by Lauren K. Alleyne
Nikki Giovanni needs no real introduction. Active from her early twenties in public life as a poet, cultural critic, and steadfast advocate for Black lives, Giovanni is beloved by generations of people across the country and, indeed, around the world. Published in a range of genres and media over the span of her career of more than 50 years, Giovanni’s work retains its hallmarks of centering Black life, accessibility, and an admirable blend of whimsy and grit. In her poetry and prose, Giovanni is irreverent to the codes and symbols of power that have exerted their influence on society; more important, her work eschews those symbols, leaning instead on the rituals, food, relationships, and experiences that constitute Black life to depict its richness and abundance, and Black people as agented, vibrant, and joyful rather than victims of oppression. Her most beloved poems, “Nikki-Rosa” and “Ego Tripping,” do that work dazzlingly, with their signature sentiments, “Black love is Black wealth,” and “I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal/ I cannot be comprehended / except by my permission.” “Knoxville, Tennessee,” captures in a heartwarming list what the speaker thinks is “best” about the summer days spent in that place, which includes the opportunity to “be warm / all the time / not only when you go to bed / and sleep.”
In 2019, the Furious Flower Poetry Center honored Nikki Giovanni as the subject of its weeklong summer seminar for educators. During the week, seminar faculty — Drs. Virginia Fowler, Margot Crawford, Howard Rambsy II, and Emily Lordi — discussed Giovanni’s work from various critical perspectives, and the 60 or so participants spent a few hours of their days devising lesson plans and curricular interventions designed to introduce her work to students and encourage critical study of her poetry. As part of the seminar, I conducted a public interview with her and fielded questions from the audience, and as Rambsy said in his lecture, “If you’ve seen Giovanni present to a live audience, you understand that you can hardly refer to what she does as simply a poetry reading in the typical sense. Giovanni’s presentation style is not performance poetry either. Her readings are more events with pointed and hilarious social and political commentary that also includes some poetry.”
As per usual Giovanni was her generous and gregarious self, and we were in conversation (on the record) for about 75 minutes. What appears here is about a third of that conversation, which I edited for clarity and the medium of text, which lends itself less to digression and contextual comments. In addition, I need to note here that the views expressed are those of the poet, Nikki Giovanni, and are replicated here as record of her speech, but not representative of the views of the Furious Flower Poetry Center or James Madison University.
So my first question is: What is it like to be here this week?
I’ve enjoyed being here. This started because Joanne’s a hard person to say no to. [Laughs.] We were up in Wintergreen — the Wintergreen Women’s Collective is so wonderful — and we were all sitting ’round the table and Jo had this voice, you know how she goes, and she said, “I have something to ask you.” And I thought, “Oh shit.” [Laughs] ’Cause I knew whatever it was, I didn’t want to do it. Not that I don’t want to, but it was like, “Ehh” [gestures], you know.
She said, “We want to feature your work, and we want to feature you.”
I’m 76. I hope I’m around a few more years, but I don’t like the position I’m in. But I’ve had to get used to it. When Lonnie Bunch [director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opened in 2016] did the African American History Museum, we went up to see that. But you never think about yourself in a museum. You just don’t. And so, I went up to the opening, and as we were going around and around, there’s a room that says you can just come and tell your story. All the little old ladies, all of the little church ladies — and they had their hats on and they were all dressed — I mean they were wonderful — and they were lined up to tell their story. I was going to tell my story. Even though I’m a writer, I was going to sit down and say what I thought about my grandmother going up to the Highlander School, for example. Rosa Parks went there, the Settlement House, you know. I was just going to share some things that people might not know. But it was just so many of them, and you don’t want to push little old ladies out. And so I turned this way, and I saw my … a picture of me. And without even realizing it, I turned back, looking at — I would bet right now — my grandmother, and said, “See, Grandmother, I did my job.” And it just brought tears to my eyes.
