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Biographical Details of Leadership
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BOND: Nikki Giovanni, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
GIOVANNI: Thank you.
BOND: I'm going to ask a few questions about Brown v. Board of Education as we begin. Can you remember hearing about it, being decided? What did it mean to you?
GIOVANNI: I don't want to say something like "I was a kid."
BOND: You were ten years old or younger.
GIOVANNI: I was born in '43 and so that was '54. So I was maybe eleven, so what, fifth grade? And what I remember was my parents, we lived in a suburb called Wyoming, Ohio, and it's outside of Cincinnati, about twenty minutes outside of Cincinnati, going north. I remember everybody came home, right. We lived at 1038 Burns. We had a front yard. I remember because I was on my bike and don't ask me why, but there was something in the air. Actually it was a little sidewalk cycle. I remember leaving my bike in the yard, which I was not allowed to do, and running upstairs. "Everybody?" I remember my father said to me "Now that'll show 'em!" I was trying to put together what everybody was excited about. But the whole neighborhood just -- it was not a block party, but there was this sort of celebration that sprang forth.
BOND: So people came out of their houses and gathered together?
GIOVANNI: Came out of -- from work because my parents were home because my parents were school teachers. But they should not have been home when I was home. And you know, again, I'm eleven years old, but that was my -- if you said, "What one thing do you remember about Brown?" that's what I remember. I just seemed like the whole neighborhood was excited about something. The kids were trying to figure out what it was, because it was like May, so it wasn't any kind of holiday we could put our hands on. But everybody was happy.
BOND: Could you tell from the expressions of adults around you then, this was something positive, something positive had happened?
GIOVANNI: Oh yeah.
BOND: And did you have any idea then what it meant?
BOND: And what it was about? None at all? Do you -- can you remember when you discovered what this meant?
GIOVANNI: Well. Sure. Because my sister, even though it's Ohio, my sister, whose name is Gary, ended up going to Wyoming High School. And that turned out to be not one of the really great experiences in life because what we were going to have the next year, and I remember that very vividly, is the murder of Emmett Till that August. And Gary and Beverly Waugh and someone else -- I forget her name now, I can see her face -- were the three black girls integrating Wyoming High School. And the Till case came up -- and of course they no longer have what used to be called Civics -- the professor in Civics said he got -- Emmett Till got -- what he deserved. Gary and Beverly stood up, and I do believe cursed at him.
GIOVANNI: Yeah, because remember Jet had those pictures?
BOND: Yes. So there was no way that you could look at this and think that anybody?and, you know, the families always said "attitudes, I guess," but they were kicked out of school. I mean, they -- he kicked them out of the class, and they went to the principal and he kicked them out. Mr. Waugh, Beverly's father and Gus, our father, went up to the superintendent of schools -- not to the principal, but to the superintendent -- and demanded an apology. So that was my -- again what I was connecting the dots on, because Wyoming integrated and that didn't seem a good idea. So I ended up attending school in Knoxville, Tennessee, because I remember the family discussion was, "We've already given one to integration, so we're not going to give two." That was probably my good luck.
BOND: Yeah. So looking back on it now from today's perspective, what is -- what has the Brown decision meant both to you and generally speaking?
GIOVANNI: I think the Brown decision was absolutely crucial because Plessy v. Ferguson had to be over -- had to be overthrown. Separate, as the Warren Court said -- and thank God for the deaths and things that made that 9-0 decision possible -- but separate is inherently unequal. If the question is, and I suppose it is a question, has this been troublesome to the black community because it's put us in sort of a limbo -- and the black community, I think, is still reeling from that limbo? Yeah, it's been troublesome. But it's been necessary because you couldn't -- we could not continue under an apartheid system. It just, it's not going to work. The Dred Scott decision was bad, and Plessy was worse. And it was time to bring America, as much as we can, into the twentieth century so we could head for the twenty-first.
BOND: In the material prepared for this interview I read something you'd said, and this is not a quote, that there were costs and benefits associated with Brown. Do you think the benefits outweighed the costs?
BOND: And it was worthwhile?
GIOVANNI: Absolutely. And I say that simply because a people cannot -- I mean this is Lincoln. I mean God, what's wrong with it that Nikki Giovanni is going to quote Abe Lincoln. But if people can have it half slave and half free -- ? The barbarism that we saw from our fellow Americans was always there and everybody tried to act like, "Oh, maybe Mack [Charles] Parker deserved it. Maybe Emmett deserved it. Maybe all of the bodies that we found these were just guys who were raping white women. And hmm, what should we say about the women that we lynched because we forget how many women were lynched and how many children?" That had to stop. That had to stop. Somebody had to tell those people you really cannot continue to murder black people with impunity the way that you're doing. And it's a message that still needs to be reinforced. You can't murder blacks. You can't murder gays.
I mean Matthew Shepard is a white Emmett Till. You can't -- you can't do that. It's time that we found another way to exist. It's clear when you look at the President, and I'm really not a fan of the President at all -- and I'm talking about Bush in case this is eighty years from now -- but Bush is an idiot. But he's also back to the level of barbarism. He thought, "Oh, I can just go and bomb these people, and they'll what? Love me?" It's got to stop. That level of violence has to stop. Martin [Luther King Jr.] was right. It has to stop. I don't know that we can make the beloved community, but you can't continue to put people over there and say, "Well, they're going to be all right." I -- as much as you -- and I don't want to speak for you, Julian -- but we grew up in another kind of community that some would say, "Well, you all made out all right in segregation." But it was too high a price.
BOND: I wanted to ask you about that. There are people who say, "Well, look at you. You grew up under segregation. You grew up under segregation. You turned out okay. This was a nurturing time. All children learned how to read then. They don't now." They romanticize this past. Do you find that so?
GIOVANNI: I find that people want what is called the good ol' days, but I'm sixty years old. I talk to some people that I know and they say, "Like, wasn't high school fun?" I don't remember a damn thing about high school that was fun except that you got out of it. But I'm not nostalgic like that for the past. I think that all children don't learn to read, by the way today, but they should. And we no longer have eighth grade -- I grew up with eighth grade graduation. We had eighth grade graduation because we knew that the majority of our classmates would not make it to the twelfth grade. They had kids like me who were going to be on what is called "college track." But we had so many other kids who were going to be not on college track, who were being told, "No, you do not have what it takes." So we in America -- I teach at Virginia Tech -- we are still having youngsters at Virginia Tech, black and white, who are first-generation college. So these were not good days, because now at least people feel like "I should go to college," or "I want my children to go to college. That I shouldn't just suck it up and say I'm not worthy."
BOND: When you talked about moving to Knoxville to go to school you said your parents had given up one child for integration and that was your good luck. Good luck how?
GIOVANNI: I grew closer to my grandmother. And I -- we were living --of course, I'm sixty so we are still a part of the extended family. But I would never have gotten to know Grandmother and Grandfather in the way that I did had I not lived with them, had I not been the only grandchild there.
BOND: What about the change between the semi-integrated situation you're leaving in Ohio and the segregated system you're finding in Knoxville?
GIOVANNI: Cost and benefits. I had a segregated -- and of course, Grandmother, my God, the day -- oh God, I'm laughing but it was very sad to me . The day that the children were bombed -- this was in '63 -- the day that the children were bombed in Birmingham, there was a mass meeting in Knoxville. I could tell you eighty million stories about this, but there was a mass meeting in Knoxville. My grandmother, actually was three years younger than I am now, right. Grandmother goes to the mass meeting. Of course she's sitting down front because she's one of the community leaders and there are others in Knoxville, but she was sitting down front. And they decided to have a march, right? Grandmother is the first person on her feet. She said, "John Brown and I are too old to march. But my granddaughter Nikki's here and she will march for us." But I hadn't gone because the children were not invited at that point. You remember. It was only a when we got to Birmingham -- as we got into the Birmingham campaign the children became so prominent. So Grandmother came home and she said, "Hah! Got good news for you." I'm looking at her because I'm not a fool. I knew what had happened. I thought whatever she's got it cannot be good news for me. She said, "I was the first person. I told them that John Brown and I are too old to march but you'd be there for us." She said, "I'm gonna get you up in the morning and fix breakfast and we'll be up in a cab to watch you."
I think I would have been a very different person without knowing that woman in that way.
BOND: So that was a benefit?
GIOVANNI: Oh, my God yes, because -- well Grandmother --grandparents are so different from parents in both their expectation and in how they approach you. Grandmother's like, "Isn't this wonderful?" and I did -- I mean I had to go picket because it was -- whatever was uptown -- in Knoxville, Tennessee that was Gay Street. Whatever was on Gay Street was not as formidable to me as me telling Grandmother I couldn't do it. But you know Julian, when you look at the civil rights movement you're still looking at grandparents and grandchildren because that parent who was saying to all of us, I think -- I'm not speaking for you in any way -- but the parents were saying, "I don't want you hurt. I sent you to school to get an education. Don't do that. Let somebody else do that." It was the grandparents -- it's like, "Yeah, let the boys say what -- " It was the grandparent. Another aside if I may for just two seconds --
GIOVANNI: I'm a big sports fan. In looking at the NBA, just for example, if you look at the NBA right now. Again you've got this phenomenon of grandparents rearing grandsons who've gone on to be superstars. And I know that there's something to that grand -- that grandparent experience that's very different. We have so many parents who for -- and I'm not -- have nothing against that -- but for a variety of reasons, drugs or no jobs, or any number of things, have not been able to rear their children. They've taken them back to their grandparents. You look at all these superstars. You're looking mostly at grandsons. It's a phenomenon. I wish I was a sociologist. I would study it. I'm a poet so I'm just interested.
