this black woman’s genius, her divine femininity, by givin her a dick? She got a clitoris!” And again, in a poorly constructed argument, my students tried to contend the rhythm of the phrase, “big dick energy,” after which I hyperbolically responded: “Clit, dick, clit, dick, clit, dick, clit, dick. So, why can’t she have “big clit energy,” I asked? Both are four letter, one syllable, rhyming words. Aaaaaaaand, Barbara Jordan IS A WOMAN!”

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Yo! The control & brainwashing of the white patriarchy is trill. Despite attending America’s largest HBCU during a time of the first African American First Lady, whose black woman magic (read: divinity) frightens many media personalities, of hashtag movements that make men more accountable for rape & molestation, while empowering women, & of the Women’s March, where women wore pink pussy hats, my North Carolina A&T undergraduate students, most of whom are majoring in English Education, had not been #woke to the white male supremacy evident in language (altho when I think of big dicks, I can see only black men–who white men castrated. Shoulder shrug. Yet, says bell hooks when discussing black feminism, our castrated black men (subconsciously) push the white male agenda, so in the black man’s move toward racial freedom & empowerment, he participates in maintaining white male patriarchy; the beat goes on, don’t it?)

But it doesn’t have to.

I teach because I aim to remind students of their humanity–cause I want to reacquaint them to their divine selves. The classroom, altho institutionalized, is still a ripe space for cultivating a revolution. And so, that Fall day in 2018, I challenged my writing students to think about how they use language & how language uses them. Altho my teaching

Students wearing big clit energy buttons
Writing students at North Carolina A&T State University pose in their “I got that big clit energy” buttons, Fall 2018 (Photo: Kendra N. Bryant)

position requires me to enhance student reading & writing skills–usually by reinforcing a standard that marginalizes their native tongues, at the very least, I can invite my students into a liberatory literacy practice that incites them to interrogate language & to awaken themselves to the conditioning that prohibits them from exercising a critical consciousness that frees their mind. Barbara Jordan & I did just that; we invited our students into a deprogramming. And I can only hope that my students will pass on that big clit energy I carried into our class discussion to their friends & into their communities, thus keeping the movement moving.


“Self Destruction”: Black Student Writers in the Social Media Age

Kendra at HBCU Conference
Kendra N. Bryant, 2018 “Symposium on Teaching Composition & Rhetoric”

The following paper is the first half of a conference presentation I delivered at the 2018 “Symposium on Teaching Composition and Rhetoric at HBCUs” hosted by Howard University and Bedford St/Martin’s. 

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According to this year’s conference call for abstracts, One HBCU scholar once described managing student literacies and the technological resources afforded HBCUs as ‘trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.’ How might we shift the conversation on technologies and literacy at HBCUs in ways that acknowledge sound media technologies and apps as central to the education of students?”

 Well, in Samantha Blackmon’s 2007 article, “(Cyber)conspiracy Theories? African-American Students in the Computerized Writing Environment,” wherein she uses Tupac’s “trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents” lyric to make her claim, Blackmon compares the challenges of managing student online literacies with trying to make something out of nothing.  That nothing included African American students’ outside of school access to technology and the Internet, coupled w/the HBCU’s access to technological resources, as well as Black students’ technological ability and interest—both of which were affected by the digital divide.  Since her publication ten years ago, while many HBCUs still struggle to afford in-classroom technological resources beyond the teacher’s desk computer and classroom projector, many Black students are accessing online writing technologies by way of smart phones and tablets.

As a matter of fact, students are writing w/technology much more now because of flourishing online writing communities (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr) and access to smartphones, which link them to their online accounts, than they were when Black Boy LaptopBlackmon produced her “(Cyber)conspiracy Theories.”  However, because of social media’s popularity amongst student writers, most of whom are members of the Google Generation or the Millennials, offering them writing courses and theories about how to write within those online spaces are often deemed futile.  As one of my former colleagues once exclaimed when I suggested creating a writing course that focuses on writing with social media and effectively using smart phones as a writing resource: “They don’t need no course in social media. They’re on it all the time.”