And then when Jo said this, I thought, “You know, this is something you do when you’re dead!” [Laughs.] My papers are at the Mugar Memorial Library [now called Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University], and they’ve been there for 50 years. So it’s a lot, and I’m one of the few people whose papers are actually in order, well-kept, you know. And so things like that, you just don’t think about doing it. When Maya [Angelou] died, you know, Maya took care of everything — she didn’t fool around with anything. She had picked the photograph that she wanted out, and she had written her obit, you know, so that it would be there and everything. I was laughing with my class about that, and they said “Ah, don’t worry, Nikki, maybe you’ll be on a stamp!” And I thought, they don’t understand: in order to be on a stamp, you have to be dead! [Laughs.]
You’ll feel reassured to know that it’s “#LivingLegacy” [Laughs.]
It’s just one of those things. So she asked, and — people should know better than to ask me, but— I thought, “You don’t say no to Joanne because it’s just more trouble than it’s worth.” I was like, “Okay, we’re gonna do it.” And so we’re here. And I think that people have been incredibly kind.
What was one of your favorite books or stories?
I’m an Aesop fan, because my grandfather loved Aesop. He just thought he did just wonderful work. And I always thought Aesop was a fool. I mean, he’s always telling me, “Work hard,” and I’m thinking, you know, “Get over it.” And it bothered me and still does. I wrote my book, The Grasshopper’s Song, because they talked about, you know, the grasshopper played the fiddle, and the ants were what was called “working.” And then when winter came, and the grasshopper was cold, he went to see the ants. And they were like, “You know, we told you, you shouldn’t have done that.” And I been thinking about that for the longest time. I said, “Wait a minute. How can we say that the music that the grasshopper gave, that allowed you to have a rhythm to work, is not work?” And so the grasshopper sues the ants. (And I love that book so much.) And, of course, the grasshopper won.
But the next thing that really is so close to my heart in that — and I love Grandpop, it’s not that — but I just didn’t like the way that this guy treated the hare and the turtle. Yeah. Because something made the turtle sad, and the hare only had speed, so the hare has to find a way: “How can I give? What do I have? How can I give it?” But the hare is a friend of the fox. And all the fox has is he’s slightly slick. Everybody knows that: “He’s slick like a fox.” And so I have the two of them — they’re really sort of like in Starbucks [laughs], and they’re having their coffee, and they’re talking about their friend, the turtle, and what can they do? And the two of them realized, “I only am sly and I only am fast, so how do we put this together to give a win to our friend?”
And I’ve been — you know, because everybody acts like, again, the hare was a fool. How can the hare be a fool? Because you know, I mean, you don’t have to be smart to know the hare could never have lost to a turtle. The hare had to have wanted the turtle to win. And we all have friends that we see some sad things that are happening to and we want to do something for them. And so no matter how poor we are, how broke we are, we spend, you know, $200 to give them a good bottle of wine. And we say, “Well, I saw this, and I wanted to drink this, and I was hoping …,” you know? We do things. I mean, that’s what you do when you see your friend who’s sad: you go outside of your space.
And so I just know that Aesop was wrong about that, that the hare wasn’t a fool just running around saying things like, “Oh, yeah, I’m so fast that I never have to run.” The hare wanted the turtle to win. And the only thing he had to give was his speed. So he gave it, and that’s what we as human beings do.
What’s the difference between writing for children and for adults?
I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference. Well, I think children are intelligent. And one of the problems that I’m having right now with Standing in the Need of Prayer is the rape scene. And the problem is not the rape scene. The problem is that Donald Trump — we are now finally coming back to when those five young men in Central Park were accused of raping that woman, and Donald Trump took out a full-page ad to say they should be executed. And I had that in my poem a long time ago. And so as we put these together — I’ve had two different editors on this who have asked, “You know, if we could just take that rape scene out,” and my position is: one, it’s my poem, so no. But the reason you want that rape scene taken out is not great. The reason you want to take it out is Donald Trump. And you’re afraid that he’s going to be upset. But first of all, Donald Trump can’t read, which is what I kept trying to explain, so it’s not a problem … [Laughs.]
