Editor’s Note: While our usual editorial style uses poets’ last names on second reference, this essay intentionally breaks with that style as a nod to the intimacy the poet has cultivated with audiences and readers.

By Kendra N. Bryant, PhD

I turned myself into myself and was
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save
 —Nikki Giovanni, “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why)” 

Jesus wept. (John 11:35)

&I find Jesus and Nikki to be quite similar, maybe even one and the same. Admittedly, however, I don’t know either that well. But I think I know enuf about them to make such an assertion. See, I’m thinking if Jesus really is on Mars,[1] then Nikki’s fascination with space is really her fascination with herself, but not in an ego-tripping, self-centered fashion; more like a return to Self. Otherwise, why else in her 1971 essay, “Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet” — which begins with her own Creation story about a possibly bored Earth who was one with the sun before it, like Mercury and Mars, flew away from the sun (with Venus in tow) — did Nikki write she is “a being from almost another planet” (133, 136)? Maybe she is.

Maybe Nikki is from Mars, and when she turned herself into herself and was Jesus, her body was transported to Earth.

Or: Maybe Nikki is so enthralled with space travel because her identical twin, they both born from one fertilized egg split in two, lives on Mars with Jesus. After all, Nikki is a Gemini. Maybe Nikki’s identical twin communicates with Nikki in her dreams, which is how Nikki knows “[w]hen the man in the moon smiles, [t]he men on Mars dance,”[2] unless Mae Jemison told her so[3]. And maybe it was Nikki’s twin who told her to name her son Thomas, the apostle called “twin.” He, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, was willing to die with Jesus as He journeyed back to Judea, where Jews attempted to stone him, to see the deceased Lazarus (John 11:16). Perhaps Jesus wanted to make sure Nikki had her own “ride or die.”

If Nikki’s twin, who lives on Mars with Jesus, is talking to Nikki in her dreams, then that would also explain why Nikki Giovanni is a writer who believes “a Black beautiful, loving world is possible” (“Gemini” 149). After all, Nikki has spent her life propagating “Black love is Black wealth”[4] thru works that lionize Black feeling, Black talk[5] — writin bout how Black folks cook, quilt, pray, sing, sex, dance, protest — how they “remained humane under inhumane conditions.”[6] And still do.  

I’m thinking: Jesus, who I know was a nappy headed Negro, gave Black folks Nikki cause He knew she would rightly manifest Him (and His Black love) here on Earth — not quite like Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream”–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Jesus manifestation, but like Nikki Giovanni Re: Creation–Black JudgementChasing Utopia manifestation. That’s why John, who was a witness for Jesus, begins his book with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). You get it?

Nikki told us she became a writer because she had no other skills she did as well (“Gemini” 135), and that’s clearly because Jesus made sure her writerly self was here on Earth: to right (or write) the truth. And although Jesus gave Nikki what would feel to most of us an unsurmountable task, I believe she was born for it, for as a little girl she daydreamed about “hold[ing] the whole world up if I so chose,” she says, (138) and then explains with “power comes responsibility,” which Nikki recalls her grandmother taught her, was to her people (138).

Undoubtedly, her people are Black women Nikki describes as “the single group in the West intact … the only group that derives its identity from itself” (144) — which is why, when Nikki turns herself into herself, she is Jesus. Her people are Black women, she says; they are the “for and to”[7]— the ones who will be “quilting a black-eyed pea”[8] when Black America lands on Mars, and Nikki knows this because her twin is already there with Jesus. And together, at midnight, over a glass of red wine, they commune with Nikki, which colors her dreams — although she thinks her dreams are colored by her “morning breakfast routines.”[9]

Either way, it is quite likely since Nikki Giovanni doesn’t have a biological twin (she knows of) and human life forms have yet to be discovered on Mars, that Nikki carries a two-ness. But it ain’t the Du Boisian double consciousness that too many Black folks have accepted. Nikki ain’t been engaged in “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 9). For she confesses in an “I am” approach:

I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.

(“Nikki-Rosa,” 53; lines 27-33)

Nikki’s twoness, instead, is like an incomprehensible spirit frolicking in a body that operates in a manner inviting people to receive her words, her message. But Nikki is more than “we are spirits having a human experience.”[10] Because her embodiment surpasses our understanding — at least my own — Nikki is alien. Yet! because she is so hueman, she is also a friend.

