Nikki Giovanni Visits NCRM

Posted on July 1, 2014

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By Kendra Lyons

nikki-giovanniNikki Giovanni, legendary poet and author who got her start during the Civil Rights era and continues to influence the literary world today, graced the National Civil Rights Museum on June 22nd. Giovanni participated in an interview-style conversation with Fox-13 anchor, Mearl Purvis in front of a crowd of Memphians who came out to see her, among them, Congressman Steve Cohen.

Giovanni and Purvis discussed everything from Giovanni’s works to modern day racial divides that continue to set back our nation. Giovanni spoke with eloquence, diction, and confidence through all of the tough questions Purvis threw at her during the 30 minute Q&A-style exchange. Giovanni was not out to offend anyone, as she continued to remind the audience throughout the event, but she was eager to speak her mind, unapologetically, even if it meant being a little controversial, something Giovanni seems to practically live for.

“Y’all need to clean up Beale Street,” Giovanni said. “Beale Street does not look like it should,” she continued, referencing specifically the cigarette smoking and tourist traps she noticed last time she visited. Giovanni recalled the great history that Beale Street has and wishes today there was more visible evidence of it on the iconic avenue. From the home of Blues music and legends like W.C. Handy to a place of business and commerce, Beale Street has changed immensely since its start, and Giovanni hopes to see Memphians reinvent the street to be more representative of its impressive roots moving forward.

Giovanni shared her stories about her friendships with remarkable Americans like Rosa Parks, and went on to explain how her own poetry comes straight from the heart and really, from her life experiences.

Giovanni was nothing less than honest and to the point as she discussed her childhood growing up with an abusive father, what it was like competing with her sister as the baby of the family, and losing her mother and her older sister within the same short time period later in life. Giovanni used her quick wit to make the conversations informative and inspirational, rather than reasons for others to take pity on her.

After the interview was over, Giovanni stood up at the podium to read some of her poetry out loud. She read “Born a Tennesseean,” and captivated the audience. There was a certain lyricism to her reading that made the words resonate with me, and practically stick to my clothes even as I left the museum. Giovanni used sound effects, inflection, and her classic smile to enhance each stanza with a personal touch. She reminded me what good poetry sounds like. She told a story with very few words, but it was incredibly detailed at the same time. Giovanni uses “Born a Tennessean” to highlight her family life, what American culture was like at the time and the “coolness” that comes with being a Tennessean. The pride she has for her state made me wish for a moment there that I was born in Tennessee, just so I could even better understand and wrap my head around the verbal art form that I had just witnessed.

Giovanni at one point said that she “hoped a white person would never write” about her. I felt my white-ness very strongly at that point and even felt a little awkward as I was taking notes on the very article I planned to write about this remarkable woman. “They would portray me as suffering,” she continued, “But what they don’t understand is, I was a happy child.”

Then I understood better what she meant by her previous comment. It was so beautiful, all of it; her honesty, intensity, and the determination she displayed to be understood; something I think every human being can relate to. Although she points to a very valid issue about the dynamic between writers and subjects and how they are perceived by white versus African American writers, Giovanni needed to say no more; I knew, as did everyone else who was there I hope, that Giovanni is not a woman to take pity on.

Giovanni, like so many African Americans who lived through some of the darkest times of our nation, is the highest display of bravery, inner strength, talent, and beauty, for the way that she has gracefully transformed a horrible time that she was born into, into lessons and history that we will always have now, thanks to the words she has left us with forever.

Giovanni’s new book, Chasing Utopia, is a must-read. Giovanni explained her book’s title with a hilarious anecdote. It was inspired by Giovanni’s experience of literally chasing Utopia, the high end beer created by Sam Adams. The process involved a wild goose chase and several phone calls, all of which led to dead ends until Giovanni was on a radio show “bitching,” as she described it, about the dilemma, when the distributer himself called in to reassure her that he would personally deliver her Utopia. A perfectly witty and compelling story seemed to be an excellent ending to Giovanni’s appearance the the National Civil Rights museum. Giovanni exited the room as if she just left a very casual, everyday conversation while the rest of us stood there in awe, processing all that we had just heard, and eager to apply the lessons we learned from her to what comes next for our city, and world.

Kendra Lyons is a student at Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

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