Now you say, okay, what’s the difference? Well, you and I know what rape is. Children who are gonna read that — and I would hope that children do read it — don’t. So they will read and go over it. And it’ll be awhile before they think, “Oh, I read that when I was a little one.” They can only know what they know. Isn’t that a little part of a love poem? “I only know what I know / the passing years will show.” They will only do what they can do. And so I think that they should — no, not think. It’s going to have to stay in. I will be sorry if I can’t get it published. And that’s the truth.
Tell me more about this new book, Standing in the Need of Prayer.
I love the spirituals: “It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” And if anybody’s standing in the need of prayer right now, it’s Black men. But white women are about to catch up; white women are about to understand, “Oh, this is what’s been happening,” that we’ve been controlled by these people. They don’t love us. And when you will not obey them, as we saw in Charlottesville recently, you get run over by a car.
And nobody has done the history, and it needs to be done. I’m an Appalachian. I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Nobody’s done the history of lynching of white women in Appalachia. And we know that the Appalachian Trail was one of the trails that the slaves used as they were escaping. And we know that some of those men said, “Don’t put no quilt out. Don’t be putting no lamp out. I’m not gonna help those people.” And she did it anyway (I’m talking about the Settlement House). She put it out, and the next thing she found herself doing was hanging from a tree. And we know that it’s true. And we know that Viola Liuzzo from Detroit went down to Selma, just to help carry people back and forth. And the Klansmen who came up to her car: they knew they were shooting a white woman. They knew that it wasn’t a light-skinned Negro. They knew who they were killing. And they were killing her because they wanted to show other white women, “This is what’s going to happen to you.”
So I have a great admiration for the white women who have been saying, “Well, you know, we’re tired of it. We’re tired of you putting your hands on our daughters. We’re tired of you saying our 13-year old daughter — Mr. Moore in Alabama — we’re tired of you saying, “Oh, yeah, I gave permission for you to fuck my daughter.” Nobody gives permission for their 13- to 14-year-old daughter!
Okay, so here’s another question for you: In an early interview you said that poems can’t change the world. And I’m curious, because in saying things like, “I’m writing poems for Black men,” etc., what are you hoping your poems do if not change those bigger problems?
Well, I’d say my job is, as I said to my grandmother, I’ve done my job. I’m not trying to change the world. I’m not a fool. And you know, if I thought a poem could change the world, I would have written that poem. What my job to do is to tell the truth. And I think I, well, you know, I’m polite, and I’m easy, you know? I’m not difficult to get along with. And if you say, “Can I have a selfie?” I mean, why the hell not? And so you do some things like that, but I can’t change anybody. There’s nobody in this room I could change.
But … there are thousands of people who —
Except. Except. Except, there’s only one person in this room I can change: me. And I just want to make sure that nobody else changes me. That’s all I care about. Because that’s all I can care about. And if somebody’s sitting there — a young person is to say, “That fool was sitting up there saying she hates that she can’t change nobody but herself; maybe I can change myself.” Because you’re all you got. And you got to start off there. Love: how do you learn about love? You learn about love because you love yourself. It’s true, you know. You wake up in the morning — it’s a good habit, by the way — you wake up in the morning, and you go to the mirror and you smile at yourself. Make that the first face you see, and make sure you see a smile, because you may not see another one. You see what I’m saying? And that’s all. No, I don’t think that a poem can change the world. Well, I just think that I can do what I do.
So in terms of changing yourself, we mentioned this a couple days ago, too, that if you don’t contradict yourself, you haven’t grown. Right? What are some of the things that you find yourself now really thinking differently about? And not just like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have done that,” but serious worldview shifts?
I would love to be able to answer that question, except that I … don’t go back and read my work.
And so listening today to Margot [Crawford, Legacy seminar faculty], I was like, “Oh, did I write that?” [Laughs.]
