Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Answering to Ancestors

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.

BOND: Unconditionally.

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.