Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Childhood Influences

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.



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.