While I, like most little Black girls, consumed and regurgitated Nikki’s 1972 “Ego Tripping” poem — and even claimed her sixth stanza re: her “recreation” my favorite — I began musing over Nikki’s Jesus self after reading her latest collection: A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter (William Morrow, 2017). During her lectures at Furious Flower’s 2019 Legacy Seminar, which I attended, Nikki shared she was learning to cry, thus the impetus of the 54 poems and 111 pages that make up her compilation: “I am trying to learn / How to cry,” Nikki writes in her poem, “Baby West” (6; stanza 14 ). “It’s not that my life / Has been a lie / But that I repressed / My tears” (6; stanza 15).

I listened to Nikki talk about how she rarely cried, how she couldn’t cry, but as of late she cries at the drop of a hat, and I thought of Jesus. I thought of the Jesus, who, like Nikki, was at the frontlines of revolutionary wars, if you will. About how they —  witnessing famine, genocide, and capitalism, losing loved ones, and being rejected — still said yes; still gave love; and still offered the gospel as they stood in their is-ness, in that “I am” spirit. And I thought: Of all the shit Jesus witnessed and endured, why did Lazarus’ death make him cry? What made Nikki want to learn to cry?

According to Biblical scripture, after seeing the sadness Lazarus’ friends and his sisters, Mary and Martha, carried, Jesus “groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (John 11:33). And when Jesus looked upon Lazarus’ dead body, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus eventually resurrects Lazarus, which he might’ve done because He wanted to prove to onlookers He is the resurrection and the life, which He proclaims to Martha in verse 25. Or Jesus so loved Lazarus, as the Jews observe in verse 36, that He could not bear Lazarus’ death. So Jesus told Lazarus to get up. I’m no Biblical scholar, but I think any way the wind blows, Jesus’ weeping humanizes Him, while His ability to resurrect Lazarus speaks to an incomprehensible divinity. Moreover, the letting go, as expressed in Jesus’ tears, conjured life.

Jesus basically surrendered to His feelings, and I think Nikki Giovanni is experiencing a similar phenomenon. In her effort to cry, Nikki purposely engages that human expression that personifies her, and I wonder: What divine thing will she bring forth? What or whom will she resurrect?

In A Good Cry, Nikki writes to her family, friends, and Virginia Tech students. She writes about food, nature, and Black lives mattering, while remembering Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ruby Dee, and Rita Dove. Nikki acknowledges schools, movements, and museums; she imagines Black women singing in Mars, she shakes with Big Maybelle in a Newport nightclub, and she makes clear the difference between school and education. Nikki says she wants to be a fly on the wall (as well as a possum in autumn). She takes her water with sugar and fruit juices, and as a little girl, she loved to dust the bathroom lightbulbs. Clearly, A Good Cry is a myriad of personal experiences and relationships —much like a creative nonfiction memoir that, although points to the author’s life, also points readers to their own lives.

I don’t understand all of the poems in A Good Cry, specifically not “Poseidon Hears His Baby Boy Crying,” and I am fine with not understanding it. I don’t particularly analyze poetry; for poetry shouldn’t be as much analyzed as it should be felt. And so I’ve been feeling my way through A Good Cry wanting to happen upon the Jesus piece — the one specific poem that further supports my notions re: Nikki’s relationship with Jesus, particularly their emotionality. (Because I really do want to connect “Jesus wept” and A Good Cry.)

At first reading, I was almost sure “Space: Our Frontier” was it. I’ve been so amused with Jesus being on Mars with Nikki’s twin sister, this poem felt like the Word. In it, Nikki urges NASA to send Appalachian Hill writing students to Antarctica to observe its climate because Antarctica is “the closest thing we have to Space” (10). Especially because the poem’s first line mentions the Middle Passage — which nods to her 2002 “Quilting the Black Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)” — and then speaks about endeavoring to Antarctica, “in friendship,” to uncover the life forms that the “quiet side” of the sun warms (9), I initially believed “Space: Our Frontier” was the Jesus piece. I mean, how can one not feel Jesus in Nikki’s expressions, which include lines like: “our dreams [being] the perfect beginning” (11)? But as convincing as “Space: Our Frontier” is, that poem is not it. The it poem signaling Nikki’s Jesus self is “I Married My Mother.”

Almost centering the book, “I Married My Mother” is compiled of 45 lines, the longest being eight words. It is the Jesus piece that signals the resurrection of both Nikki Giovanni and her mother; their relationship is the impetus for Nikki’s other relationships, most of which are shared via Nikki’s lectures, poems, and prose pieces. “I Married My Mother” is Nikki’s declared return to self, or her acceptance of her ultimate self, wherein Nikki finds safety (again) in a “mother-love” [11] made possible through her own communal practices. In other words, just like Jesus’ purpose was made clear in how He communed with the disinherited, Nikki’s purpose is defined through her community relationships.

