We Make an Offering: A Conversation with Nikki Giovanni

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


WE MARCHED by NIKKI GIOVANNI
(Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Founding of the Sisterhood of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority)


We Marched
    one hundred years ago into a sisterhood
We came together
    in love and patience already called to assembly
    by our mother sorority
We needed to…had to…must…break
    Out
The Suffragettes did not want us
    Offering only the back of the March
    Our other did not understand us so we went
    Our separate ways
But The Time Had Come
    Black women would no longer Wait

We Marched

We Marched for the Vote
We Marched against lynching
We Marched about bombings  and burnings
We Marched for Dimes
    which the country took over
         without giving us credit for the idea
We Marched for better housing
    for the Pig Project in Mississippi
We founded the first Family Planning project in Baton Rouge
         Which was burned down
        By bigots
We recognized you cannot be anti-abortion while supporting Capitol
        Punishment
By What Right Must I Birth Him That You Put Him in The Electric Chair
Or in Prison for Life for a Crime He did not commit

We Sisters of Delta Sigma Theta stood
in the Past
    Dorothy Height was mentored by our Great Soror Mary McCloud Bethune
Every President from FDR to LBJ had a Delta in his “Kitchen Cabinet”
Jeanne Noble famously boarded a New York train to put the Power of DST with Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine
We stood for the Future
With Lillian Benbow to own our Satellite in the sky…to be the first Black Greek Organization to make a film with dignified images of us on screen
When there was a need for a Voice
    Our Beloved Soror Barbara Jordan lead the Defense
    Of the United States Constitution  and therefore the Impeachment
Of a President

We are great

Our Sisterhood remains Strong and Committed

We grow stronger on the love we share

We Marched 100 years ago and 
We will March 100 years from now because
We are Delta Sigma Theta
We stand for the Good and the Right


In “Black Is the Noun,” in Racism 101 (William Morrow, 1994), Nikki Giovanni wrote, “Every now and then, for one reason or another, someone will ask to interview me or talk with me or I will skim back through what has been said of my work just to, well, more or less see how I am progressing.” Contacted by HEArt at her home in Virginia in the fall of 1999, Ms. Giovanni agreed to “skim back” through an unpublished interview conducted in 1980 by Anita Alverio and Eric Leif Davin at Point Park College in Pittsburgh, PA. Her conversation with HEArt’s Daniel Morrow appeared in the Volume 3, Number 2, Fall 1999 print edition of what was then known as HEArt Quarterly. Contacted at her home on October 16 of this year, she spoke again with Dan, looking back at some of her responses to that 14-year-old conversation. They spoke on the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a storied sisterhood of college-educated women dedicated to community service. Ms. Giovanni’s poem “We Marched,” published in this edition of HEArt Online, commemorates that anniversary. Four hours later on that same evening, the US House of Representatives voted in favor of a bipartisan agreement to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

 

Daniel:  In your new poem “We Marched,” above, you mention Barbara Jordan’s opening statement to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in 1974 as it began to consider the impeachment of Richard Nixon. I went back and watched that opening statement and was struck by Representative Jordan referring to herself as an inquisitor. She was making the point that it was the role of the House to accuse, and not to judge, in matters of the “abuse or violation of public trust.” It seems to me that the role of inquisitor is precisely the role of the activist artist. I wonder if you see it that way or if you think that’s too grandiose a way of putting it.

Nikki: Yeah, I think that’s probably pushing it. The House of Representatives has its own level of responsibility, and we do other things. I’m not a politician. J’accuse isn’t my responsibility. That’s important, because some artists — and I mean no disrespect to anybody — occasionally think they need to act as politicians because politicians aren’t doing it right. That’s just not the way I’m looking at it.

Daniel: Representative Jordan also said in that statement that her “faith in the Constitution is whole, complete, and total.” Is yours?

Nikki: Oh, God. Have you noticed what’s going on lately? Of course not. If the Speaker of the House can’t call a vote, then what are we talking about here? I do believe in representative government, but we had two important elections in which Barack Obama prevailed. Defunding [The Affordable Care Act] is a lost cause. This is no way to conduct business, and it’s going to cost us a fortune. I voted today because I’m going to be in California on election day. Here in Virginia, I don’t want to see any Republicans in office. I don’t think I’m alone. 