I don’t go back. I mean, I’m 76 years old. I published my first book when I was, what? 25? 24? Something like that. So I know that there are contradictions. But you know, and I’m sure that if I look at some of my poems, I’d say, “Oh, God, when I said that, I wasn’t…”
I didn’t want to be and I don’t want to be trapped by what somebody else thinks I should be. And so I’m not worried that I don’t get some of the things that some of the other people got, and I’m happy for ’em, the people who get whatever it is they got. I only know — and no disrespect to anybody here — two [writers] I consider absolutely brilliant. And Toni Morrison is first — Sula and The Bluest Eye — she’s just incredible. And Edwidge Danticat. Edwidge is just an incredibly, incredibly brilliant young lady. And she should get — talk about “getting your flowers before you’re dead” — Edwidge should have a Nobel, just because what she’s done is just incredibly brilliant. I was sorry (and I think it’s prejudiced, frankly speaking) that Bobby Dylan got a Nobel for music, and not Marvin Gaye. Because What’s Going On is the most brilliant work. And you get kind of sick of them taking our music and getting credit for it. Of course, Marvin’s gone, but Marvin Gaye should have gotten that; and if you’re going for the living, then there’s only one other person: that’s Stevie Wonder. ’Cause he’s just brilliant. And I don’t think Stevie knows or cares. I mean, I’m not … but you know, you just get tired of being overlooked. And so you have to be my age to recognize that overlooked is probably the best thing to be because you remain sane and happy. And that’s important. It really is.
You do a lot of work with music and sound. You talk about it in your poems, but what is your relationship to music in terms of writing?
I think I’d be lost without it! I mean, I’m on the grasshopper’s side. I think I’d be lost without music. Yeah, you gotta have music. And I, at times, because I travel a lot and — I don’t want to say I don’t travel well. I think I get where I’m going. But I couldn’t get on the plane without music because I’m a nervous flier. Jesus and I are on pretty good terms, but if he’s gonna take me out, he’s gonna take me out with something that makes sense. He’s not gonna take me out screaming. I’m just gonna be listening to John Coltrane as it goes on down. Jesus knows that. [Laughs.] And music has always been a part of … it is a part of my life. I don’t have a voice. I’m so sorry, too, because one of the reasons I like spirituals is because you don’t have — some of you people can sing — but you don’t have to have a voice to sing a spiritual. You have to have a voice to sing rhythm and blues, you know … I like Billie Holiday, though, because she doesn’t have a voice. Somebody had asked her once, you know, “How come you sound like you do?” and she said “I sound like myself. I ain’t gonna sound like the rest of them.” [Laughs.]
And, of course, I had an argument recently. Ginny [Virginia Fowler] was with me. I was talking to somebody who thinks he knows music. I said, “Yeah, Billie Holiday wrote Strange Fruit.” And he said, “No, Billie Holiday didn’t write that.” And I said, “Billie Holiday wrote Strange Fruit.” He said, “Well, where can I find that?” And I just had to look at him. I didn’t call him a name, which I usually would have done. I said, “I just told you. What the hell do you mean, ‘Where do you find it?’ You found it ’cause I just fuckin’ told you.” It makes you crazy. Because anytime you see “traditional,” you know that it’s one of our songs that somebody stole. And honest to God, we all have white friends and stuff, but that’s what makes you mad. Don’t be motherfuckin’ stealing from me and then acting like [mocking], “Ahh, I didn’t realize I was stealing.” Of course you did. And Billie Holiday … in case you’re on Jeopardy and you have a question, Billie Holiday wrote Strange Fruit. Not Herzog. Billy Holiday. And it’s that kind of thing that makes you crazy.