Understanding the depth of this poem is best done, I think, in consideration of Howard Thurman’s[12] philosophies about one’s purpose, which is thoughtfully explicated in Luther E. Smith’s 1988 “Intimate Mystery: Howard Thurman’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” Smith’s essay is organized into three sections, and part 1, “Reality’s Narrative,” explains Thurman’s ideas about ultimate reality as it exists in community, God, and love. Although Smith’s entire essay is worth discussing here, I will focus on “Reality’s Narrative,” which does the most to support my notion re: Nikki’s “I Married My Mother” being a Christlike expression.

Part 1 of Smith’s essay includes two sections: “Community and God” and “The Love-ethic.” These sections collectively explain Thurman’s theory that ultimate meaning, in other words, one’s purpose in life, is informed by one’s relationship to one’s community, which results in one’s relationship to God, and concludes with one manifesting that relationship to God by relationshipping with others. To understand “I Married My Mother” in terms of Thurman’s “Search for Ultimate Meaning” requires folks to know a little bit about Nikki’s childhood experiences and the relationship she had with her mother and other beings, sentient and non-sentient. (I suggest reading The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni (William Morrow, 2003), which includes “Gemini,” “Sacred Cows and Other Edibles,” and “Racism 101”).

Nonetheless, to understand “I Married My Mother,” readers should know this: Nikki Giovanni was born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee; however, she spent her elementary and middle school years in Cincinnati, OH, until she entered ninth grade, at which time she moved back to Knoxville where she completed her high school years under her maternal grandparents’ guardianship. Nikki’s father was abusive, and at 15 years old, she no longer wanted to bear witness to her father’s abuse. According to Virginia Fowler’s “Chronology” reprinted in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (William Morrow, 2003),  Nikki’s grandmother, “who is involved in numerous charitable and political endeavors, becomes an increasing influence on her, teaching her the importance of helping others and fighting injustice” (xxi). Nikki was also influenced by two of her high school teachers, says Fowler (xxi) — all of whom inarguably facilitate Nikki’s affinity for little old ladies.

In between writing and publishing poetry, receiving awards, and participating in lectures, Nikki also became her parents’ caretaker, purchasing a house her abusive father had to live in, thus removing him as head of household and, therefore, as the dominant force of her mother’s abuse. While Nikki’s relationship with her parents (and her sister who was two years her elder) coupled with the relationships she encountered as a Black woman navigating white America’s supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, are common tropes in Nikki’s poetic works, “I Married My Mother” focuses on Nikki’s relationship with her mother, which is actually an interrogation of herself. According to Howard Thurman, says Smith, “At the most fundamental level of physical survival we can see that each form of life depends upon an other-than-self source for nourishment. Existence requires relatedness” [emphasis mine] (85). As such, in “I Married My Mother,” Nikki describes her relationship with her mother through her relationship with crying — and both, mother-love and crying, are sources of nourishment vital to human survival.

Nikki’s poem begins with her claiming crying is a skill she “maybe” will learn; however, she “automatically” wipes tears from her face, thus implying crying, the process of shedding tears, is not a skill — for crying is the eye’s natural response to removing irritants, reducing stress hormones, and fighting pathogenic microbes — but the when of crying is the skill Nikki hopes to learn. In other words, crying as an expression of one’s vulnerability is the skill Nikki says she “maybe” will learn, noting both her mother and sister did learn to cry. They dared to be vulnerable:

I know crying
Is a skill
I automatically wipe
My eyes even though I know
Is a skill

Maybe I will learn                       
My mother did
When she thought
I was asleep

Following Nikki’s admission (which is her being vulnerable) Nikki invites her sister Gary into her musings. “I think my sister did / Sleep / But sleep is as difficult / To me as crying” (lines 11-14). Gary not only knew how to cry, but unlike Nikki, she was also able to sleep. This departure from her relationship with her mother is significant to understanding Nikki Giovanni’s whole at-home community, for Nikki’s sister seemed to have it all, as Nikki notes in her autobiographical essays and shares in her lectures. Nikki grew up literally under Gary, often admiring her and “bending” to her will, while loving her fiercely.

