Giovanni speaks on her civil rights movement experiences

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Renowned poet Nikki Giovanni spoke as a part of the University of Indianapolis Diversity Lecture Series at 9 p.m. on Feb. 5. As the author of more than 30 books, Distinguished Professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and winner of numerous awards, Giovanni kicked off  Black History Month at UIndy.

She discussed the history of the civil rights movement and how the movement affected her own life and poetry.


Renowned poet Nikki Giovanni converses with students in UIndy Hall following her Feb. 5 Diversity Lecture.
(Photo by Ayla Wilder)


One influential event in her life was meeting Rosa Parks at the Philadelphia airport, which led to their becoming close friends.

“People forget that without Rosa, we wouldn’t get Martin [Luther King Jr.], because we have to look at how the thing unraveled.  And so we’ve got to have Rosa Parks—who on Dec. 1, 1955, is going to refuse to get up out of her seat and thus lead to a bus boycott. And this is how we’re going to meet Martin,” she said. “… One of things that you’re doing when you’re writing is thinking, ‘What started that?’”

Giovanni then gave a lengthy introduction to her poem “Rosa Parks,” which she wrote for her friend. The introduction focused on the history of the civil rights movement, starting with Parks and King and working back to the brutal murder of Emmett Till to A. Philip Randolph and the Pullman Porters striking in the 1920s.

“So everybody wants to say, ‘Oh, her feet were tired,’ like she had a corn, like her shoes didn’t fit or something. What she had was: she was sick of it,” she said. “And when the bus driver said to her, ‘Move,’ she said, ‘No,’ … because what she was was sick and tired of was being pushed around.”

Giovanni spoke about many other topics, such as her desire to take a group of writers to Antarctica to describe the landscape and how important it is for students to travel around the world. She even touched on income inequality and defended millenials against claims that they are lazy and apathetic.

“A lot of people are always complaining, ‘The kids aren’t doing this, that and the other.’  But I think the kids are doing their job,” she said. “Because they complained about us. Those same people complained about us.”

After recounting the history behind the poem, Giovanni read “Rosa Parks.” She finished the lecture with a few poems from her newest book, including “Note to the South: You Lost” and “Still Life with Apron.”

Vice President for Student and Campus Affairs and Dean of Students Kory Vitangeli said that Student Affairs, which organizes the Diversity Lecture Series, wanted to bring in a well known figure to kick off Black History Month.

“One of the things that we try to do with Diversity Lectures is to try to bring in a wide variety of people to cover a wide variety of topics,” she said. “So again, we were kind of looking for something out of the box.”

Although they wanted someone unique, Vitangeli said that Student Affairs also looked for a popular figure with a recognizable name.

Giovanni’s name was very recognizable to junior theatre major Rai Williams, who said he is a longtime fan of Giovanni’s. Williams said that he came into contact with her work in high school because  his class would travel around on black history tours. Sometimes, he said, they would do readings of Giovanni’s poems.

“Just to hear her speak was truly a dream come true,” he said. “Because as a child, when you’re performing work, you would never in your wildest dreams imagine that you would get to meet the person that you’re performing. And to actually have that opportunity,  I was elated.”

Giovanni said she is not working on any new pieces at this time. Her most recent book, “Chasing Utopia,” came out in Oct. 2013. She said that after its release she was on a constant book tour until Christmas, so she is ready to relax.

“I have some notes, but I’m not really working on anything. I don’t even want to say to myself, ‘Start,’ because you just start to push yourself,” she said. “I’ve seen too many writers do that and then blow their damn brains out, because they start feeling like, ‘I should be doing something.’ I think I should enjoy what I did.”

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