But music means everything to me. As a little girl, I always used to say my parents fought, but they didn’t. My father beat my mother. And I had to have something to block that, so music is gonna block it. When I finally moved to Knoxville with my grandparents I listened to WGN. I never forget WGN. I remember my grandmother’s phone number: 3-1593. I don’t remember my mother’s phone number, but I remember grandmother’s phone number. And I remember listening to WGN, which went off at midnight, and I would cuddle with the radio. We had this old, plug-in radio and I would listen. I think many-a-night — and she never said anything about it — but I think many-a-night my grandmother must have come in and turned the radio off. She must have known. She must have known a lot of things. She must have known what her daughter was going through; she must have known what I was running from, and why I plugged that radio in. She must have known. Because she’s a mother. She must have known. But I remember waking up many-a-day and the radio was off, and I remember thinking I must have done it but it took me a while to decide that, no, Grandmother must have come in and turned the radio off.
So one last question before I open it up. This is “The Living Truth” — right? — “The Life and Work of Nikki Giovanni.” And living truth can’t be easy. Right? So what are the biggest challenges of living that way? Living in truth in the way that we understand being Nikki Giovanni is. And also what are some of the costs?
I happen to know … again, I’m lucky. I think it would be incredibly expensive to be Whitney Houston. It’s cheap to be me, because I’m just me. But Whitney was trying to please her mother. And all of those people. And we watched what happened there. We watched her die. We watched her go. And we have seen so many actors and singers, and we watch the price they pay for being, I don’t know, famous or whatever. And I think it’s overblown. So, when I go to the grocery store, sometimes people will come up to me and say, “Oh, I really love that poem.” It takes you five minutes, you’re in Kroger’s for God’s sake. And they say, “Oh, yeah, my cousin really likes you.” And the only time it worries you is when you fly, and you’ve been on the plane for four hours and you get off and now you have to pee. Somebody will stop you and say, “Oh, can I take a picture?” and you try to be nice about it, you say okay, but pee is about to start running down your leg. [Laughs.] I had to laugh about that, but, uh, I think I’m just happy with my life. I was being interviewed by another young lady recently who came in from Chicago and she said — and you know, it’s true, but she said — “You know, you’re not really all that famous.”
I’m happy with my life and I’m happy with, as I said to somebody else: “The house is paid for, I don’t want any new cars, and my dog has all of her shots, so get out of my face. You got nothing to offer me.” I think you have to … I watch Gladys Knight — and I don’t like Gladys, so I don’t mind saying it — Gladys is crazy as a loon. And I have watched who she is (if you know her at all) and I watch her like, “Oh, it’s such a burden.” Well, how did it get to be a burden that you got what you asked for? How did that get to be a burden? I enjoy what I do. I don’t need to be on the cover of People magazine. I just don’t need these things. And so I’m happy that when we come, we have a nice audience here. I’m happy to meet you all.
I really love li’l ol’ ladies. Any time I get asked to come to one of the old folks’ homes or something, I do it. And a good friend of mine just had her 50th high school anniversary. (I love her so much, and as Ginny points out to me, I call her a li’l ol’ lady but she’s not — I’m older than she is!) But she was so excited — and she ended up having not really a stroke, but we had to call 9-1-1 for her and I was just so sorry because it had meant so much, and she had worked so hard, and so I asked, “You all got those phones that do those things?” And so I asked if somebody could do a video for her because she was in the hospital. I don’t know the point of living if you can’t do that.
You know, you take what life gives you. And we were talking about — and I’m sure we’ll talk about it again on Friday, but, see, I am a Christian. My grandmother was a Christian. What Jesus teaches me is to love those who love you. Because there were people Jesus didn’t love. They’re like, “Ooh, Jesus loves everybody!” No. No, he didn’t. But he loved the people who loved him. And I like to think that at 76 I have loved the people who loved me. And that’s what’s important to me.
Thank you! We’ll move to audience questions now.
This is probably going to be a cliché question, but could you take us through the writer’s process for you? How do you write? When do you write? What’s the discipline of your writing? And if you were to give us advice as to how to write for ourselves, write for others, tips for young writers … Take us through that writing process and the importance of how you do it.