BOND: Yeah, it's a phenomenon that also has cost and benefits.
GIOVANNI: But real good costs.
BOND: Talking about your grandparents is a natural segue. Who are the people who have been influential in your life, starting as early as you can remember -- parents, teachers?
GIOVANNI: Oh, I'm definitely a momma's girl. I think -- well, the family's only the four of us, and so my sister was definitely a daddy's girl. I'm a mommy's girl. Of course my grandmother, Emma Lou Watson, just had a terrific effect on me because the term that I use is, "I fell in love with her." But watching -- even I was little, before I lived with her -- watching how Grandmother did things. I see a lot of what she does, I see myself doing it. It's -- I think those women are just phenomenal.
BOND: Do you think you consciously modeled yourself, your behavior, after them?
BOND: I don't mean mirroring the way they walked and talked and so on. But they held an image for you of what you might want to be?
GIOVANNI: Well of commitment -- yeah. You're supposed to give something back. I've worked in the Baptist Church, and that's what you do. Sunday you go to church. They gave you a dime or a nickel, whatever they had, and you could between Sunday School and church you could go to Carter Robert's, which was the drug store, and you could get an ice cream cone or whatever. But right after church you came home, changed your good clothes. Then you delivered dinners to the sick and shut-in. And that's what you do. So it always made sense to me that before you take care of your things because you're going to -- I mean we were not going to be hungry, right? So there was no reason in Grandmother's mind since we weren't going to starve, there's no reason to be hungry, right? So before you sit down to eat, you go and do your jobs. So even right now -- and I know that's Grandmother -- even right now when I have things to do, the last thing that I'm going to do is sit down to eat, or look at TV. I'm going to finish what -- I'm going to clear my desk before I sit down. That's Grandmother and her friends.
BOND: What about parents and teachers?
GIOVANNI: Well, I know my mother influenced me, but I never think about my mother in that way, to be honest with you. I'm sure it drives Momma crazy, she says "Well, damn, I've been a wonderful mother." Well, yeah, but I don't think about her influentially. But Miss [Alfredda] Delaney was my English teacher, and she only died five years ago now, and she died of old age, too. But I used to go over, no matter where I was. As she got older, every -- during the Christmas season -- you know, before Christmas, of course, I would go over and address cards for her. Because she didn't have anybody else, she couldn't see well. So I'd just go down and spend the day in Knoxville, and address cards for Miss Delaney. It was fun. Then we'd go out and have dinner. It was great. By the time she's in her mid-eighties it's like, "Miss Delaney, would you like some sherry?" -- because she liked sherry. It's like, "I think I will have a little sherry." So you got to know your teachers in another way. Emma Stokes was my French teacher, and I think those are the two teachers I was closest to.
BOND: What did they do for you besides being teachers?
GIOVANNI: Well, they cheered for me, you know. I don't know. They I always thought whatever it was, it was like "Okay," and they would call for Yolanda. "Ask Yolanda. She can do it." So whatever it was -- they needed a speech given, "Ask Yolanda." They needed an errand run, "Ask Yolanda." I guess to another degree I just felt like, because I was the kid they asked, that I'm supposed to be responsible.
BOND: Now when in this process does Yolanda Giovanni become Nikki Giovanni? I don't mean the name difference.
GIOVANNI: I know.
BOND: How does Nikki Giovanni begin to develop out of Yolanda?
GIOVANNI: Well. see to me I was always Nikki, so it was always strange to hear people -- the fight that you had with people is to not -- and maybe that's my point of rebellion -- was to not let what was written on a piece of paper become who you are. That was the fight I was having. Ms. Peersaw, God bless her, who only died last year, Ms. Peersaw was, like, a hundred and two. She was my third-grade teacher. I would always sign Nikki, and she would always scratch it out and said Yolanda.
BOND: Oh really?
GIOVANNI: Yeah. And Ms. Peersaw was old. She was wonderful. And again, I was kind of lucky that -- I don't make a lot of new friends and so I keep the old ones that I have. And Ms. Peersaw's family and another family was one of them. And it was just so funny because I was always struggling to get her to call me Nikki because my classmates -- everybody called me Nikki. But your name is -- " Now I know I felt like Kunta Kinte: "No, my name is Nikki." I don't care what is written down. And so you struggle just to be yourself.
BOND: But -- but Nikki Giovanni, the poet whom the world knows, and Yolanda Giovanni, the school girl whom school mates and teachers know, these are different people. I mean, they're the same but they're different people. So I guess what we're interested in is how you got from that, to this, and when did you begin to think about writing poetry. I know you talked about declamations and speech making and so on. When did that begin to seem to you to be something you could do all the time?
GIOVANNI: Well, it's something I'm still thinking about.
BOND: Or how did you begin to think about it?
GIOVANNI: In college because I think I put strange things together, I mean you know that. I'm always looking for how do you mix oil and water, you know, one of those kind of things. In college obviously you're going to get to poetry because that's the only form that allows you to do that with any kind of consistency. And so I was at Fisk, and I mean, what is Fisk if not the arts? I know Fisk has labs and stuff. Fisk is an art school. I always enjoyed the writing. But also I enjoyed the process of the newspaper, the literary magazines. It's always the story. I'm an Appalachian. I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, by the way, and eastern Tennessee is known for its storytelling. I'm always proud to say it because I think she's a swell person, you know -- probably the almost famous storyteller out of eastern Tennessee is Dolly Parton. She tells stories through song. James Agee, you know. But I tell stories through poetry. Once you realize what's driving that engine is a story, then you think, "Okay then, what stories do I want to tell?" My editor is Kelli Martin who is a wonderful young lady always talks about, "Well, what is the mission of this book?" And I hadn't really thought about books as having missions. But I think when I looked at my work each book does have a mission. It's trying to tell us stories. Trying to get an idea and a thought across. And so --
BOND: But back before then, you know, for someone to say "I'm a poet" seems extraordinary to me. I've written poetry years and years ago. Years and years ago.
GIOVANNI: Look at that guy shake that thing. I'll always remember that. That's a lovely poem.
BOND: But when I was at -- when I was in college, Langston Hughes was the only living poet I knew. What -- who are models for you at Fisk and even before, when you thought about poetry as a life?
GIOVANNI: Well sure. Well, there's Gwen. I'm not a big fan of "role model" as a term, but Gwen Brooks, of course, who is a great poet and quite an honor for me to know, and actually Gwen was born -- oh no, I was born on Gwen's birthday -- but we're all June 7th babies. And of course there was Langston. But I was taught by Leslie Collins who was not a major renaissance poet, but he's a minor renaissance poet. I was taught by Robert Hayden who was an English teacher at Fisk. I was taught by Aaron Douglas, my art professor at Fisk. I mean, Fisk was so rich with -- again with the arts. And, of course, Fisk had the -- we had a lot of speakers coming in and things. So it's always around it.
But I don't -- I'm always hesitant when people talk about role models because most of life is not about what you see, but what you dream. And we were talking about Emma Stokes or Miss Delaney or my grandmother or any number of other -- Mrs. Black, you don't know and we haven't discussed -- who was in the church, the O'Neill sisters and things like that that make me cry. But the main thing is that people kept saying, "There's something more to be done." They probably did a little better job of saying it. It would be like, "Well, and what do you think?" So I always thought that my job was to think beyond what was known which means that I don't know I guess consciously when I started reading Alfred North Whitehead -- so that's what sixth, seventh grade? Something like that -- I didn't understand a lot about higher mathematics yet I thought, "Okay, if I'm reading Whitehead because I like space and I like -- we have to do something with math, right?" So I'm missing a lot about the physics but I'm getting the idea. You're going to take what you know and you're going to keep going forward.
If that's the case you going to come up with something different. This is what I'm trying to say. So it's not -- it's not a role model. It's not what has been done. It's what hasn't been done. I guess if I credited all those -- and essentially they are women -- if I credited all those women in my life, what they showed me was that, "Yeah, so you make a mistake. Big deal. You tried to do something." So if I took one thing from Knoxville, Tennessee -- in fact, I took more than one -- but if I took one thing it's like "Yeah, so you made a mistake, big deal."
BOND: You said a moment ago that you'd realized that you looked at things differently, or you looked at things in a different way. And I think that's what makes your poetry so interesting, is you take things that everybody looks at and look at them in a different way. But I'm curious -- when did you understand that you looked at things in a different way? That your schoolmates -- ? Or before then or how did you understand that?
GIOVANNI: You always kind of knew you were a little different. I'm sure you did the same thing because you -- I saw pictures of you, Julian, the other day, and your pants were short, because I'm teaching this civil rights course, and you were in Selma --
GIOVANNI: No, you were in Selma.
GIOVANNI: It was in Selma. You're cute as a button; I was looking. But you know how many people did that at your age? How many people would walk away from Morehouse to do that? You know, you see what I'm saying? And so you always sort of say to yourself, "I'm different." Then you say to yourself, "And it's all right." I think that that's a -- that's the key. "And it's all right."
