Furious Flower + Nikki Giovanni: from the Black Arts Movement to Planet Mars

In the beginning was the Word. But I promise you, I have no words to express my week long adventure at Furious Flower’s The Living Truth: The Life and Work of Nikki Giovanni,FuriousFlowerNikkiGiovanni-FinalFlyer-Page a professional development seminar for college professors & high school teachers. Words just won’t do; they are inadequate. But I will try my best.

For six days, I–along w/circa 50 other professors, teachers, & student-teachers–sat in the company of Nikki Giovanni, Black poet, professor, & human rights activist, while reading, discussing, & studying her poetry dating back to her first self-published work, Black Feeling, Black Talk, up to her most recent, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter. Listen. According to the Word, it took God six days to create the heavens & the earth, the seas & everything in them, & after each day, God looked around at all s/he did & said, “It is good.” (Throws head back & shouts.)

My time at James Madison University‘s Furious Flower Center was nothing short of a new creation. Real life, as I immersed myself in Nikki’s (cause that’s what she insisted we call her) work, her life, & her “living truth,” I was gestating in her Black feeling, Black

The Cosmic Collective + Nikki Giovanni
Furious Flower’s Cosmic Collective poses w/Dr. Joanne Gabbin, founder, and Nikki Giovanni.

talk, & Black judge/ment–which, undoubtedly, is synonymous w/her attention to Black love, Black politics, & Black spirituality. By the seventh day of the seminar, which was the day my colleagues & I were scheduled to depart (but not before making final pedagogical presentations), altho I did not “rest,” I was absolutely born again–w/a deeper understanding of & appreciation for Nikki Giovanni, the whole human being, & in turn, of & for my whole self. It was like my favorite line from Nikki’s 1972 “Ego Tripping (there must be a reason why)”:

“I turned myself into myself and was Jesus.”

I have been reading Nikki’s work since I was a little girl & have prided myself in how many of her lectures I’ve attended, how many of her texts I own (& are signNikki + I drinking wineed), & how often I’ve taught her work in my composition classrooms. Light weight, I kinda felt like I could be a Nikki scholar w/all that I knew re: Nikki Giovanni. (Altho last week, Nikki said she was my big sister. Smiling.) Nonetheless, after being in her company–in her vulnerable, transparent, & authentic space–I have learned as Socrates claimed so long ago, “all I know is I know nothing at all”–about Nikki, the Black Arts Movement, & womanist practice. Selflessly, Nikki made herself available to me & my  colleagues for the whole six days we were scheduled to read, study, & apply her work to our classrooms. She interjected where there were gaps in scholar presentations; she signed books, worksheets, & posters–daily; & like Jesus, she broke bread w/us, saying to me the day vegetarian beans were being served, “Beans are supposed to be cooked w/ham hocks.”

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There’s so much more I can say here, I don’t know what else to say. The week was a quilt of happenings. Shiiiiiiit. I don’t know if I can comprehend it, except by Giovanni’s permission. hA! Truthfully, I participated in such a sacred, amazing grace, I’m pretty sure only a hum or moan will suffice in further explicating my experience. Not to mention, much of what I experienced w/ Nikki Giovanni, the Furious Flower Center, & my 50 or so colleagues is so intimate, sharing it all here would feel like blaspheme. But, I will share these five edibles:

  1. Nikki Giovanni is the Spike Lee of film, the Dali of art, & the Aretha of rhythm & blues. She has been, undoubtedly, ahead of her time & out of this world. Getting her start in the male dominated Black Arts Movement, Giovanni–like Spike, Dali, & Aretha–neither conformed nor got stuck in a movement grounded in particular theories, practices, & expectations. Nope. Nikki kept her movement moving, doing the unprecedented w/her poetry, thus “threatening” male BAM participants. Like Zora Neale Hurston, who was blacksheeped for drumming to her own beat,Niiki BAM pic minimized for acknowledging a holistically Black, human experience, & rejected for decentering the white man from her attention, Nikki, too, was “out of line” for all those reasons, aaaaaaaaaaaand for: reciting her poetry behind a gospel choir, for self-publishing & peddling her photocopied chapbooks, for appearing on television broadcasts, newspapers & magazine covers, for throwing book release parties, for saying yes!, for– & the beat goes on. Simply, Nikki had the audacity to be her self, & from her whole self, she moved consciously thru the Black Arts Movement into a 21st century where bicycles are metaphors for love; chasing utopia informs generations; & a good cry maintains one’s humanity.
  2. Altho most little black girls recite Nikki’s “Ego Tripping” by memory, altho Giovanni is one of the most read poets–having been awarded seven NAACP Image Awards; a Grammy nomination; a National Book Award finalist; & is thrice a New York Times & Los Angeles Times best seller; & altho Giovanni is Virginia Tech‘s University Distinguished Professor, very little scholarly work has been produced of Nikki Giovanni’s work, which spans over 50 years. According to her partner (& biographer), Virginia Fowler, quiet as it’s kept, academics don’t love Nikki. #shade
  3. Throughout the week, Nikki stressed:
    1. “Black love is black wealth,” making a point that black lives matter, there is a place for Black History Month, & despite what white folk believed to be a poor, sad Black life, Nikki has always been quite happy.
    2. “Everyone needs a person,” claiming–in a non-gender conforming manner– everyone needs a person w/whom one can eat fried chicken, or who will, like her partner Ginny, check ur breast for cancer. Everyone, said Nikki, who argued Whitney Houston’s demise occurred after Robyn was forced out of her life, needs a person w/whom to intimately share everyday.
    3. “Love the people who love you, & forget the rest,” insisting, between expletives & laughter, we should give no shits re: the folk who don’t love us. As a matter of fact, according to one scholar, it was a young Nikki whose criticism of (& directly to) James Baldwin re: his literary attention to white folk & their capitalism inspirited his 1974 If Beale Street Could Talk, a story grounded in Black love that insists on being.
    4. “Look at yourself in the mirror everyday & smile, cause it may be the only smile you see that day.” In her celebrated & often anthologized poem, “Nikki-Rosa,” Giovanni writes: “and I really hope no white person has 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 uNikki smilingnderstand that / all the while I was quite happy.” Nikki’s smiling face–just look at her book covers and YouTube videos–is undoubtedly an indication of her happiness–a happiness that was grounded in her childhood experiences & is nurtured as she grows into her 76 year old self, surrounded by sister-friends, poetry, & nature. Nikki’s happy, & she told us so regularly. & she didn’t keep her practice to herself, either. Throughout the week, Nikki encouraged us to smile at ourselves daily, for it is an invitation towards happiness. “Wake up in the morning & smile at yourself,” she said, “& before going to bed, smile again.”
  4. Nikki Giovanni, who has “thug life” tattooed on her arm in homage to the slain Tu Pac Shakur (who Trump might’ve murdered, too, since, said Giovanni in her lecture, murdered Michael Jackson) is the ultimate hustler. Before securing her first job at Virginia Tech in 1987, Giovanni compiled her first poetry collection in less than a year, Black Feeling, Black Talk; self-published it at $100 for 100 copies, which she sold for $1 a piece; then, because she knew “one book does not a writer make,”
    Nikki + Liseli
    Liseli Fitzpatrick of Furious Flower’s Cosmic Collective poses w/a “thug life” tattooed Nikki Giovanni.

    Nikki compiled her second book, Black Judge/ment (despite her inability to spell, she twice explained, the slash is intentional), & launched it at a book release party in NYC’s Birdland. According to Giovanni & her scholars, Black folks wrapped the corner waiting in line to get into Birdland, & when asked what they were standing in line for, they exclaimed: “Black Judge/ment is coming!” The heat brought newspapers, making Giovanni damn near an overnight sensation. & she continued to hustle, & at 76–which she says is a good idea, cause “being young ain’t shit”–Nikki Giovanni continues to hustle, sharing her entire self w/a world who loves her.

  5.  & finally, Nikki Giovanni wants to go to Mars. Real life. She wants to go to Mars, & she said–half in jest–when the time comes for her to embark into space travel, because she’s missing some organs as a result of living w/cancer, & therefore, will not be physically able to re-enter space, once she’s done exploring outer space, her astronaut team can open the hatch & let her body float into the galaxy. Laughing, Nikki said, “Then young people can look up in the sky, & say, ‘Oh. There goes Nikki.'”

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Nikki signs my bookThe first time I attended a Giovanni lecture, I don’t think I was even 21 yet. I was a student at Florida A&M University, & our neighboring school, Florida State University, invited her as part of its lecture series. While her profane language piqued my interest & assured me I could be profane, uncensored, & scholarly–all at the same time–what was most dynamic to my young, Black self was Nikki Giovanni’s interpretation of Black people’s genius & their resolute humanity. (I actually fell in love w/her that day.) Who, she rhetorically asked, are the best equipped to travel to Mars & return to earth w/their humanity in tack but a people who were stolen from their country, stripped of their culture, forced into enslavement, yet insisted on remaining humane? Who is better inspirited for such a life altering endeavor but Black people who survived the Middle Passage? Holy shit. Y’all better go read “Quilting the Black Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).”

& while ur at it, if ur crazy in love & can’t think str8, read “I Wrote A Good Omelet,” & if the sun can’t warm ur face cause Trump’s head is blocking its rays, read “A Poem for Saundra,” & if you can’t find peace in religious doctrine, read “A Poem for Flora,” & if you feel like you need to be creating a movement, cause Black lives do matter, read “Rosa Parks,” & keep reading. Keep reading Nikki Giovanni, cause just like the poetry she writes, she is a good idea.

a poem for Yakini (because there’s something about her aura)

& I think about how beautifully black you are // so black ur bright // beaming // glaring // glistening // shimmering like Shug Avery’s shimmy // shining brighter than the brightest light // wondering if I touch the tip of ur locs // like touching the hem of His garment // will I will shine too? // but you don’t see me // staring at ur beautiful black self // wanting & longing to be in ur mind // to engross ur thoughts // to feel ur skin // to hold ur hand // all the while hoping you’ll lead me to the mountain top.

& I think of you in church on Easter Sunday // wearing a too pink pink dress that reveals ur scrawny black legs scarred by last year’s chicken pox & wounded by limbs of the oak tree that shades grandmother’s front porch & provides a place for drinking moonshine // playing cards // watching passersby pass by // they shutter // they scuttle // & they scuffle // & ur sitting in church // staring at that white jesus // knowing that he’s not ur savior // marveling at big women wearing feathered hats // crying jesus’ name // questioning how grandmothers can be so jubilant about a god they’ve never seen // who allowed their daughters to be raped // their sons to be stripped of their manhood // & why do you have to recite a speech regarding this faith you find unfaithful?

& I see you // growing thru hopscotch & double dutch // coconut milk & vegetable patties // wearing beautiful black pigtails // eating summer’s red watermelon // not caring if they call you pickaninny // because ur beautifully black // & that’s all that matters // going to school where history’s lessons are not ur story // daydreaming of Marcus Garvey & Booker T. Washington // wanting to gather ur bootstraps & march all the way to the Mother Land // so you march in ur thoughts // & ur daydream is ur movement.

& I see ur Afro wearing // dashiki flaunting // beautiful black self // changing ur name // still knowing the pride in mother’s offer // but wanting black to resonate off the tongues of those who call ur name // & maybe the world will holy ghost when it hears how beautiful black sounds // intone ur name in hopes that you will save it from the lynchings imposed by hoover // lynch // & crow // spiriting a revolution that black folks won’t be afraid of.

& I see you // mothering daughters // braiding beautiful brazen black hair // sewing dresses // mending wounds // singing “to be young gifted & black” // playing “Mississippi Goddam” // teaching beautiful black babies how to be humane under inhumane conditions // knowing that freedom’s void in integrated schools where black teachers are rarely visible to show black students how to be freedom fighters writing in the name of heroes unsung but not forgotten.

& I see you becoming Big Mom // standing on a mountain top // overseeing w/out being an overseer // gray locs falling down the strength of ur back // they lending wisdom // feeding thousands // holding the burdens of ur people in each strand // their salvation // ur strength // humming liberations // wading thru waters // baptizing the lost // curing the ill // pouring libations // thanking the spirits of those before us—

& when I lay me down to sleep // praying that the moon does not turn blood red & the stars don’t fall to the ground making earth void of light // I think of you reading In Search of Our Mother’s Garden // drinking ur red wine // cooking ur tofu // listening to Coltrane // being in ur sentimental mood // thinking ur black thoughts // being ur beautiful black self // it is then I’m lulled to sleep // wanting to wake up to be just like you.

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A version of this poem was awarded the College Language Association’s 2011 Margaret Walker Memorial Prize for Creative Writing.