I think the first thing — and this is gonna sound cliché — is you gotta have something to write about! A lot of people say, “I wanna be a writer!” and they don’t know shit. They haven’t read anything; they don’t know anything. And I was sitting here talking about Aesop and a lot of you youngsters, if you haven’t read him, you’ve got to. And it doesn’t matter your religion, you gotta know the New Testament. Simply because some of the best stories in the world have come from the last 2,000 years. Some of them need to be reinterpreted!
I think you need to know where you are. There are some things that you cannot handle; let me just say that as a 76-year-old woman. There are some things in your life, right now, for you youngsters, that you can’t handle. You don’t understand it, you don’t have enough sense to understand it, you haven’t been through enough. Let it go. It will come back to you. If it’s important, it will come back. You have to have some faith in yourself, and I said that recently, too — wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and smile at yourself. It may be the only smile you get. But then you’ll know, when you come home in the evening, you can smile again. That’s important.
I think that the other thing is — what are you interested in? You know, I asked my class, and I’ll do it every time, I say to my class, “Tell me what the number-one bestseller is.” You know not one of them knows? Not one of them knows what the number-one bestseller is. Then why do you wanna be what you don’t know? Why would you wanna be that? Why wouldn’t you wanna be that which you could be proud of? So you’re asking. My process is: there are things that interest me.
Hi! So you talk a lot about how happy you are now, so maybe you could talk about the process to that kind of joy. Like if it involves getting a partner who you really love, or challenging yourself in certain ways, having certain people in your life, getting certain people out of your life. Could you just talk to us about your path to joy and tell us how you got there and let us know how we might get there, too?
I have a bad memory. And so that’s been a great help. [Laughs.] It’s the truth! But I wrote a poem, the first poem that ever got any attention that was interesting to me was “Nikki-Rosa.” And I had made up my mind when I wrote that poem that I knew: “Childhood remembrances are always a drag if you’re Black.” I got tired of people saying, “Oh, those poor Black people!” you know, you just get tired of that.
The end of that poem says, “But all the while, I was quite happy.” Well, I wasn’t. Because at 75 — and I’ve started to deal with it, you know, to share where I am — I’ve always tried to share. I made up my mind, my happiness is my business. I have to make up my mind. And so, I made up my mind that I wasn’t gonna let — and I think I started a poem someplace that said, “When I finally realized my parents’ marriage was not my business.” And that’s something you learn when you’re my age. It’s not something that you know.
And you mentioned a partner. I have been fortunate … and I mention Ginny because I love Ginny, and I think Ginny loves me—but when I didn’t have Ginny, I had my mother. I had my grandmother. And so I finally had to realize — and I adored my sister — but I realize whatever it was, my mother was looking out for my sister because she knew that I could look out for myself. And it took me a while to understand that. That Mommy didn’t dislike me. She just knew that I could do it. I could take care of myself. But Gary always came to me, whenever Gary needed something, she came to me because she knew that I would look out for her. And so things like that are important.
And I think that as a woman … my Aunt Agnes calls me. Her husband Clinton died, and her son had cancer. And her other son William, who we called Little William, had died. And so she only had Terry. She knew that Terry was dying. And so there was just — she didn’t really have anybody I guess but me. But she called me one day, you know as one of those your-aunt-calls-you things. And she said, “Do you have a minute?” So we were talkin’, and she said, “You know what I wish I had?” And I said, “No, but what do you need, Ag?” She said “I wish I had a Ginny.” And it was something. I appreciated that because there are people who wanna make a judgement about your life. And they wanna make a decision about how you live. And so I appreciated Ag saying [that], ’cause she was a relatively … she was a middle-class Black woman. So, she’s gonna have feelings, and I appreciated her being able to say, “I wish I had a Ginny.” Because she finally realized you got to have somebody of your own. No matter what other people have to say about it. You’ve got to have somebody of your own. ’Cause if you don’t, you’re the only person that’s losing. ’Cause all those other people are watching you be alone because you don’t have anybody to eat dinner with. You don’t have anybody to look at Jeopardy with. You don’t have anybody to talk to. You don’t have anybody when you want to go down to Aruba and they say, “Oh, I’ll go with you, honey.” You don’t have anybody, so nobody’s gonna say, “Aw, isn’t that wonderful, they’re all alone.”