My conference presentation, which I have titled, “‘Self-Destruction’: Black Student Writers in the Social Media Age,” borrows from KRS-One’s 1987 Self Destruction single, which is a response to the violence that the hip hop community was inflicting upon themselves during that time.  In D-Nice’s verse, he raps:

It’s time to stand together in a unity
‘Cause if not then we’re soon to be
Self-destroyed, unemployed
The rap race will be lost without a trace
Or a clue / but what to do
Is stop the violence and kick the science
Down the road that we call eternity
Where knowledge is formed and you’ll learn to be
Self-sufficient, independent
To teach to each is what rap intended
But society wants to invade
So do not walk this path they laid

Well, when I think of this gate-keeper, former colleague of mine, who quickly dismissed my suggestion, I received her behavior as a form of self-destruction. For, as Black educators, particularly in the HBCU, we are charged w/helping our Black students to navigate thru this white patriarchy—the same system that used Black Planet as a prototype to create MySpace, and has thus been developing, infiltrating, and distracting us w/social media.

You see, while this teacher claimed our students needed no course in writing with social media and using their smart phones beyond accessing their social media platforms, I was in a classroom—and often still am—where I had to tell my students to use their phones to look up words they wanted me to define for them. Often, many of them half ass Googled terms, and when I suggested they simply download a dictionary app, they looked confused (or maybe that was their “Dr. Bryant, really?” look).

While this teacher claimed our students needed no course in writing with social media and using their smart phones beyond accessing their social media platforms, I was in a classroom where students would bum rush me at the start of class to ask me had I gotten their email—which was written as a text message or tweet by the way—cause they didn’t get a response from me—although they had, but didn’t think to check their email app and/or didn’t have notifications configured on their smart phone.

While this teacher claimed our students needed no course in writing with social media and using smart phones beyond accessing their social media platforms, I was in a classroom where I asked students about their blogging practices, and the majority of them claimed they don’t blog—although they each had active accounts on various social media platforms, all of which are blogging spaces.

My point w/some of these superficial examples is that our Black writing students were not thinking about social media and smart phone use beyond their current frivolous practices. They were not thinking about how to use their social media platforms or to even create one solely for the purpose of writing themselves into a professional and/or academic online existence that would appeal to an employer’s or college admission’s ethos, logos, and pathos—the rhetorical appeals that we tell our first year writing students are the persuasive tools required for any argument they make.

But how are we writing teachers fully servicing our 21st century, technologically-laden writing students who prefer we email them at cutiepie2001@gmail.com versus their university given email addresses, which encourage their credibility, or who don’t realize the difference between Microsoft Word and Google Docs, so they can’t figure out why the name “Google docs” is printed on every page of their MLA required essay, and therefore, don’t understand why they are losing stylistic points—because, “Dr. Bryant, the computer did it.” Or what about the 21st century Google-aged student—who Googles everything, yet hasn’t been to Google Books, Google Scholars, or Google News?

Exactly how are we fully servicing our 21st century, technologically-laden writing students if we choose to not couple their traditional writing practices w/current communication technologies that are centered w/in a grand narrative that encouragesSocial Media Image our Black students to create digital footprints that seemingly mimic shuckin and jivin? (Cause after all, I do believe that social media and smart phones are two of the biggest conspiracies to distract its users from critical consciousnesses. Lately, folks be claiming “wokeness,” but we seem to be more like that sleep deprived woke, cause we up, skimmin Instagram pages of our “woke” friends in dashikis claiming #wakandaforever.)

My point is that our assumption that Google-aged learners know how to use technology and apply social media use and technological communications to the professional, academic space—that is situated w/in the white patriarchal space—because they carry smart phones and have social media accounts, is akin to expecting our senior (or more traditional professors) to move from paper gradebooks to BlackBoard or Canvas systems w/no training or any direction because, well, teachers have desk top computers—as well as MFAs and PhDs.

While I believe social media and smart phones can be a grave distraction more often than not, I do think it’s possible—necessary—to use these master’s tools, if you will, to help our Black students build their own houses alongside the jook joints they already have the wherewithal to create. In other words, if we don’t point our 21st century students in the direction to create online spaces that serve as reflections / of their academic goals and professions / then, we’re headed for self-destruction.

In the few minutes I have left, I want to share with you all a writing assignment I employ in my first year writing classrooms that invites students to use WordPress to compose an online, professional/academic self that makes them more marketable to employers and graduate school programs, while familiarizing them with the nuances of social media use and making them active contributors to current hashtag movements. Basically, I am integrating an online social media platform in the writing classroom so that 21st century students of color can practice, as Andrea Lunsford suggests, “writing in action,” beyond Black Twitter, Instagram memes, and rhetorically rich and verbose hashtags.

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Do click here for access to one of my student’s WordPress accounts. She developed it as I instructed in the ENC 1102: Writing & Rhetoric II course I taught at Florida International University, Miami. Briefly put, students were required to develop an online employment portfolio + blogging site that included posts in response to current hashtag movements.