I am different. But it's -- you know, I just never wanted what -- what I kept seeing. It just -- I just recently bought a car. I've been so proud of myself. It's so true, I never had an interest -- I only bought a house because Tom, my son, because Thomas was going to college and, don't laugh -- but when you have a kid and you try to say to yourself, you got kids going to college, and you sort of do some not heavy research, just basic research, and what does a kid need? A place to bring friends, an automobile, an [allowance] -- so you go through all of that. I thought, "Oh my God, we don't have a house." You know, I was living in a little studio apartment which suited me. I thought oh. So I said to Thomas, it's okay, because he said to me, "What address should I use to apply to college?"
It was like "Oh my God. My son doesn't have a home." So I bought a house and I'm glad. It's a nice house, and I have a little pond and I've got a koi in it. So I'm domesticating myself. I have a dog, and she's really nice. I have a car now. But these were all things that when I was growing up just never interested me. And I think it was important I didn't make myself not -- I just wasn't interested. I had friends, of course, who liked to dress. You have to dress because you're not allowed to run around without clothes. And so you realize, "Well, okay if you buy a pair of pants of Italian silk they'll last for five years. They look good and you put a velvet jacket on, and you paid a lot of money for it but then you don't have to buy it again, right. And all you need are a couple of white shirts and you're fine. So that everything I had until I had Thomas actually fit into one suitcase and a Volkswagen. And it was wonderful because you're free. So if you say, "I'm going to California," put all in the Volkswagen. It's not until you have a kid that you finally have to say, "Oh, I need an address," and so you get an apartment or something.
BOND: This project is called Explorations in Black Leadership, and the people who've sat in that chair are people who are leaders. Now, I've read in some of the material prepared for this interview that you don't think of yourself in these terms, and that you've said that what you do is preaching to the already converted, preaching to the choir.
GIOVANNI: I'm preaching to the saved, yeah.
BOND: To the saved. And these are people who aren't saved by you but are already saved. We could argue about that. But nonetheless I don't think you'd deny that at least in your profession you are a leader, a recognized leader. I just saw in Black Issues in Higher Education, the annual poetry edition, a great celebration of you, lovely picture of you, review of your latest book. That's a leader. They're describing a leader. So when did you first begin to think of yourself as a leader -- and don't deny that you are a leader -- when did you begin to think of yourself as a leader?
GIOVANNI: Okay, I'm going to give you a Condoleezza Rice answer. God, I hate her. That'd be another discussion. In approaching this profession -- which, I wanted to be a poet. I said to myself, "Okay, what are the chances?" Well, the chances are nil, right? You're absolutely going to fail if you want to be a poet. You can't take care of yourself. Nobody's going to read the poetry, right? And so the thing to do is give it your best shot and then when you fail you can say, "I tried." But I got lucky and people did like it, right? So the next thing to do is not take it seriously, because if you take it seriously then you become ponderous, and we know many, many ponderous --
BOND: Stop right there and go back to when you first published. You're in New York. And people take it seriously. Who are the people who took it seriously who are important to you and who I'm guessing, I hate this word, who validated you?
GIOVANNI: They're my readers though. My first book was Black Feeling, Black Talk. I was at Columbia University and I was in the MFA program thanks to the really good offices of a woman named Louise Shoemaker because I -- I met Louise -- see, this is going to be long and ponderous now -- I met Dr. Shoemaker at University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work where I was going to get an MFA. She took me out to lunch one day. It was really very charming, and she says, "You know Nikki we all enjoy your papers -- " And you know when you hear somebody saying you're going to get kicked out of school. So I was just like, "Okay. So you don't think I'm going to be a good social worker?" She said, "Oh no. We know you're not going to be -- " It was just not a thought at all. Said, "Well, we think you'll be a good writer, and why don't you consider Columbia?" I'm looking at her like, come on now. I am a poor girl. I'm on scholarship here, so how am I going to get to Columbia? She said, "I took the liberty of writing them about you." I said, "Well, that was very nice," because I'm like, "And -- ?" I was thinking again this was like gently letting me down. She said "They were impressed, and so we enrolled you in the MFA program." I said, "My God -- "
BOND: You mean your social work papers got you in the MFA program?
GIOVANNI: At Columbia? Uh huh. And a scholarship.
BOND: What were your papers about?
GIOVANNI: Oh, a lot of really good things, because you know we did things on the Holocaust, you know, and community control. Good things that I was interested in. So I always enjoyed --
BOND: I imagine I could write a paper on the Holocaust and I don't think it would get me into any MFA program.
GIOVANNI: Oh I bet --
BOND: I don't think so.
GIOVANNI: You're a good writer. I mean I remember you have a nice sense of humor.
BOND: Not that good a writer, no.
GIOVANNI: Well, I think that -- I don't know, I mean, I think I got lucky and I think Louise was good. But whatever the quality is of writing --
BOND: You had that, and it was evident.
GIOVANNI: People were willing to take a chance. I was always willing to let people help me. Let me put it that way. So if I would say one thing important to your audience, you have to let people help you. Louise was quite, quite, quite helpful. I thought it was really nice that she did that because she also knew that if I had to apply to Columbia and I had to go up for an interview I would blow it, because I invariably blow things like that because they say something and I take an attitude, or I don't want to ask anybody -- like, I don't mind asking for help, but I'm not going to sit there and have somebody say, "Now why do you think you should come to Columbia?" "Because, dammit, where else am I -- ?"
So she eliminate -- she recognized enough in me to say, "Let's eliminate her messing up her life, and let's do that and if she makes it, she makes it. If she doesn't, she doesn't." So I went to Columbia, and I rented -- because of the nature of the scholarship and I got an apartment and I got a phone, which at that point was quite something in New York -- and was in school. Actually I took a history class because you could take classes. You know, I used to sit in on them. And it was just -- it was a good experience for the year.
GIOVANNI: But the deal was, in two years you should have completed a book-length manuscript. Well, I completed a book the first year, and having done so and it is poetry, I said, "Well, who's going to publish my poetry, right?" Nobody. I mean who is going to be interested in this? So I called my grandmother and a few friends and I asked my grandmother for $500 dollars because I knew she had it. And I asked a few other people to make it a loan and I had the book published, right. I'm not a bad business woman. I'm not ever going to be rich, but rich was never an object for me.
So I had the book, Black Feeling, Black Talk. I had a thousand copies of it, so I have to sell it, right? So I went to...Book Store --
BOND: In Harlem.
GIOVANNI: -- in Harlem, right, and Robin's Book Store in Philadelphia, City Lights in California. I sent around -- I sent five copies here, five copies there. Asked the people to sell it. Do you know nobody cheated me? They sold them. You'd get these little checks for three dollars, you know. And I thought, "Okay, if you're going to do that -- and this was like Business 101 -- if you're going to do that, the business has to be separate -- which we need to probably still teach, having watched the executives really loot their companies. But business has to be separated from the person.
So I had the business account which meant that I needed to make $700 in this account to take that book back, right. If I tampered with that then I wouldn't know if I had actually made the money. But I said to Columbia, you know, "I did it. I did the book, and it's out and I published it and it's copyrighted and it's in the Library of Congress and it's a nice book and it got reviewed in the minor presses -- not the major presses -- but in the minor presses. And so I want my MFA." They said, "No, no, Miss Giovanni, it's a two-year program." You know how people say "it's a two-year program"?
"You have to complete the second year." I thought, "No," to myself, "that's not going to work for me."
So I had to think that one through. I said, "Okay." So I re-enrolled and I went down -- because I had a scholarship from Ford -- I went down to the comptroller's office and I said, "I'm Nikki Giovanni." I presented all that. I said, "I want my check." She said, "No, Miss Giovanni, we don't give that. That check comes from Ford to Columbia and it pays your tuition." I said, "That's racist of you because you're saying I can't -- I don't know how to handle the money, you know. So that's terribly racist of you," and "Who do I talk to about this? Because I'm shocked." I said, "I didn't realize this, but I'm shocked. I put a year in here and I should be -- I'm grown -- " I was twenty-four years old. She said, "Oh, no. You'd have to talk to -- "
It ended up I talked to one of the vice presidents who said the same thing -- race cards work every now and then. I said, "All right, I can't believe -- but if you want to keep my money you keep it, because I'm gone." So we worked it out. "So here, we're going to give you your check," which I really wanted because it was my check. I didn't want to go back to Columbia because I didn't see wasting time.
GIOVANNI: But I was working on Black Judgment. So if I knew --I knew if I could get my $10,000 from them, I could publish a really pretty book, and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to let them help me. So I had this book and I had a publisher. I had a printer down in the Village, and we did -- Black Judgment is a really pretty book. My friend Bill Taylor did the cover for me. We did like a brown paper with a dark brown ink. If you see a first edition of that book, it's beautiful, and I have --
BOND: And valuable, too, I'd imagine.
GIOVANNI: Pretty much so. I was surprised because I only have about two first editions myself. But my next door neighbor at that point was guy named Morgan Freeman. His good friend was a guy named Clifton Davis. My neighbor downstairs was a guy named Cornell Dupree. My neighbor across the street was a guy named Gregory Hines, and down the street from that was Gene McDaniels, and we all sort of hanged -- we would hang together. Right up the street was Barbara McTier, right. So it's like -- I've got these neighbors, and if you don't use your friends, who do you ask? Because I've been a good friend and I would remain so. I've been a good friend and so I asked them all, "Would you read for me?" and they said, "Sure," and what? And the answer is like, "Sure," because we all supported each other, "Sure."