Nikki then goes on to write: “I laugh easily / And I smile / And withhold any true / Feelings” (lines 15-18). Basically, Nikki laughs to keep from crying, which is a common mode of survival within Black communities. According to Smith: “Thurman writes that ‘at the core of life is a hard purposefulness, a determination to live.’ This purposefulness is not a drive that occurs in isolation,” writes Smith, “for each expression of life is dependent upon other forms of life for the achievement of its potential” [author’s emphasis] (85). Although withholding one’s true feelings is a pretense that may invite unauthentic relationships,  laughing and holding back one’s true feelings are absolutely an expression of one’s “determination to live,” for falling apart — feeling — is a luxury, I think, many Black people (mothers, activists, teachers) cannot afford, for they may not be able to put themselves back together again. I think in the same way Nikki felt she was not afforded the luxury of feeling, neither did Jesus, which is why He did not “fall apart” until the latter part of his life. But to Thurman’s first point, Nikki’s determination to live was dependent upon her relatedness with others such as her mother, her sister, as well as her teacher and father, both of whom Nikki addresses next in her poem.

In the 11 lines following Nikki’s claiming to “withhold any true feelings,” she writes:

Except once I fell in love
With my eighth grade teacher
And spent most of my life trying
To feel safe
Though maybe
I’m safe
After almost thirty years
Which is as long
As I lived with my mother

These lines direct readers to the “mother-love” relationships Nikki found in her teachers, although she speaks of only one here. Nevertheless, in her “mother-love” relationships with teachers, Nikki fulfills Thurman’s second point re: “reality is community” (85). According to Thurman, says Smith, “Reality is community because all creation works together for the completion of the telos of life itself” (85). Nikki’s will to “fall in love” is her conscious intent of being whole, as implied in the lines: “And spent most of my life trying / To feel safe / Again” (ll. 21-23). As noted earlier, Nikki’s father was abusive, and as a result of no longer being able to witness that abuse, Nikki moved to Knoxville with her grandparents where they, as well as Nikki’s teachers, became her safe place(s). However, it is Nikki’s “determination to live” that invites her community to “support the groaning of [her] life toward fulfillment” (Smith 85). Undoubtedly, Nikki’s move to Knoxville, away from her parents, coupled with her will to fall in love, express Nikki’s “groaning of life.”

Furthermore, Nikki’s experience with loving her eighth-grade teacher signals her acquaintance with a loving God, which supports Thurman’s third point: “God is ‘the fact of life from which all other things take their meaning and reality’” (qtd. in Smith 86).  God is All. God is the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. In making his final point, says Smith, Thurman explains how ultimate reality is perceived through knowing God, claiming such knowing is a religious experience — but not in the traditional brick-and-mortar-church-attending religious experience. Instead, one experiences God inside loving relationships — which, although I am focused here on relationships with people — includes (as Shug Avery[13] teaches us) all sentient beings. According to Smith, most important to Thurman’s ideas re: God as ultimate reality is understanding “God is not only creator, holy presence, form, and vitality, but God is also love. God embraces creation with compassion” (87). Nikki experienced God’s love within the mentorship relationship she shared with her eighth-grade teacher, for that teacher’s compassion for Nikki mirrored the compassion God has for all creation; God’s love is the ultimate “mother-love.” Thus, in that mother-loving relationship with her teacher, Nikki finds safety and, therefore, “a new sense of self” (87). Quoting Smith entirely best explains my point:

[T]he individual attains knowledge about ultimate concerns through an encounter with God; it is within this encounter that God is experienced as love. Thurman describes the individual’s experience as that which results in ‘the confidence of ultimate security.’ The individual feels embraced completely by a loving power that is responsive to his/her needs. And this not only discloses God’s nature, but it gives the individual a new sense of self. The fact that this love would be poured out upon individuals gives them the assurance of their worth within the heart of God … It is God’s compassion at this most personal level which therefore leads to the conclusion that the relationship with God is characterized by intimacy. God’s nearness is more than proximity and knowing; it is caring response to a person’s deepest needs. This experience of intimacy has the effect of making all matters of ultimate meaning conform with the sensation of God’s love. Whatever is ultimately meaningful must be consistent with God’s loving embrace of life, which includes God’s embrace of the individual. [emphasis mine] (87-88)

Thus, in Nikki’s relationship with her teacher, as well as her relationship with her grandparents, especially her grandmother, Nikki Giovanni is reacquainted with God. (And I offer reacquaintance because Nikki’s mother is her first God experience; however, the at-home abuse she witnessed was dispiriting.) Nonetheless, Nikki’s second stanza concludes with her contemplating her safety, writing: “Though maybe / I’m safe / Now / After almost thirty years / Which is as long / As I lived with my mother” (ll. 24-29).

In addition to being the poem’s volta, which is the rhetorical shift in thought or emotion, these five lines suggest Nikki’s reinstatement, if you will, of her feeling safe with her mother. Here, and into her final two stanzas, Nikki assumes her Jesus self, wherein, theorizes Thurman, “As individuals seek to conform their lives to the love felt in their religious experience, they come to the awareness that the life of the self is inextricable from the welfare of the social order” (88). Although Nikki’s poem doesn’t unveil all the creative contributions Nikki has given the world, especially her Black community, those of us familiar with Nikki Giovanni, know her life — most of which was spent in community with her mother — was also spent “inextricable from the welfare of the social order” (88). Nikki has dedicated her entire creative life manifesting Creator through her relationships with others; and they are documented in poem. As such, Nikki’s “greater sense of self is accompanied by a sense of community. Therefore, [she] seek[s] to increase the expression of love within society” (88). In the beginning was the Word …

Finally, Nikki’s last two stanzas conclude thusly:

Maybe that’s not a poem
Maybe that’s something else
Maybe I just wanted to show my father
That he needn’t be
Maybe I just enjoyed buying
The house he had to live in
Showing her she should have married
Me instead of him
Or maybe since we will all soon
Be gone
I should be happy I found
My mother in someone
Else who loves me

What else
Really matters

Considering Nikki uses the term “maybe” five times in these final verses (seven times throughout the entire poem), I think we can arguably conclude these verses are musings meant for the poet’s own contemplation — similar to Jesus’s prayers in Gethsemane. Although Nikki may not be in agony as the about-to-be-crucified Jesus was, Nikki’s introspective tone — which is at first sullen, then self-righteous, and finally, resigned — suggests she’s been carrying a burden. And no one can be burdened by that or with whom she is not in relationship.

For whatever reason Nikki purchased the house both her parents “had to live in,” undoubtedly love operated in her decision to house and nurture both her parents with a spirit representing God’s immanence and transcendence. Nikki’s shifting tone and her five “maybes” in these last stanzas speak to Thurman’s notion that “whatever is inexplicable has been attributed to God’s mystery … [and] participation in God’s mystery results in coming to know God as a caring personality” (87). When people know God so intimately, argues Thurman, they desire to share that love with others, thus becoming an “instrument of that love” (88). And when love is given, it, too, is received. “What else / Really matters,” (ll. 44-45) asks Nikki in a question that is not a question at all.   

With all of that said, and much left unsaid, I am quite convinced: In Jesus-like fashion, Nikki Giovanni has traveled here to be our right (or write) hand of fellowship, moving inside love and living from its center, so Black Americans may know themselves as they authentically are — so that, we, too, may know God as Nikki knows — and are brazen enuf to pass that mother-love on to others. And that is worth a good cry.  

Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folks, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003, pp. 7-15.

—. “Baby West.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 4-7.

—. “Chasing Utopia.” Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, William Morrow, 2013, pp. 1-3.

—. “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why).” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, 2003, pp. 125-126.

—. “Gemini—A Prolonged Autobiographical Statement on Why.” Gemini: An Extended

Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty Years of Being a Black Poet, Penguin Group, 1971, pp. 133-149.

—. A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017.

—. “A Haiku for Mars.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, p. 17.

—. “A Higher Level of Poetry.” Acolytes, William Morrow, 2007, p. 103.

—. “I Married My Mother.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 60-61.

—. “Morning Breakfast Routines.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 73-74.

—. “Nikki-Rosa.” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, 2003, p 53.

—. “Poseidon Hears His Baby Boy Crying.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and  Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 75-76.

—. “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).” Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems  and Not Quite Poems, Harper Perennial, 2011, pp. 1-4.

—. “Space: Our Frontier.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 9-11.

Smith, Luther E. “Intimate Mystery: Howard Thurman’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” Ultimate Reality and Meaning, vol. 11, no. 2, June 1988, https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/uram.11.2.85.

Spirit Filled Life Bible for Students: Learning and Living God’s Word by the Power of His Spirit. Edited by Jack W. Hayford, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

[1] Reference to Philip José Farmer’s 1979 science fiction novel, Jesus on Mars (Pinnacle Books)

[2] Line 2 of Giovanni’s “A Haiku for Mars” from A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, 2017, p. 17

[3] Reference to Giovanni’s “Chasing Utopia” essay from Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, 2013, pp. 1-3

[4] Line 30 of Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa” poem, first collected in Black Judgement (Broadside Lotus Press, 1968), quoted here from The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (William Morrow, 2003), p. 53

[5] Title of Giovanni’s 1970 collection

[6] During one of her lectures I attended at Florida State University circa 2000, Giovanni discussed the “alien nature” of Africans who survived the Middle Passage and re-created themselves in a New World that endeavored to dehumanize them. She was making her claim for why Blacks are well-suited for space travel, noting they “remained humane under inhumane conditions,” and therefore, could guarantee NASA they’d return to Earth as the spirited human beings they are.

[7] Phrase from line 2 of Giovanni’s prose piece, “A Higher Level of Poetry,” from Acolytes (William Morrow, 2007), p. 103

[8] Final line in Giovanni’s “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars),” from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems (William Morrow, 2002), pp. 1-4

[9] Reference to Giovanni’s poem with same title from A Good Cry, 2017, pp. 73-74.

[10] Often quoted phrase coined by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest

[11] “Mother-love” is not limited to mothers who give birth. “Mother-love” can occur in relationships where a person (teacher, aunt, mentor, friend) acts as a nourishing source for another who needs such care. A “mother-love” relationship is a relationship of care. 

[12] Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was an African-American theologian, philosopher, and social activist whose ideas about religion and community informed civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr.

[13] In Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple, character Shug Avery teaches the dispirited Celie that God is All. She relies on nature to make her point, telling Celie, “I believe God is everything … trees … air … birds … other people” (167).

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

Kendra N. Bryant NCAT HeadshotKendra N. Bryant is assistant professor of English and composition director at North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro. A graduate of Florida A&M University (Tallahassee) and University of South Florida (Tampa), Kendra has an M.Ed. in English Education and a Ph.D. in English Rhetoric & Composition. In addition to almost 20 years of classroom teaching, she has published poems and essays along with scholarly articles in works such as The Inside Light: New Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston (2010); The Journal of Basic Writing (2013); Studies in Popular Culture (2015); and Multiculturalism in Higher Education (2020). She is currently working on a poetry manuscript and actively blogs at her website: drknbryant.com.  



by Nikki Giovanni

My goldfish are finding
winter homes under slabs
in the pond

Mother gold fish birthed
and hid four babies
this summer

they were not eaten
by birds
or their fathers

the heater is on

its my contribution
to mother nature

I have aired my quilts
and washed my blankets I will cuddle

with my dog
a good book and with any luck
a cup
of Frontier Soup

my winter home

Poem copyright 2020 by Nikki Giovanni. All rights reserved.

See more poems from Nikki Giovanni debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: January 26, 2020” and “Vines.”

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Review | Writing Prompt


(The Death of Kobe Bryant)

by Nikki Giovanni

We don’t know
She does
He did
I can’t
You don’t
Know the last words
“The weather is bad
Don’t go
Stay home
They will be all
Right with out

We don’t know
And actually it’s not
Our business
Was she worried
Did she feel something
Did she wish
He would for once

But she most likely kissed
Them both wondering
What they might want
For dinner
Or snacks into the evening
When they came home

She hoped they would
But she was so tired
Maybe just a short
Just to close
Her eyes
For a minute
She was cold
Just needed to throw
A blanket over
Her feet
For just a minute

We don’t Know what
She thought
Or said

It’s none
Of our business
And too sad
To think

Poem copyright 2020 by Nikki Giovanni. All rights reserved.

See more poems from Nikki Giovanni debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Vines” and “Winter Homes.”

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Review | Writing Prompt

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.”

Read more in this issue: Critical Review | Poems | Writing Prompt

Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren 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


by Nikki Giovanni

My mother died
13 or 14 years

I took the flowers
And put most in
The gift of life

They sit by the window
In the sunnyside
Of my bedroom
And the roots
Have taken hold

Sometimes a leaf
Will yellow
And I pull it off

It is dead

And there must be
For a new leaf

Things that are dead
Cannot be saved

My mother will always
Live in my heart

All nazis must be Picked
And thrown

Poem copyright 2020 by Nikki Giovanni. All rights reserved.

See more poems from Nikki Giovanni debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: January 26, 2020” and “Winter Homes.”

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Review | Writing Prompt