Our featured writer this month is Nikki Giovanni, a poet, activist, commentator and educator whose writing was inspired by her experiences during the civil rights movement. She is one of the world’s most well-known African-American poets. Let’s learn a little more about her.
She was born June 7, 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee. After her family moved away, she moved back in 1958 to live with her grandparents.
Through trips to her local library, she met the librarian Mrs. Long, who introduced her to the world of literature and imagination.
How can a librarian be inspirational?
For most of us, we couldn’t pick out who the librarian even is, much less be able to have a meaningful relationship with them. There is a poem that was written about one such relationship between a librarian and a young Black girl. It is called A Poem For My Librarian, Mrs. Long by Nikki Giovanni. It is about how a librarian introduces a young Black girl to the magical world that can be found in literature.
The poem itself gives the reader clues about her background and where she grew up. It also gives us a look into the relationships between blacks and whites at that time.
Mrs. Long is the librarian from the local library which was close to her grandparents home. It was a Carnegie Library, which one designated for use by the black community. Here is what she shares about Mrs. Long
“Giovanni pinpoints what it was about Mrs. Long that was so special: not only did she make everyone feel special and welcome, but she introduced the patrons of the library, particularly the children, to the wonderful world of books. She was always, regardless of how busy she was, willing to stop and help the patrons of her library.”
Not only is Giovanni’s story inspiring, it also is a story about how prejudice can be an issue, even when all we want to help others experience the magic of reading. When Mrs. Long went uptown to retrieve some of the books Giovanni requested, she was taking a chance on being humiliated by the white women who ran the uptown library, since she was also black. Even though she had to face that humiliation, Mrs. Long would always come back with the books Giovanni requested. And Giovanni would take the books back to her Grandmother’s porch to read.
Because of Mrs. Long, Giovanni was able to experience the magic found in being swept away by literature. It also helped that young girl escape how the world was treating her and her family for being Black.
Where did she go from here?
The young girl who wrote this tribute, went on to attend high school and was an early entry into Fisk University, where her grandfather was an alumni. She didn’t last long there as she clashed with Dean of Women and was expelled. However, was able to return to school after talking to a new Dean of Women and went on to graduate with honors with a Bachelor of Arts in History in 1967.
As a poet, she wrote many poems about the times and began publishing her poetry while she was teaching literature at Livingston College. Her poetry was inspired by the civil rights movement and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. In 1969, she gave birth to her only child, Thomas. Many looked down on her for being a single mother. But one thing she did take out of it was that children need different content in what they read. So, she went on to write and publish six children’s books.
Since 1987, she is a teacher of literature and writing at Virginia Tech where she is also University Distinguished Professor. During her tenure, on April 16, 2007, a gunman killed thirty-two people on the Virginia Tech campus. The shooter was a former student of hers. Giovanni was asked to speak at the memorial service for the victims the following day. In her speech, she brough forth the message that bad things can happen to good people.
She retired from teaching in 2022.
Her Diversity Story
Nikki Giovanni is an American poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. She is one of the world’s most well-known African-American poets. She created her life by navigating the challenges of being Black and a woman during the civil rights movement. Her diversity story is shown through all of the things she accomplished.
- She graduated from college with no high school diploma.
- She wrote poetry that no one else would publish, so she published it.
- Taught English and Poetry at Livingston College and Virginia Tech University
- She has authored three New York Times bestsellers (unheard of as a poet).
- Many awards and honors for her writing and activism for the rights of people of color
Just doing one of these things as a Black woman during that time was a great achievement. By fighting against being different she didn’t let the barriers society put in front of her get in her way. And she achieved much more.
To learn more about her and her poetry, check out her website Nikki Giovanni