I said read for Black Judgment. I went, and this was like -- this was when Nikki was crazy -- my mother is a jazz fan, and I love my mother very much and I wanted to do something for Mommy. I wanted to -- because maybe this is the only book I'm going to do, right? So I went to Birdland because I thought I'll have a book party at Birdland because it's closed on Sunday. It's a great day to do that. There's a guy there, Harold Logan, who is the partner of Lloyd -- Mr. Price. Lloyd Price.
So I'm meeting Mr. Logan. I made the appointment with Mr. Logan. "Hello, Mr. Logan." "Miss Giovanni, sit down." "Yeah, you're that poet." You know because Logan kept his-- I said, "I'd like to have book party in Birdland." He said, "How much you pay, ma'am?" 'Cause he's a gangster. I said, "Mr. Logan I don't have any money. I'm a poet. Where would I get money? But you're closed on Sunday. So if you open, it's just your lights and your air, right? And I can bring you people." He thought about it, he said, "Well, I'll tell you what, Giovanni." Said "Bring me a hundred people and you can have the club. Ninety-nine people and you pay me $500." So I was like, "Yeah, hey, that's a good deal." I'm glad because Birdland at that point was on Broadway and it's down -- I walked up the steps and it hit me. I just told a gangster that I would bring him a hundred people, which if I don't --
BOND: And he was a gangster too --
GIOVANNI: Oh, Lloyd was murdered in the middle of street, which was a shame because I always liked Harold -- but nonetheless it dawned on me my legs are going to get broken or -- you know? So I started doing late night radio. WWRL was one of the first -- and I was saying "Black Judgment, Black Judgment is coming. Come on down to Broadway, to Birdland." Sent out invitations, went to churches. It was fantastic because we had about five hundred people. Sunday.
And you know, Birdland's at 48th. The New York Times's at 42nd. So we had a line that did that -- so the New York Times is thinking the Negroes are rioting, right? So they sent a reporter down to say, "What is it?" and everybody in line. Said, "Why are you in line? What are you waiting for?" and they said, "Black Judgment." So all of a sudden it was like -- so they started out by saying, "Nikki Giovanni." So the reporter comes up to me. It was amazing. And he says, "I'm looking for Nikki Giovanni." and I said "Yeah, I'm Nikki Giovanni." He said, "Well, where is he?" Because he's not listening. I said, "I'm Nikki Giovanni." "So what is this?" I said, "It's Black Judgment." He said, "What is it doing?" I said, "It's coming."
So I made the second news front in the New York Times. If you want to say what took it to the next spot -- I think the faith of the community in me. I still feel really reciprocal about that, of course, and the fact that that book party, which I did from my heart. But I couldn't let Harold down. I liked Harold. I mean, I know he probably did ugly things to other people, but he wasn't a bad man. And that I was able to make the second news front on the New York Times that was -- there was a picture of me -- that was invaluable.
BOND: In addition to these people who are your neighbors and friends and living in the building and across the street, you're also meeting poets. You're meeting this New York City group of people who are sort of in the Bohemian life, Baraka and others. What about them?
GIOVANNI: Well, we weren't -- I, of course -- and speaking of older than me -- see, we invited Baraka when he was LeRoi Jones, to Fisk, right? He was grown when we were -- I'm always teasing him like, "You were an old man then -- " He said, "I was not an old man." We have become warmer as the years have gone by because there are fewer of us and because life lessens some of the tensions of the dreams, I suppose. And of course Amina is a wonderful person. Amina and I came together because of a nervous breakdown of a wonderful poet named Carolyn Rodgers, and we were both -- we liked her as a human being and so we were -- we worked together to try to see if we could be of any service. That's kind of what bonded Amina Baraka and me. Of course I knew Ishmael, I mean -- but I was not a Bohemian. And my forays into the Village was pretty much limited to the cheese shop. I'd ride my bike down and --
BOND: But these -- but these figures were around, were they not?
GIOVANNI: But not for me, Julian, to be honest. I mean I threw a party once and they came. I was glad because I had invited a bunch of people. I lived on 83rd, and it was nice to see them, but I didn't hang out with them, and I don't think that if you talked to anyone they would say anything -- there was no antagonism. It was just not what I did.
BOND: You're not in the same world? Is that it?
GIOVANNI: See, this would start an argument. See, to me they just didn't work hard enough. And I didn't see where they had the time. I mean, I remember there was a place -- I think it was called the Lion's Head, the Lion's Den, or something. I didn't see where they had the time to sit there. First of all, I'm not a beer drinker. I only started drinking wine since I came to Virginia Tech. I mean, that's -- my father was an alcoholic. I don't know. If you grow up with an alcoholic, you avoid liquor. I was fifty-three years old before I took a drink. So people have other ideas about you, but I've always been a workaholic, and I just never did see -- I mean, Steve Cannon and them, and I love Steve, you know, I really do. But I just didn't see where they had the time to hang out -- how you could get anything done.
GIOVANNI: I -- for the first two years I was in New York I was, I was just taking care of myself. But then after I had Thomas, I had responsibilities, right? And I didn't have a job and didn't want a job, wasn't looking for a job, which meant that I had to earn a living from my poetry. I had to pay rent. I had to pay utilities. I had to buy diapers. And for the first time in my life, I had to buy food for somebody. So you work. I used to see you. I'd be on the road, I don't know forty-eight weeks out of fifty, fifty-two? If I didn't work like that -- because you don't -- that's hard, finish your sentence, Nikki -- the hardest part about being an old road warrior, which essentially is what I am, is that you have to keep saying "Yes," because you never know when they'll quit asking.
BOND: When the question won't come. Yeah.
GIOVANNI: So Thomas, of course, was nomadic. He just ended up -- I mean I'm sure to some degree he felt like life was more on an airplane than anyplace else because I took him with me until he was able to go to school. And then when he started school I added another mouth to feed, as it were, because I had to have a nanny. Because somebody had to be there. I ended up hiring a really wonderful young woman named Debbie Russell. And Debbie traveled with us forever and ever, until we went to Cincinnati one summer and she kept Thomas, and I was going to Africa. And she met Bill, fell in love, and then she got married. I said "You can't get married!" She said, "Yeah, I have to get married." So she got married.
By then, though, Thomas was able to again travel with me or -- you know, we kind of got it worked out. But if you got a nanny and an apartment and a kid and a dog -- because every kid has to have a dog -- that was, when I had a son I knew I had to get a dog because it just didn't seem fair. You know, you read the books. Everybody grows up with a dog. So I thought, "Okay. Got to get a dog." You're just out there trying to earn a living. So I just -- I never saw the Bohemian scene. I never -- I don't think that they put out the work that they could have put out. I think Ish has done a really good job. He's moved back to Berkeley, and he does a thing with the, you know, Before Columbus Foundation, I don't mean -- and I know Steve does -- I mean they do good work, but you really wish that you could have taken some of that casualness away, because there were still ideas -- the community of which we are a part still is without a voice. Of course, Jimmy Baldwin is such a light. I mean, he's such a beacon. So if you're going to be in the Village -- I mean, if I had been a Village person, I definitely would have said, "Okay, and what did Jimmy do?" Because he -- again, he just worked all the time. The output of Baldwin resulted.
BOND: I look at your vita. I mean, the output is enormous. I'm just amazed. I thought I had followed your life and career, but I was just amazed to see, you know, this long, long line of publications, of records, of compilations and so on. Just enormous. And I'm not able to weigh it against some of these other figures, but I'm just guessing that by volume alone, you're far ahead of these people, many of whom are your contemporaries, older, a little older, but they are your contemporaries. But I wonder, did the fact that they existed -- [Amiri] Baraka and the others -- existed, and they were poets, what did that mean to you regardless of how hard they worked?
GIOVANNI: Well, because Baraka, and please, I hope I didn't just say --
GIOVANNI: -- that Baraka didn't work, because Baraka did. I was talking about -- we were talking about --
BOND: No, I don't think any of them would take umbrage with what you've said.
GIOVANNI: Okay, because again I was about to say LeRoi -- but as LeRoi Jones and moving into and on with Baraka -- was an enormous output. I think that that's important. I learned from that because I remember when he was saying, "You know, we're not going to publish with white people." That made sense to me. "Okay, that makes sense. Let me listen to that." But in the meantime, of course, there was -- Blackfire was under contract with William Morrow. So I'm thinking, "Okay, I understand what he's saying, but I also understand why he's doing what he's doing, and so I'm not going to let what he's saying interfere with what I should do because I see what he has to do also." So he and Larry edited -- Larry Neal -- edited Blackfire. It was always going to come through William Morrow or Random House, you know, through one or the other.
So when people were saying, "We're not going to do that," it's like, "Well, you're not going to do that if we have other alternatives." Of course, I was happy to work with Broadside Press. Dudley Mann [Dudley Randall] was a great man, and Vivian is a wonderful woman. And Vivian held on even after Dudley's death. It's just recently been sold. But I'm not going to let an ideology prevent me from doing what I think I should do, which is I should get the idea out. I should do that, you know.
BOND: I guess what I'm trying to get at is, here's Baraka and these other people and they are poets. So people say "Well, he's a poet, or she's a poet, or she's -- " What kind of influence did that have on you, that there are people who are making a success of this, there are people who are making a living at this and there are people who are recognized as doing this? What kind of standard did that set for you? I know you worked harder than they did.
GIOVANNI: No, no. I didn't mean it like that. And you were just saying -- we were talking about the Village scene as compared to the Uptown scene.
BOND: Right. I guess I mean in a more general way.
GIOVANNI: I would say none.
BOND: Really? Because you know you said that when you were in school --
GIOVANNI: But I don't think I have any influence.
BOND: Oh, Nikki, you have enormous influence.
GIOVANNI: I know what you're saying but I -- and I enjoy the conversation --
BOND: Don't you think there are people who see you today and say, "Nikki Giovanni is a poet. That means I can be one too"? "Doesn't mean I'm going to be as good as she is. But I'm seeing this -- "
GIOVANNI: No, I think that people --
BOND: " -- black woman do this and it's something until I saw her I didn't imagine I could do." You don't think there are people like that?
GIOVANNI: I don't think there are people who are going to do it, who say that.
And I'm -- I was just going to mention Queen Latifah because she's a kid that I really, really like a lot, and I was able to -- Essence magazine called me and said "You know we put in a query to Queen Latifah and asked her, if she could talk to anybody on earth, who would it be? And she chose you." I was like "Oh my God," because I'm such a Queen Latifah fan. I love what she's done -- and she was working on a movie. And this was the promise. You're her senior so she knows that she should come to you. I said, "You know what kind of sense -- this is a kid who is breaking into the movies -- what kind of sense does that make? I'm -- I'm in my sunset years. I can clear a couple of days to fly out to California. You know, she's building a career, for God's sake. Anybody can stand on that." So I went out to California.
She was like,"I can't believe you did that." It was like "Dana" -- her name is Dana -- "Dana, it's not that I did it. It's that when you get to where I am and there's somebody who wants to talk to you, you'll do it."
And that's what -- so when you were saying "leadership" -- that's what I'm hoping that I've shared, that it's what you give, and how you give it. But you're saying, "Just knowing that they're out there, doesn't it make a difference?" No. It can't. Because nobody -- and, of course, she should have won the Academy Award for Chicago because she was brilliant -- but nobody starts a career based on "Oh, now that I've seen it -- now that Halle Berry won the Academy Award I know I can be an actress." That's ridiculous.
BOND: That doesn't -- I hope that's not what I mean.
BOND: You don't decide to become a poet because you see Langston Hughes.
BOND: There's some impulse in you that makes you do this. At the same time, it's comforting to see Langston Hughes. To know that, "Here's somebody who is making a life of this. And therefore it's possible." I guess that's what I'm trying to get at.
GIOVANNI: I think that the comforting thing about Langston, and I only knew one person in all of my years in Harlem and all of my talking to people, I only knew only one person that had a negative story about Langston. So what Langston shows us is that you can be nice. We're not learning you can be a poet because, hell, what's his name, the slave -- Phillis Wheatley taught us you can be a poet. And who did she have to turn to? Do you see what I'm saying?
BOND: Yes, I guess so.
GIOVANNI: So, I mean it's like, who did Harriet Tubman have to turn to? And, hell, Martin -- Martin knew he could be a preacher because there are eighty million, but who existed in Martin's universe? Actually there's only one other star in Martin's universe and that was Malcolm because they both could bring something else to the table. But in terms of role models you can't -- I guess I so resist people thinking like that because I think it's about dreams. I think it's about "I'm going to do this and if I -- I'm going to do it as well as I can. And If I could do any one thing, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability. And If it doesn't work, then it didn't work."
I never -- this is just me, Nikki. I never wanted to be in that position that said, "I could have been." I knew, and I still know, too many people that say, "Oh, I could have been dancer, or I could have been a writer, I was going to go and?" No, no, no. You put everything you have into it. And if it works then you do it, and if it doesn't then you know, this is not for you.
Mr. [Aaron] Douglas by the way told me -- because I was discouraged -- I used to paint. He was my art history teacher, and so we had to do some. I took some paintings in and he looked at it. He said, "Oh Nikki, he says you have an interesting mind." I said, "That's very nice Mr. Douglas." He was an old man. "That's very kind of you, Mr. Douglas." "But you'll never be a painter." I said, "I know that." This is true because I don't have the discipline to be a painter because I don't want to do it the way it should be done. I came to being a poet because I didn't want to be disciplined. I didn't want to be whipped into shape. I didn't want to be told. I wanted to be free, and poetry's about the only profession that lets you be free. I still want it.
BOND: I wonder if this sense I'm getting from you of an enormous inner-direction, an almost inner-compulsion, if this created tensions in your family circle, in your larger circle. I'm thinking specifically of being expelled from Fisk. You get expelled from Fisk and -- because you, at least the school says, you didn't receive permission from the dean to go home for Thanksgiving vacation. It's incredible to imagine today that you --
GIOVANNI: Oh, there's a bunch of other things --
BOND: Yeah. So I mean this is something you could have done. You could have gone and asked permission and you could have not done those other things. But you did those things. So what kind of tension, if any, did this create in your family circle?
GIOVANNI: Well, my grandfather graduated Fisk in 1905 so my grandmother was embarrassed. There's no question about that. And she came down to Fisk. She took the bus and came down to Fisk. It was like, "You know, your grandfather graduated in 1905, and I think you're going to get kicked out." And I said, "Yeah, it looks like I'm going to kicked out." Because you could -- we were on a collision course. There's no question about that.
And I did, and I think that Grandmother was not disappointed but embarrassed. But it's Knoxville, and Knoxville really has always been to me like, "Oh yeah, you made a mistake," and you go on. Now my mother -- and Mommy's crazy -- and I think it was the first time I realized she was nuts. My mother said, "What did she do to you? What did the dean do to you?" Because in Mommy's mind it was all the dean's fault. Mommy's best friend was a woman named Teresa Elliot who has since died. Teresa was like an aunt to me and just so close. Teresa was like, "Yeah, there's something wrong with Dean [Ann] Cheatam."
Actually I saw Ann Cheatam at the Martin -- “In the Spirit of Martin” at the Smithsonian -- and it was so wonderful because she said, "I don't think you know me." How long has it been, thirty years? She said, "I'm Ann S. Cheatam." I said, "Oh, my God. What a favor you did me!" And she laughed. She said, "Do you think so?" I said, "Yeah, I do." Because failures are important, and it was a failure. And I wasn't going to fool myself about that. I had to think it through, but no matter what everybody -- everybody was being supportive of me because that's the kind of nutty, crazy family I have. But I knew that it was a failure, and I recognized that I had indeed embarrassed my grandmother, though she's not going to ever say anything to me like that. I recognized that that's what I had done. I had embarrassed her.
BOND: And your parents, who surely valued education, must have -- what'd they think?
GIOVANNI: Well, they got their tuition back. I mean that was -- my father wanted his money back. "Well, if she's not in school can I have my tuition back?" and he got it. But our family doesn't function that way. I mean we -- thank God we're not mass murderers or we'd be -- Mommy would be, "Oh, she's a really good mass murderer. She got thirty people." I mean we just don't think like that. I grew up in a -- valuing education, Julian, and you come from a background, that valuing education is not valuing schooling. It's like valuing religion is not loving the church. You can't let the preacher keep you from Jesus, you know. I mean, if you can't start to separate those things -- so I would have remained educated whether I --
BOND: At the same time there's a kind of credentialing --
GIOVANNI: There's a credentialing --
BOND: -- that many people value that goes with the formality of education, which you had, by having this inner-direction, you had cut yourself off from that credentialing.
GIOVANNI: I was endangering it. I did attend the University of Cincinnati. And I did very well because I've always been well read and so I'm at UC, which is a hometown, and I had a job at Walgreens. It doesn't take you very long to realize whatever life holds it cannot be Walgreens. It just cannot be. And so I knew I needed to go back to school. So I wrote Fisk, because if you're going to have a failure than that's where you have to go to correct it. And I've never, and I'm saying it to you now, and I wrote it in Gemini, I never misunderstood that I had done something wrong and stupid. So it was time to get it straightened out, because I can't go forward if I'm carrying this baggage that always says, "It wasn't my fault." Paul Simon has that wonderful song “When something goes wrong I'm the first to admit it and the last one to know." But I -- you accept responsibility.
You know why I'm glad Martha Stewart's going to jail?
GIOVANNI: Because she knew damn well she was insider trading. I would have still not cared about that all that much, if they hadn't tried to put it off on the kid. When she tried to say it was the fault of the assistant to -- you know, her assistant, it was Douglas Faneuil's fault -- I thought, "That's trashy." Grownups don't put their responsibilities on children. So I knew it was my responsibility to go back to Fisk, to admit that it was my fault because Dean Cheatam only did what she thought she should do. She would have had to have been a better person than she was --
BOND: At the same time didn't Fisk excise the records --
GIOVANNI: No, they --
BOND: -- and remove her, Dean Cheatam's, critique of you?
GIOVANNI: Sure. But this is going to be of a new dean.
BOND: That seems to me the admission that Fisk had some part in this. They had made some mistake.
GIOVANNI: But we had a new dean, Jackie [Blanche] Cowan was the new dean. She accepted responsibility for Fisk, but she had nothing to do -- this is what I'm trying to say to everybody -- had nothing to do with my accepting my responsibility that I messed up. If you don't do that, you can't go forward. When you mess up you have to think it through. But you have to -- Fisk did do something wrong. Stephen Wright who is a -- the president of Fisk and Mrs. Wright -- I did some fund raisers for them in -- it was fun. I said to the doctor, I said you don't remember me. He said, "Oh yeah. I remember you very well. We did, we kicked you out of school." He said, "I think I'm sorry." I said, "I'm not."
Because at any point in life something needs to happen to you that makes you reassess. I say that to kids all the time, you know. "If you go through school with a four point, if you've always made A's it really means you haven't taken hard subjects. Because if you're always making A's you need to take something that you don't know anything about. If you never have a risk, you can't grow from it." And so I'm not afraid of -- I'm not afraid of failure. But I'm not afraid to admit that I'm wrong.
BOND: I wonder how this -- this inner-directedness has it caused problems like the Fisk problem in your life before that or since? I mean, I'm not saying that you're the kind of person who is going to screw up. I don't mean that.
GIOVANNI: I screw up a lot.
BOND: But -- everybody does. But does this inner-directedness, this feeling of being compelled to do things in a certain kind of way, has it caused some bumps along the way?
GIOVANNI: I think I'm impossible to live with, yeah. But I think most writers are and I know all actors are. So I'm just going to take it like that. I think that --
BOND: Why is that? Why is that true about writers?
GIOVANNI: Because you have to have your space to think.
BOND: Because it's a solitary profession?
GIOVANNI: It is a solitary profession. What's lucky for people like me is that I'm in a solitary profession, but the other half of it is that I get to share to more people what I do in solitude.
BOND: Are you in a solitary profession because you're a solitary person, or are you a solitary person and therefore sought a solitary career?
GIOVANNI: I'm the baby in the family so -- and we grew up poor. It's like what Marvin Gaye says, "I come up hard, baby." So I think being poor means really one thing. Even though in the black community you were considered middle-class because you have a job, even if you are poor. It means you have restricted space. So, in having restricted space, you have to find your own way.
You know, I think I could live in Japan. I think I could live in Tokyo because you have an impacted city, right, that you have so many people. And so the Japanese have to find a way to peace, to an inner peace despite all of the -- that's why I love New York. Because now I'm living in the country. But I think that -- no, I don't think. I like to think. And I grew up with a lot of respiratory problems. Ultimately I'm having -- you know, I had a lung cancer. And so if you're having colds and things like I was having, then you're home from school. And what do you do? You read. You can look at TV but I was also -- and I don't know why, Julian, I -- it seems to me like you have eyes and you're supposed to use them.
And so the days that I was home if I wasn't -- I was too sick to go to school but not dying. So I would do the ironing or I would do the dusting. You know you want to help your mother or things like that. It's not taking that much time. It still leaves you a lot of time to read and we had always had a nice library. My mom did. My father used to give her books. I don't remember him reading that much though. He was a mathematician and quite smart. But you know you'd read from -- I could read from my mother's library because I was also a responsible kid so I didn't mess with her books or anything like that, and so I could do that. She would also get me the books that I wanted to read. So you know you're home. You get up because it's eight o'clock. You have your breakfast. You dust the house or whatever you're doing. And then you pile up and read. I think I'm a solitary person because I'm a solitary person. But we're of a generation -- we had responsibilities, our generation. I think we did good. I'm very proud of us.
GIOVANNI: But we had obligations. And so you had to find a way, "How am I contributing?" is what I'm saying. You contribute by the work, but you also have to kind of put yourself out there because I'm a girl. And so I always figured, "Well, yeah, they might shoot [H.] Rap [Brown]. They might shoot, you know, Stokely [Carmichael]. They might beat you up. They beat John up. Nobody's going to bother me." So I felt like my job, then, was to say the things that other people couldn't say because it got them shot. Some people used to say to me, "Are you afraid you're going to get shot?" I said, "No, I'm not afraid I'm going to get shot." I was so sure nobody's going to shoot me and they didn't so far.
BOND: Why do you think they wouldn't shoot girls?
GIOVANNI: I don't know.
BOND: Because they had done.
GIOVANNI: Yeah, sure they did.
BOND: Having talked a little while ago about the large number of women lynched.
GIOVANNI: Yeah. But I just never saw myself in any -- hell, I travel now. Everybody says, "Arabs are mad at me." They're not mad at me. They're mad at America, and well, they should be. So if I get hurt on an airplane, or if I get blown up in London, or I'm doing a research project that's taking me around the world sometimes -- I mean it's not going to happen to me because nobody's mad at me. People like me. It's going to happen to the American.
BOND: The American you?
GIOVANNI: Sure. And there's nothing I can do about that. I can pick a t-shirt, say "I hate him, too," but that would be chicken, wouldn't it? I can't go around the world saying, "I'm against George Bush." I have to go around the world as what I am. I'm a black American. So if something happens to me it's not the black. It's going to be the American. And that's only fair. I just wanted that known, you know, I say that to anybody. I'm not going to be afraid of my life.
BOND: I asked you before -- after the publication of these first poems and then the publication, the second publication, did you then think, "I am a leader"? By leader I don't mean leading thousands of people down the street in a march, but a leader -- "I'm speaking to all these people and they're listening to me." Did you have a conception of yourself then?
GIOVANNI: I had a conception that I have a constituency, yes.
BOND: A following.
GIOVANNI: Well, a constituency. It's not a following because we're not going to do anything. And so --
BOND: We're going to listen. Or we're going to read.
GIOVANNI: Well, that was good, but I didn't want anything. I think that's important. I'm not a politician. I'm not the kind of artist that needs validation with hit. So I never wanted to put myself in that position. And nothing probably surprised me more than when I made a recording it was a hit. I was actually in Africa when it came out, and I was running into people. You know, I was in Nigeria and people said, "I really, I love what you did on that album," because it was an album then, and I was like, "What album?" because I had no concept.
And when we came back -- I was in Africa for a month, just doing west Africa. When I came back, they announced on the plane, "Nikki Giovanni, press your button." So I pressed my button. The stewardess came back. She said, "We'd like you to wait until the other people -- " I thought, "Well, they finally got me." You know, it was one of those "What did I do? They finally got me."
And when I came off, it was the reporters were there, the Billboard entertainment reporters."What are you going to do -- what do you have to say about the hit?" It was like, "You mean that -- you know, my album?" You know it's like, "Yeah. It's a hit, it's in constant rotation." So I was really -- I'm pleased. I'm happy and I'm proud. You know, that kind of thing.
But I think my job is still to be on the edge, which is why we came to a book that love so very much called Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea. I'm not a public intellectual. You know, I don't think like that either. But it seems to me like there ought to be -- there's an edge someplace. And since what I -- my contribution is I think, right? So I'm always pushing for the edge. I don't ever want to -- I don't want to repeat myself and I don't want to get comfortable where I am. I want to go and see -- and push it, and if I fall, I fall and if I don't, I've got a new idea. That's what makes me happy.
I don't see me starving to death. I'm an American black woman with a college degree. So I'm not going to stave to death, and I'm not going to let anybody make me think I am. You see? I'm just not going to go to that place. I'm not going to be afraid for my life, as I said because what did King say? “Longevity has its place,” and anybody would like to live a long time. But America is not right. And nobody listens to me in America, but if they did they would stop making enemies, and make the world a better place to be, but I had nothing to do with being an American. I only have something to do with being Nikki. And I know that there's nobody on Earth that's against Nikki.
BOND: Nikki, let me ask you about being an artist. My general impression is that artists, whether writers or painters or sculptors or musicians, tend to be inner-directed people. And I wonder if you've done enough self-analysis to decide that that's who you are?
GIOVANNI: I think I'm a little greedy. You know, first of all, I think all artists are. I think writers, because we're such a bottom line, and I'm always teasing because I have a lot of friends who are actors and actresses. But they're always using our words. And I think the only other equivalent to writers -- particularly maybe a poet -- would be the dancers, because you just so have to believe in your vision. I mentioned knowing George Faison. Of course, I know Judith Jamison, and I knew Alvin Ailey. You're saying, "I have this vision in my head of this dance. I'm going to call it 'Cry.' " And everybody's going to say it won't work. And they do that to poetry. And so you get in the habit of saying, "Well, I think I'll try it anyway." What you end up doing is taking it to the people, which is I think the better way to deal with it. I could never have been a fine -- you know, I was laughing, but I never could have been a fine painter because you actually take that work to the gallery and it gets sold to a very small number of people and every now and then, you know, you'll do note cards or something. But I always wanted to be judged by the people.
BOND: But the same thing happens with poetry, in a different sort of way. You write a poem. You take it to the publisher or a book, a journal. They publish the poem. A relative small number of people see it and buy it.
GIOVANNI: Well, no, you have readings.
BOND: You have readings. You appear. You have recordings.
GIOVANNI: And if nobody is -- if nobody wants to publish it you take it and do a broadside. Or you give it away. When Angela Davis was being arrested I knew Fania [Jordan], her sister, was in the Village. When they were looking for Angela at that particular point, we wrote a poem -- you know, because we were doing some fund raising -- I wrote a poem for Angela Yvonne Davis. Charles Bible illustrated it. We took it down to a printer, and we had you know like two or three thousand copies selling for a dollar. Gave the money to Fania. So, you can get around publishers.
Even if you're a novelist you're going to have another problem because you've got five hundred pages. For a poem you can always reach your audience with a poem. You can go on the radio. In those days you know people were -- FM was new and everything was AM. So you needed to break AM. But you could go on AM radio and talk about what you've been writing because they would let you fill it in. They'd let you do it. Go on radio at midnight and read your poetry. So you could always find your audience.
BOND: What do you think about this explosion of audiences have for poetry now? They have these poetry jams or slams or whatever they're called -- a TV show about them, a tour of these poets, even a tour of England, I understand, going on right now -- was there anything comparable for you when you were the age of some of these young people?
GIOVANNI: Oh no. Unfortunately -- I love to hear Hip Hop Nation because one, they're good. Their craft is good. But they're also better business people than we are. So, you see, if you throw the hip hop nation up, a whole bunch of young millionaires come down. I am so happy for them. I'm so proud of them. I think it's good. I love a slam. I just hosted a slam in Roanoke. We had about three hundred people out at five dollars a head to come in. The winner makes $1,500 or something like that. I think that's wonderful. It's a part of my volunteer work for my community, and I enjoy it because, you know, everybody gets a kick out of it.
Of course Russell Simmons did a def jam on Broadway. And of course ,HBO was doing it. I hope HBO -- with Stan Lathan, Stan's a brilliant young director. I hope that they continue to do that because the bottom line of the human experience is poetry. When we want to compliment anything, it's "poetry in motion." If you want to compliment a wine, "This is pure poetry in a bottle." If you want to compliment anything, it comes back to poetry. So I think it's -- I think it's good. I like the varied audiences. We were talking about Queen Latifah, but she started with the hip hop -- she started doing that. She took that to movies, which I think is really wonderful. Will Smith took that. And it's become a door, and a lot of people are going through it.
BOND: Do you find some resistance between people -- I hate to put you in a generation -- between people of your generation -- which is my generation, although you're much younger -- and this younger generation? I read a critique of these slams in Black Issues' Poetry Month issue. Among the things -- one of the people, I wish I could remember who said the craft was not good. So I'm interested to hear you say it is good. And you think it is good?
GIOVANNI: But see I'm story-driven. So the people who are going to be driven by the meter, or the rhyme, or something like that, I think that they're going to miss a lot. And I'm also ancestor -- ancestral I guess is the term -- driven. When I look at rap, let me put it there, or that hip-hop nation, I see a train, Julian, and the train goes all the way back to 1619 to those first people that stepped off that ship in Jamestown being traded for food and water from a Dutch man-of-war to the British.
So -- and I'm saying that because they had to have a voice. And the kids today have to have a voice. I'm amazed that they found it. I remember Sugarhill Gang with Sylvia, you know: "Uptown, downtown, the Holiday Inn." You know, things like that. Then, of course, I remember the explosion of Tupac Shakur. Losing Tupac was a great loss for this generation. I have a tattoo -- it says "Thug Life" -- because I wanted to mourn with this generation. I don't see how people can knock the kids -- paying so little attention, you know. I had deep regrets -- and I know Rosa Parks, you know, we don't hang out, but I know her -- I so regretted that she lent her name to be used against Outkast, because Rosa Parks is a wonderful -- it's a wonderful tune. And they were giving her props. If people don't -- if the younger generation doesn't sing the praises of the older generation, they get forgotten.
I was totally -- am totally upset and dismayed that Lena Horne withdrew from the Janet Jackson project. I can't imagine anybody better than Janet Jackson to play Lena Horne. And for somebody to say, "Well, Janet and Jason Timberlake -- " who is an extremely talented kid -- you know, because she exposed her tit at the Super Bowl, you know. I mean, talk about drives you crazy, Super Bowl -- steroid-driven testosterone?
BOND: It's a celebration of vulgarity.
GIOVANNI: Well, it is. It's a celebration of violence. I mean, the idea is you line up and you line up, and you do hup, hup, hup, and you throw the ball, and one line tries to break through the other, with any luck as the quarterback is throwing the ball, break his ribs or somehow hurt him. And people were writing in Roanoke where I live, you know, saying things like, "I thought I was getting family entertainment." When was that kind of violence -- the best thing that happened at the Super Bowl was Janet's tit because at least it was nourishing, at least it offered some hope of life. And I resent that because this is America, we use women to sell cars and toothpaste and bread and anything else we want to sell. And then because this kid is there, all of a sudden, it's like, "Oh my God, Janet ruined the Super Bowl!" Well, the Super Bowl was ruined, when when it ended up being Carolina and New England, because who gave a damn?
BOND: Let me go back to something you said. You once said that, "Movement makes leader -- movements make leaders," and I think we've settled that you are a leader.
GIOVANNI: We're fighting about this.
BOND: And typically you're associated with what was called the Black Arts Movement. And from something you said earlier, I have a feeling that maybe that's not you, that you're not comfortable, or are you comfortable with being in this category of people?
GIOVANNI: I like the Black Arts -- I like all of these categories, we've just been trying to, I mean we're just sitting here trying to -- I guess I'm letting you sort out my career to some degree. I was very comfortable in Black Arts. The people that were around, you know, we were New Yorkers, Jackie Early, Sonia Sanchez came into it, it was a lot of good people, I'm just trying to say that you can't be ideologically driven if you're going to be a writer and that's always going to lead to problems with other people who think that they should tell you what to do. It's that simple.
BOND: Wasn't it Du Bois who said "All art is political, or should be," or someone, who said something like that?
GIOVANNI: Sounds like Du Bois.
BOND: You don't agree with that?
GIOVANNI: No, because all our -- I agree with it, but not in the sense that -- I think it was Du Bois -- but not in the sense that he was saying it. I think all art is political, so it's up to us to be truthful. And wherever that truth leads you is what the political realization is.
BOND: But your truth and his truth and her truth, these can be different truths, and all true.
GIOVANNI: Well they're looking at something from a different point of view. But you can't tell -- I mean, everybody's not going to pray in the same church, and I've always resented that and I still do. I mean, I don't know a time when I didn't.
BOND: Now, if it's true that movements make leaders, then did the Black Arts movement make you? I don't mean create you, make you a poet, but did the movement create the occasion where you could flourish and emerge?
GIOVANNI: Well, I'm sure it did, I -- you know, you can do all you want with the soil. Somebody don't put some water in it you're not going to get any flowers. And being in New York -- I'm sure had I stayed in Knoxville, I wouldn't have had a career because there's just no floors, as James Baldwin would put it, there's no floor upon which to dance. I think I could have stayed in Cincinnati, but I was never a -- I'm still not a believer in the Midwest. I mean even the Chicago people, you know Chicago people they all have -- they're paranoid because it's always been a second city -- and you know, to a great degree what we call the Harlem Renaissance should really have been a Chicago Renaissance. But New York so overshadows Chicago that it became the Harlem Renaissance. I mean, if you look at the history, you know, as it goes.
And so that even had I stayed in the Midwest, it would have been a very different experience because you're sort of bound in. And New York even -- I don't -- New York is just, I think, the greatest city in the world, you know. And I just don't think there's any question if you're -- and I say to my students now, I'm at Tech and you know I say to them, "You gotta go to New York." I just don't know where else an American writer -- of course you can go to Paris or you know eventually I don't have a problem about Barcelona -- but if you want to be a writer you go to New York because it gives you every, everything, I mean just going to the various neighborhoods you know you never have to worry about what you're learning or -- you sit down and you -- I mean right now if I were twenty-five I'd be sitting at the UN, you know, just putting on my --I'm not language rich, I'm language poor -- so I'd put on my English earphones and just hear the debates going on. How could you not be excited about the world? You're in the city that brings the world to you.
BOND: But of course, couldn't you also argue that Cincinnati and Knoxville created you? New York may have given you a chance to flourish, but Cincinnati and Knoxville created you just like Knoxville created Thomas Wolfe? I mean if he hadn't --
BOND: -- grown up there and lived in his mother's boarding house, he wouldn't --
BOND: -- have had the chance to go to -- Asheville, I'm sorry --
GIOVANNI: That's okay.
BOND: -- wouldn't have had the chance to go to New York and become Thomas Wolfe?
GIOVANNI: Oh yeah. No, no question, but you have to know, Ernest -- whom I love so much, Ernest Gaines -- who is, I think -- he's not a funny man like "ha ha," but he has these really wry sort of things that he does, and he came to Tech for us recently, he's so wonderful. And we were talking about -- he was talking to the students. And they were asking him about you know Louisiana. And he calls it "that postage stamp where I grew up," and I had never thought, because of all of his great stories, Jane Pittman and all this, coming from right out there.
And he said, "You know I'm lucky," and again I'm sure we could use another term because clearly Ernest Gaines is probably the best writer in the English language who never won the Nobel though he should. But he said, "You know, I'm lucky," he said, "because I left just in time." He said, "If I -- " he said, "I left when I was about ten. If I had stayed longer I would have gotten depressed and I would have realized the hopelessness of the situation. If I had left earlier, I would have been too young to remember." He said, "But I left at the right time and so now I get to mine this postage stamp upon which I grew up."
BOND: And when you're writing today, are you mining these postage stamps?
GIOVANNI: No, not in the same way that Ernest is.
BOND: Cincinnati, Knoxville and -- how differently?
GIOVANNI: Very different because I'm mining the spirit of it, I'm -- the body -- and it's good to have a body, I'm going to recommend the body, they're lovely things that the body does -- but it's the spirit of mankind, of human beings, that's important. And small towns teach us about the spirit, about how we respond emotionally to things. And you take that to New York, you take that with you.