And we women outlive men. And so, the men are dead and there you are by yourself. And I’ve watched too many friends with big houses, and there are parts of the house they don’t even go to because they’re too tired to walk up the steps. And you think, “Well, sell the house!” “Well, I don’t wanna sell the house because this is the house Jim and I bought.” You know, you think, “What are you gonna do with it? And how are you gonna find somebody? And if you don’t wanna sell the house, find somebody to live with.” And what they’re afraid of is somebody calling them gay or something like that, and I can’t think of anything nicer to be called than gay. You gotta let yourself be happy. If you had asked me this 50 years ago, you’d probably get a very, very, very different answer because I was a different person.
And I just think I was really so lucky to have found Ginny and that she puts up with me because it’s not easy living with people like me. No, it isn’t, for a lot of reasons. We’re artists, and it’s hard to deal with artists. And we lookin’ at things different and it’s just — it’s not easy. And I’ve watched too many of my friends try to please people that they couldn’t please. And I mentioned Whitney Houston. The thing that makes me very, very sad about Whitney was that she should have kept Robyn [Crawford]. They pushed Robyn out of her life because they were jealous and they wanted to control her and they didn’t want to have anyone with something to say, you know? And once Whitney lost Robyn, she didn’t have anybody. And when she didn’t have anybody, she turned to drugs. And Bobby Brown. And death. And you can’t let that happen, ’cause you don’t know these people. I worked with her mother and I thought that she was wrong. Not that I had anything to do with how she raised and reared her daughter, but you know I thought she was wrong. What do you care what somebody else has to say when you have a daughter as wonderful as that? And now she’s gone, you’re by yourself, and what? Everybody’s happy? You’re proud of yourself? What the hell?! She should have had Robyn. Robyn was her … her friend. And there are other people that I won’t name who have had enough sense to say, “I’m not gonna let life beat me down. I’m gonna find the people that I care about. And anybody who doesn’t like it …” ’Cause otherwise you’re out there by yourself, and you don’t have anybody to talk to. The things that make life worthwhile you’ve given up. And that just doesn’t make sense. And, of course, I’m never gonna be rich, so I don’t have to worry about money, but like I said the house is paid for, I don’t need another car, and the dog has her shots. What more could I want?
I had my class write [about] what is enough. We talked about that, and I had them write what is enough. And the best paper there was a young woman’s. It was a young woman who wrote about her mother’s breast cancer. And that her mother survived it. And that was her last line: “And that is enough.” It was an A paper. That’s an A paper. She said she had her mother, and that’s so wonderful!
One of the things that inspires me most about you is your perseverance as a writer and, I think, as anybody who wants to do anything. What makes you want to keep going? Like, after rejection and people telling you, “No, I can’t do this.” What makes you keep saying, “Yeah, I’m gonna make this effort to do this?”
[Laughs.] I hate to laugh because I haven’t had any rejection letters in a moment. I haven’t gotten a rejection letter in so long. The New York Times called and asked me, because this is their 200th year anniversary of the thing in Jamestown (it was 1619, and this is 2019) — and so they’re doing a thing on importing things. And they called and asked me and I did what, in all fairness to everybody, is an incredibly beautiful piece, and I turned it in and the girl’s name is Nicole, by the way. And Nicole said, “Okay, it doesn’t have a date connected to it.” I said “Well, slavery has been with us since forever.” And it’s really wonderful. What I loved about it is I live in Virginia and we are the peanut capital and the peanut is not normal for Virginia. Somebody had to bring it over. And so what I have, because we don’t like to talk about it but it’s nonetheless true, [is that] Africans sold us to Europeans and I have — ’cause I’m a grandmother — a grandmother put a peanut in the hand of her grandson and say, “Don’t forget me.” And so he brings that, despite everything of Middle Passage, to America. He gets sold in Jamestown and he plants it. Now he’s got this plant because he’s promised his grandmother. And other people say. “We’re leaving tonight!” You know, and he says. “I’m not leavin’.” “Oh, you’re just being a coward. You’re just being an Uncle Tom.” But he had a promise to keep. And I wanted to point out that he kept it. Virginia had a promise to keep, and it hasn’t. And so it was rejected. She [Nicole] said, “Well, can’t you make some changes in it?” and I said, “No, sweetheart, I can’t make changes in a beautiful, perfect piece. So I understand that you are the New York Times and I’m not, so I’m gonna take my piece” and it’s called “1619 Jamestown,” and it’s my piece — “and I’m gonna keep it.” I think that they’re gonna understand that it should open their piece. I don’t care if they do or don’t. It’s gonna be in my book. And I love that piece so much. ’Cause we forget the promises that we kept when we came to this country. And the country did not keep its promise to us. And so, you know, you say, “What do you do with rejection?” What the hell? Go on about your business.
