Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Leadership Roles & Successes

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.