BOND: What about race, to what extent do you mine race? That is, to what extent does race inform both who you are and what you do and how you write?
GIOVANNI: Well, you know, I read a book recently, I forget the name of it right now, it was a black girl that works for the New York Times and she's right wing and so I think the right wing, you know, I think snot comes out of their nose or something. And she said, you know, it's time, I think it's called “The End of Race” or something. She said, you know it's really time that we put race aside and I wrote a really lovely poem called “The Song of the Feet” because Oprah Winfrey's magazine was the doing the body, and so I wanted the feet. And I came in and, you know, "I shoulder the body and what the body chooses to bear." And the last line said, “I am a black woman,” right? Which is what the black woman -- what did Zora Neale Hurston say? That the black woman is the nigger of the earth, right? And so it was very interesting, I didn't want to deal with what Zora said in that way, but I wanted to deal with the fact that when it all comes down to it, this is the black woman because everybody stands on our shoulders, right? And she was bitching and moaning like, "Nikki ought to let race go." How do you let race go? And why not celebrate that aspect because it's a wonderful thing. I mean, when your feet hurt, your whole body's in bad shape.
BOND: Of course some people would say if you concentrate on your feet alone or your feet to the exclusion of the rest of the your body, you may ignore that your knees, your waist, your pelvis, your shoulders, your head -- you may ignore that you're part of a whole, that you're separate -- you're asking people to look at only your feet. And you're more then your feet.
GIOVANNI: Well, you might be. But -- and I'm not might, you clearly are -- I'm just, and I'm not -- I just know that if you -- if I may -- wear good, flat shoes the chances of keeping your knees and your pelvic, you know. If your feet are all right, your chances of the rest of your body being all right, because you'll stand straight, because you'll breathe better, and so what we're going to do is not say you know, "Well, for God's sake, I mean if you're having rotten teeth you should have them fixed" -- don't say, "Well, my feet are okay, it doesn't matter about my teeth." But you're going to start with the bottom. Malcolm X said that, "We know so much about the condition of a country by the condition of the women." And he's right, and again we're talking a bottom line. So, if we're looking at black America, or if we're looking actually at white America. If we're looking at frontier women, if we're looking at women in the holler. What we know because the expression which is a really nasty expression is "barefoot and pregnant, keep them barefoot and pregnant." Well, they need shoes and they need shoes because as Nancy Sinatra said, “These boots were made for walking.” And all I'm trying to say is --
BOND: You have a lot of pop culture references --
GIOVANNI: Oh, yeah. I look at too much TV. My son says that all the time --
BOND: Marvin Gaye and Nancy Sinatra and so on? Where does this come from?
GIOVANNI: I love pop culture, don't you just love it?
BOND: Oh yes.
GIOVANNI: I do, and being at Virginia Tech I recently -- because I'm there in NASCAR country, and I had a student, I was trying to -- I was teaching the expository novel, James Baldwin, so we're doing Baldwin. And I had a student that said to me, you know it's a predominantly white campus, "You know Nikki, you're always making us learn things that you understand." He said "You don't know anything about NASCAR." He said "You ought to ask us sometime," and it was just one of those like, belligerent, and I thought, "Hmm -- he's right, I should find out something."
So I started tuning in like at midnight 'cause it comes on at midnight and it puts you right to sleep. Ennoooww, ennoooww. But I finally found out who Jeff Gordon is, and how many points he had, and Dale Earnhardt, and you know all of a sudden it's like -- "and I said I didn't know NASCAR," you know. And I know bass fishing, too, which is really, really a dumb sport. But you try to keep up because it's not fair that because you're old and because you're the teacher and because you can determine the grade, that you don't let your your students teach you something. So it's a two-way street, I try to learn something.
BOND: Back to race -- you know, there's a school of thought that says if you concentrate on your race, if you concentrate on your gender -- black, woman -- that you are not speaking in universal terms and that rather than attracting us to be together you're setting dividing lines that set us apart. What about that?
GIOVANNI: No, the word I would use is we'd have to snip it out of here, so I'll just say, "Huh?"
You know, no, of course not. We say that because we who are not black women, assume that everything we say is universal. The universals are being allowed to be who you are. And I think that's important. I don't think I have to be a white man in order to be universal. And if I do, then I won't be. I think people have a right -- you know, I travel a lot, I hate TSA and John Ashcroft and people that think like that. And I'm in planes like all the time and I don't even have to -- I used to have braids, I'm just blond now, but I used to have braids when this thing started. And what are we saying here? Nine times out of ten, the person chosen to be examined --
BOND: At random.
GIOVANNI: -- was the brown people, usually the brown guy, right? And he's Arab or something, you know the brown guy with dark hair, and me. And so I finally screamed at US Air one time, US Airways, like "Why is it always the black girl with braids?" And she said, "That's not true." I said "You can look it up, you know, you can see how many times -- " and I travel a lot, as you know. How many times the SSSSSS comes up, so yeah, it is true. And I think it's disgraceful, you know, that -- that because I have braids. And so, of course, I no longer have braids, every now and then I still get picked you know, but it makes you angry. And I've always watched the Arabs, the Arab-looking kids. I don't know that they're -- but it's the brown boys right, you know, "Take off your shoes, take off your belt," you know -- somebody told me once,"Take off your watch," and I said, "You'd steal my watch." And he got mad about it, they said, "We don't steal." I said, "You're Americans, of course you steal. You stole the country, you stole me. Of course you're going to steal." I said, "You can watch it," I said, "I'm going to keep it on my arm, that's what I can do, and you can get a supervisor and he can come over here, and he can wand it but I'm not taking it off, you know, buy your own watch."
BOND: Well, I flew last week from Washington to Austin, Texas, I got picked for a search. I flew from Austin, Texas to Orlando, I got picked for a search. And then I flew from Orlando back to DC, I got picked for a search, and I'm the only person on any of these flights who got picked for a search.
GIOVANNI: And it wouldn't be because you're Mr. Bond -- ha! Well, Julian they know you!
BOND: Well, I'm kind of elderly to be hijacking a plane.
GIOVANNI: No, but you're a radical, I remember -- no, no I remember when you refused to be indicted in the Army. Don't think that the FBI doesn't say, "This is the guy."
BOND: We know that Nikki Giovanni is the product of family and circumstance, small town, opportunity, New York City -- all these things. What does it take to create other Nikki Giovannis? Not clones, not duplicates --
GIOVANNI: No, I know what you mean.
BOND: What does it take for other Nikki Giovannis to come along?
GIOVANNI: I think you have to love something. And I think of all the things we've talked about -- and I know I light up at various points about different things 'cause I can't help it -- my grandmother and those women around here were just fantastic, fantastic women. I think you have to be very careful what you love. And I think if you don't, you end up loving things that don't love you, and they can't. So I've never had a question -- it's not a question that came up -- but I've never had a question of who I answer to, because I answer to those women, I answer to an ancestor.
I was down at Chatham Hall, which is a private girls school in Virginia, and -- predominantly white, I think there are two black women there. And we were talking and I said, "But you have to know that at any given point who's with you, who wanted you to live." And I've always known that my grandmother and her friends have always wanted me to do well. So, I never have to worry. I mean, I can go to Chatham Hall and talk about slavery. I can do anything I want to do, actually, because I always know that there's some people that are always going to be very proud of my effort, and that effort is an edgy effort because we have to keep pushing it, you know.
James Cleveland who was not exactly pop culture -- but James Cleveland used to always say, "You know, and if they let me in the White House. And you know shine on me"? But you have to know what you think, and you have to be careful what you love and if you know what you think and you're careful what you love, you're going to at least have a contribution that's going to keep you sane. And sanity is to be prized because so many people -- we both know so many people who just didn't make it through the sanity gate. Sanity is to be prized and it lets you be comfortable, it keeps you from being envious. I don't have an envious bone in my body, and for that, if I use other language I would say "I thank God for that," I'm just so lucky because I see people that are envious and people that are small-minded and people that wish something else had happened, and you can't -- you can't go forward like that, you can't be proud of yourself and you have to be proud of yourself, you have to be happy with that "you," and I am and -- I think you have to be proud -- you get a dog, you know. Dogs are so important because they just so love you.
GIOVANNI: Unconditionally, and so you start with that, you start with a grandmother and then you get a dog, and so you'll have a least two people who will love you no matter what and so you never have to worry about the people who don't. And ultimately they will, you know you stick around long enough. Ish and I used to argue a lot -- he's an old friend -- and we were having a argument, and he said, "You know in ten years everybody will love you." And I said, "Everybody loves me now, Ishmael." "But in ten years everybody'll love you. All of a sudden you're right about things that they were fighting about -- it's like, 'Oh, my God look what she said,' and now it's like, 'Oh, I really love that poem you wrote,' " you know.
BOND: That's one of the benefits of getting older.
GIOVANNI: It helps. It's a good idea, if you can, to stay alive and I really, really recommend -- I'm not a fan of suicide, I'm not a fan of murder because just getting to that sixtieth and seventieth year, it's so revelatory. And I look forward, I mean, if I get lucky, the Watson genes -- the Giovannis don't live long. Almost all the Giovanni's are dead at sixty, my dad included. But the Watsons live into their late nineties and early hundreds, and so I'm like, "I'm really hoping the Watson gene kicks in."
BOND: I hope so, too. Thank you, Nikki Giovanni for being with us.
GIOVANNI: Thank you.