There are stories about Middle Passage. They’re so — I mean, you just cry. There are stories about okra. That we haven’t gotten anywhere near. And I wanted to point out that Virginia had a promise to keep, and it hasn’t. How did okra get here? And I think of that as a girl. It had to be a girl that brought that here. And it had to be something she remembered. Her grandmother — there are things — and I’m just always being amazed at you youngsters not using your history. If you would use what you know, and quit worrying about who does and doesn’t like it, you’d have something. And I can’t make you do that; all I can do is what I do.
But there are some incredibly wonderful … “It’s me, o Lord! Standing in the need of prayer.” But I’m not sure we know what prayer is. “Now I lay me down to sleep.” That isn’t a prayer. Prayer is when you cut your father or your brother from a tree and he’s been spit on. He’s been cut up into pieces. That’s a prayer. You have to ask the Lord: I need… “I’m standing in the need of prayer.” What do you do when your daughter is raped and spit on? You need a prayer. And that ain’t “now I lay me down to sleep.” What made those people find those words? These are great people and that’s what most of y’all don’t know. These are great people — we are great people. We have come through it, and we will continue to go through it.
Think about it. Think about the stories we had to tell. But then you can go back and think about the stories that the folk in Germany, the folk in Austria … think about the folktales. White people had the same stories. The same folktales. Walt Disney then gonna take it and make it cute. But there’s nothing cute about any of that. There’s nothing cute about Rapunzel letting down her hair. You know that bitch wasn’t up there in some castle, some place. This is about sex. It’s about somebody wanting to have sex with her, raping her maybe. The wolf in the forest, this isn’t about some wolf. And no matter what they try to do, no huntsman comes along and splits him open and everybody’s gonna live happily ever after. And nobody says, “What does the mother think when she loses her daughter and her mother?” Where is that mother? Who only wanted her daughter to help her mother. They make it her fault. They make it the daughter’s fault. “Oh, yeah, it was her daughter’s fault for telling the wolf where she was going.” I don’t know what she told the wolf, but I know this woman lost the two people who meant so much to her. There’s no story about that. You all aren’t thinking about what you know. You’re not thinking about what you’ve been hearing all your life.
I hate Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer because it’s about bullying. I have a good friend who’s a critic, that’s what she does, and we have an argument. It’s not a bad argument. She says that they didn’t like Rudolph ’cause he was gay. I say they didn’t like Rudolph because he was colored. But I know one thing: It ain’t funny. I don’t sing it, and by the time I finish with my class, they all hate it. As well they should. And now you’ll go down in history because you did something. Because, what, your name was Joe Lewis and they needed someone to fight? Or your name was Jesse Owens and they needed—? Santa didn’t come around until one foggy Christmas Eve. You get sick of that shit.
There are stories that you all are overlooking. There are stories that you know. You gotta read a book. And you gotta be… you just gotta find a way to be content that you are doing your share. That if your grandmother — because that’s who I’d count on, mine — if she was there, you could say, “I did my job.”
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020)
Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh