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.”

*    *     *

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.'”

*    *     *

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.

*      *     *

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

A Sonnet for Black Mothers & Their Girls Who Understood “Is-ness” before It Was a Theory, w/Kind Regards to Thich Nhat Hanh

I remember sitting at Momma’s feet—

my shoulders held captives between her knees,

two pillows supporting my back & seat,

while I cupped a jar of Blue Magic grease

that seemed to put magic in Momma’s hands.

She tackled my head like her weekend chores:

scratching out dandruff like scrubbing stained pans,

& greasing dry scalp like mopping stained floors,

& parting my hair like sorting my clothes.

Her hands in my head was meditation,

& each strand Momma combed nurtured our soul,

thus inviting us into creation—

a sacred space—where we could free our mind

being in is-ness, suspended in time.

rEVOLution Haikus: A Class Assignment

If I could, I would teach a poetry class.  Although I have a certificate in creative writing, I cannot teach poetry because academy culture prefers I teach within my discipline: rhetoric & composition.  It’s like checking a box named “African American” when you are also Native American & Hispanic.  I’m light-weight trapped.  Anyway, if I could, I would teach a poetry class.  & today, I did.

While grading resumes for my Improving Writing students, I discovered a poet in the midst.  A particular student currently has poems published in various spaces, & I wanted to share her with the rest of her classmates.  So, I did.  I required her to write a haiku to share w/her classmates.  Reluctantly, she did.  & after her brief presentation (for the haiku is a brief three-lined poem with 17 syllables), I required each student to write a haiku on the topic REVOLUTION.

Why REVOLUTION?

Well, at FAMU, students are engaged in SGA elections (& my FAMU alumn know how theatrical & fantastical this occasion is.) Anyway, two of my male students (who are/were members of the FAMU Court) were dressed in black suits w/a REVOLUTION campaign shirt.  The campaign is light-weight amazing, specifically because students are standing on the genius of civil rights activists.  Their entire campaign is the epitome of throwback.  I dig it–so much so that REVOLUTION became the topic of our haiku writing exercise.

Below, find the two haikus–well, I actually wrote one & provided two different last lines–that I wrote w/my students.  Each of their haikus should be available in my comments below.

rEVOLution

Can you see the love

hidden in revolution

like abstract notions?

*     *     *

Can you see the love

hidden in revolution

like it hides in us?

Reader Response Haikus for Improving Writing 2300

After reading Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not A Luxury” and overhearing a student discuss the art and challenge of writing haikus, I challenged my Improved Writing 2300 students to write a haiku in response to any of the readings we have engaged in.  To date, students have read Jo Goodwin Parker’s “What Is Poverty,” Naomi Klein’s “No Logo,” Alice Walker’s Introduction to We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, Langston Hughes’ “Salvation,” Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” and my own, “For Me, My Mother, and Those Who Keep Secrets.”

I told students that I, too, would write haikus in response to the literature we’ve read, for the haiku is my favorite poetic form.  My pieces are below.

Remembering Jo Goodwin Parker

I don’t say my grace

without acknowledging those

with no food to eat.

In Response to “No Logo”

Got D&G frames

while the other has no clothes

nor shoes on her feet.

For Langston Hughes

I.

I got salvation

through Celie and Shug Av’ry’s

discussion of God.

II.

Shug say he ain’t He,

but God be fields of purple,

valleys, and mountains.

We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For

Waiting on Jesus

to save us from ourselves

is niggard conduct.

Poetry Is Not A Luxury: Thank you, Audre Lorde

I write poetry

‘cause it’s a creative space

for transformation.

Black Women’s Poetic Genius: In Response to Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not A Luxury”

Every time I read Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” I feel like swallowing Mari Evans’ “Who Can Be Born Black” and throwing it up into the universe—with hopes that none of it hits the ground, but splatters on everybody’s faces.  In her 1970 poem, Evans asks,

Who
can be born black
and not
sing
the wonder of it
the joy
the
challenge
And/to come together
in a coming togetherness
vibrating with the fires of pure knowing
reeling with power
ringing with the sound above sound above sound
to explode/in the majesty of our oneness
our comingtogether
in a comingtogetherness
Who
can be born
black
and not exult!

 

When I read Audre Lorde’s essay, I know that Mari Evans—and many black women poets like her (Angelou, Giovanni, Clifton, Walker, Sanchez, Jordan)— have selflessly composed and shared their poetry as a tool toward liberation.  In other words, these black women poets write poetry as a social action, and therefore, are civil rights activists whose declamations have “la[id] the foundations for a future of change” (38).  And if encouraging others to be the change they want to see in the world isn’t enuf, black women poets have accepted their role as mystics, if you will, who have entered into the silences of themselves and tapped into their creative genius in order to manifest Creator.  And so, black women poets be that divine energy that Lorde claims is “a vital necessity of our existence” (37).  Basically, black women poets have ensured our very humanity; they have allowed human beings to see themselves in other beings, human and non-human; they have offered themselves to the world so that its inhabitants may understand and have compassion for one another.  Undoubtedly, poetry is not a luxury.

 *          *          *

I have been writing poetry since I was in elementary school.  However, it wasn’t until I saw Maya Angelou deliver “On the Pulse of Morning” for President Clinton’s 1993 Inaugural Address that poetry actually crawled up my spine and shook me into a holy ghost.  I was immediately smitten with Angelou, and the same way that Nikki Giovanni’s Flora wanted to be Sheba, I wanted to be Maya Angelou.

I have been following Angelou since I was in the 7th grade.  However, today I want to be like me, who is forever becoming—faithfully, more spirit than ego.  And so, I find myself borrowing from all kinds of poets—black women, Buddhists, Christians, Rastas, white men, lesbians, children, students, the sky, my dogs—in an attempt to explore my own poetic voice.  For, knowing myself is only possible through the eyes of the other.

I am so happy to be black.  To be a black woman. To be a black woman poet.

Thank you Audre Lorde, and others.