Daniel: “We Marched” recounts some — a fraction — of the accomplishments of Delta Sigma Theta, of which you are an honorary member. It doesn’t ignore the fact that DST has been activistict beyond agitating for reform, but I think you would have to agree that the title, and much of the poem itself, draws attention to constructive agitation — to marching, literally and figuratively — and not to the trench warfare of housing equity, financial literacy, and career development that DST has thrown money and people behind for a century. Was that a writerly decision, or is there something else behind it?

Nikki: This is the one hundredth anniversary of Delta Sigma Theta, but we all started out as Alpha Kappa Alphas. When the Suffragettes were marching in 1913, a group of women said, “We should march for the vote as well.” Another group said, “We don’t want to march for the vote because the white women won’t let us march with them.” But when Sojourner Truth went back to Susan Anthony and asked, “Are we not women?” the white women relented because they could see the contradiction. But the black women were forced to march behind the white women. The AKAs refused to bring up the rear, but the founding mothers of Delta Sigma Theta insisted on being a black presence, wherever they had to march. That was the beginning of the split between Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta, and we have gone on to be public servants. I am a member, my mother’s a member, my sister’s a member, and  both of my aunts are members of Delta. Almost any black woman in public office is a member of Delta Sigma Theta. 

Daniel: I was thinking about the poems that could have been written about the hands-on, million-dollar projects that Delta Sigma Theta has taken on . . .

Nikki: But not on the anniversary of marching. You’re missing the fact that I am celebrating that these women, who became the founders of Delta Sigma Theta, said, “We will march.” This isn’t a history of Delta Sigma Theta. For a really good history of Delta, Paula Giddings’ is wonderful [In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement, William Morrow & Company, 1988].

Daniel: I would like to ask you about the following passage from “We Marched.”

We recognized you cannot be anti-abortion while supporting Capitol
        Punishment
By What Right Must I Birth Him That You Put Him in The Electric Chair
Or in Prison for Life for a Crime He did not commit

Can you talk to me about the use of the word “right” in “By What Right Must I Birth him”?

Nikki: Probably not, because it makes sense to me. You have Republicans — and there’s no other way to discuss this without that — Republicans who are against abortion but for capital punishment. What kind of sense does that make? I’ll say it again, by what right will they force me to have a child so that they can then, at their convenience, either shoot him down, if it’s Florida, or put him in an electric chair? Some men, and particularly Republican men, want to control the bodies of women. If women took that same control, we’d probably castrate half the men.

Daniel: The last time we talked on the record, in 1999, you reacted to things you had said in an interview you gave in 1980. If you would, I would like to ask you to look back at 1999 this time. You told me back then that 1999 was the age of advertising and that corporations wanted to appropriate artists to sell food and cars and clothes. You said, “Someone’s always trying to tame the tiger, trying to take the edgy and make it smooth. But it doesn’t work. There’s always still a real art going on and someone on the edge saying the truth.” How do those fourteen-year-old observations strike you now?

Nikki: Nobody’s going to come to a 70-year-old woman and say, “Will you go promote Buffalo Wild Wings?” So it’s not going to be an issue that’s going to come up with somebody like me. But, of course, the rappers are very different. I really applaud them. They have a way of getting their product to their people without the use of mass media. People my age — I’m seventy, Sonia Sanchez is, what seventy-five? [Amiri] Baraka is, I think Sonia’s age — we began to build the audience that they and the Internet built on. So as they are dealing with corporations, they are not being usurped. When Jay-Z comes to the table, he comes as an equal partner. He’s not in the position of not being able to pay his rent unless he drinks Coca-Cola. That’s all we were trying to do, to get people to quit playing us for fools.   

One of my favorite human beings on earth is Queen Latifah. She’s a beautiful girl. And she’s big. Dana [Owens, Queen Latifah’s given name] is not a little woman, but she advertises for Cover Girl. And that’s a wonderful thing. And my second favorite human being on earth is Jill Scott (though I’m not really putting them in order). Both are women who have taken their careers in another direction. You can’t imagine Sonia Sanchez or me or even Rita Dove being in a movie or a television series. And neither can we. But we opened doors that the kids go through, and they’ve been incredibly successful in taking their art and their personalities [to another level] while maintaining their integrity. I don’t know anyone more ethical than Dana or Jill. I would trust them with my life and reputation.

Daniel: In our 1999 chat, you also looked back on an encounter with W.H. Auden at a Russian Embassy luncheon where he delivered himself of the opinion that, “There are no urban poets.” You told me, “I got up. I wasn’t going to sit across from that old son of a bitch and be told I don’t exist.” You also said that you have a lot of respect for critics but that Auden wasn’t making a critical judgment, a judgment about quality; he was making an existential judgment.

Nikki: That still makes me mad. The Russian Ambassador followed me to apologize. I am an urban poet, so he was wrong. I could have said to Mr. Auden, “There are no gay poets.” It’s not the kind of thing you do. [Afterwards], he said, “Well, I didn’t mean it.” I said, “Well, yes you did.”

The whole point about art is that we all participate in it, don’t we? I mentioned Queen Latifah, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, I mentioned Jill Scott. Everybody isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Amy Tan has a new book out. It will probably be a best-seller. I have a new book out. It will probably sell 20,000 copies. That doesn’t mean that Amy Tan would ever say, “There are no colored best sellers.”

Daniel: How far have critical judgments about artists of color, and judgments about other non-traditional artists, if I may put it that way, come since then?

Nikki: I think that most people don’t care. I mean no disrespect, but I don’t care if I’m reviewed by The New York Times or not. It would be lovely if they review it [Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, HarperCollins Publishers, 2013]. On the other hand, the people I’m going to reach, I’m just going to reach them and I’m going to be happy with that. I’m not going to feel cheated. Every time I get a shout out from Common or a shout out from Jay-Z, I’ve reached more people than if I had a front page in The New York Times.

Daniel: You would certainly reach a different audience.

Nikki: I reach my audience. That’s who I want to reach. I don’t write poetry that somebody says, “Oh, I can’t understand it because I’m not colored or because I’m not old or because I didn’t grow up in the sixties.” I’m very accessible, and I think any intelligent person can read me. And I hope they do. I’m thrilled. But my job as an artist is to do the best that I can do, be who I am, and hope that my work reaches the people who need it. Artists make an offering. We bring our fruits to the table. And if you take it in time, it will be fresh.   

Daniel: Finally, I asked you fourteen years ago if you were still hopeful. You said, “I still have faith in the people to move beyond. This is what it is to be civilized.” And now?

Nikki:
I have so enjoyed the kids. I’m glad I didn’t die young, because I got to know this next generation. Isn’t Terrance Hayes a sweetheart? I put him in my anthology [The 100 Best African American Poems, Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2010] before I met him, but we were able to read together in Pittsburgh, which was a thrill because I just love what he does. And Jericho Brown is one of my favorite human beings in the world. I don’t know if you know Jericho . . .

Daniel: HEArt published an interview with Jericho in HEArt’s re-launch in August.

Nikki: Well, I was invited to a conference in some God-forsaken place in Seattle. Now, I like Seattle, but I didn’t know whether I really had the time. But they said that Jericho Brown was going to be there and I said, “I’ll be there. I’m on the plane, I’m flying to Seattle, I’ll rent a car and drive for another three hours.” I so like Jericho. He came here to Virginia Tech to read, and he just lights up a room. So I’m glad that I have lived long enough to see that poetry is in good hands. I feel the same way about Common, who is on another level of creativity, and my literary son, Kwame Alexander, an incredible young poet man who writes for children. And there’s Morris Gearing in Chicago. The kids are alright. And I didn’t even mention Mos Def, who I absolutely adore.

But I also have a lot of faith in the people. Being in Ghana recently [with Kwame Alexander] . . . you know, there are a lot of problems there. There are problems with water, there are problems with electricity . . . But the people get up at 5:00 in the morning and go to work. They are beautiful people, and we in the inner city are beautiful people. So do I have faith in the people? You bet. But we have to get rid of these people whose idea of America is hate. America is not about hate. We’ve made mistakes in America, but America is about possibilities. We have to keep fighting for the possibility of freedom.  


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Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Lincoln Heights, an all-black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. She graduated with honors from Fisk University, her grandfather's alma mater, in 1968. After graduating from Fisk, she attended the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. Nikki published her first book of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk, in 1968. Early in her career she was dubbed the "Princess of Black Poetry," and over the course of more than three decades of publishing and lecturing she has come to be called both a "National Treasure" and, most recently, one of Oprah Winfrey's twenty-five "Living Legends." Giovanni remains as determined and committed as ever to the fight for civil rights and equality. Always insisting on presenting the truth as she sees it, she has maintained a prominent place as a strong voice of the Black community. The author of some 30 books for both adults and children — many award-winning — Nikki is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.