SOMETIMES, WHEN FOLKS get older, they age gently. The lions, once regal and fierce, become lions of winter. Think of the freedom gladiators as Nelson Mandela or Muhammad Ali in their later years. Where there was once judgment and the spirit of a fighter, there is now understanding and calmness, coupled with patience and perspective. Where there was once a spirit of revolution, there is now forgiveness, diplomacy, and statesmanship. Where there were once sharp, hard lines, there are now soft pastels, curves, and shades. But sometimes, just sometimes, people grow fiercer.
That was my impression, after a conversation with griot Nikki Giovanni — a “queen mother of movements” — whose positions on the issues are just as potent now as they were over half a century ago. Giovanni’s first book, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968), sold over 10 thousand copies in its first year. She has been dubbed “Poet of the Black Revolution,” and is one of the foremost authors of the Black Arts movement, influenced by the Civil Rights movement and Black Power movement. Since then, she has completed 20 books of poetry, about a dozen children’s books (from Spin a Soft Black Song  to I Am Loved ), and seven recording albums. She has received dozens of awards — honorary doctorates and the keys to cities — and recognition for her social impact on women and African-American communities.
When I spoke with her recently, she was in mourning over the loss of a friend, Charles. But the clarity and intensity with which she spoke about leadership (or lack thereof) in our nation, the lack of compassion in our times, and the senselessness of gun violence, was not tempered and refined but enhanced, underscored, and bold-faced by age.
PATRICK A. HOWELL: It is widely reported that your Tennessee grandmother, Louvenia Watson, played a huge role in forming your consciousness for justice, love, and righteousness for your people. Even in these morally compromised times in America, can you say that you have found these qualities throughout your life’s work?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I think that the grandmothers were incredibly organized. If you think about the Civil Rights movement, you really are looking at grandmothers. I know we all look to King and some of the other people standing on stage, but if you look at who organized, it was the grandmothers. If you look at Montgomery and Ms. Parks, it was the grandmothers that were leading people because people didn’t have jobs. They were the ones making the food and taking it to them. They were the ones who were the cab drivers to make up the difference in their money. Some of them would have their clubs where they played cards, but mostly they organized so they knew each other and they knew what each other needed — what they could get done.
I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was the grandmothers who were saying, “We are not going to go to Miller’s Department Store.” They were the ones. I think we miss them, frankly speaking.
Are you a grandmother?
I am, but my granddaughter is only 12, and it is a different world now. Coming up in the age of segregation, I don’t think we could have come through it without the grandmothers. Even if you look at Martin [Luther King], you look at his mother. She was a grandmother, right? Ultimately, she was going to be murdered in church. Somebody must have known: “The grandmothers are important, and if I don’t get rid of Mrs. King, it’ll all start over again.”
As we move into this 21st century, it is impossible to ignore the historical patterns that have emerged both challenging and promising the American dream. In Donald J. Trump, we have Richard M. Nixon’s wildest dream. The Black Arts movement continues in a series of streams flowing through the grassroots of Black Lives Matter and the high-culture expressions of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and hip-hop. What is your American dream for the next generations?
First of all, I would disagree that Donald Trump is Richard Nixon. I think you have to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. I think that Trump is evil, and I think that he is a murderer. We continue to see him encouraging war as we continue to see his greed. So, as bad as I thought Richard Nixon was, and I was glad he resigned under threat of impeachment, and that was led by representative Barbara Jordan, I think you have to look at Trump for what he is — he is evil.
My hope for the future — I am a big, big fan of Black Lives Matter. I think that the kids, the young people have done a wonderful job. I wish that I could sit around some of the tables at dinner time and hear the grandmothers talk to their granddaughters. I bet you there were granddaughters who said, “I am not going to let my grandmother die seeing her grandson shot down.” I think all of that had to do with Black Lives Matter. And, of course, the prisons are just incredibly stupid. They are bad. We know that the prisons are the new Klansmen. They no longer lynch black men and women — and you have to remember that black women were lynched. America has more people in prison than anybody else [in the world].
I just think that is something that is central to what America is. Black lives murdered, black lives incarcerated is elemental to American life. It’s the way it was in the very beginning and nearly 400 years later that is how it is today. It is like the oxygen that we breathe — that is just how America is.
First of all, America is changing colors. The white man is already scared. America is turning brown and yellow. You can see that every place. I think as we are changing colors, we are changing our responsibility to planet Earth.
I teach at Virginia Tech, and one of the things that I teach is creative writing. I am always reminding them that it’s probably time we started to teach the young children that read our books, that when somebody asks them, “Who are you?” they say, “I am an earthling.” It’s time that we moved into, “We are earthlings.” It doesn’t really matter if you are from America, North or South, Russia, or China. What matters is that you are from Earth, and we need to start teaching that to our youngsters so that they can begin to see themselves as a part of a bigger situation.
Are you preaching love?
You have to be careful how you use love because love can do different things. But I think that love is important — yeah.
The new generation has taken a strong stand with the gun lobby. I thought you might have something to say about that as it relates to your own activism and your own experiences with Virginia Tech in 2007 — and as you emerged as a national voice during the assassinations of Kennedy, Evers, Malcolm, and Martin.
First of all, I think the NRA obviously has too much power. You don’t need the guns the way that they are now. How many people have AR-15s? That’s ridiculous. Now, we hear people talking about how they want their guns so they can hunt. Hunting is when other things have a chance. You don’t go hunting, and the deer doesn’t have a chance.
I eat the meat that I shoot. But most people don’t. They shoot it because they want to show it is a trophy. “Look at what I can do.” If you took that back 50 years, they put a picture of a black man hanging from a tree. “Look at what I can do.” And if you took it just a few years more, you can see the most horrible thing — that black woman that they lynched and split open and her baby fell out. And somebody has a picture of that. So, hunting for somebody to say, “Look at what I did.” That’s insane. That’s like husbands beating up their wives. Their wives come out with a black eye and the husbands say, “See, look at what I do. My old lady listens to me.” All of that has to stop. The only way that is going to stop — and it is going to be slow — is one at a time.
What are you now working on? Your last work was Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid (2013). What comes after Utopia? A good cry?
I was going to say, you are a little bit behind. I’ve been pleased with the fact that I have been working so much. A Good Cry just came out, and I have been working with Ashley Bryan, who I love so much. He is a great illustrator. Ashley and I did a book called I Am Loved — it’s a children’s book, and I am pleased with that. I am getting ready to do what I hope will be a podcast. I’m 74 years old and a little behind on some things but, in talking to my students, they say, “You should do a podcast, because you talk all the time.” So, in the next couple of months I am working on a podcast so I can, again, reach people. People need to be talked to. People are lonely. I travel a lot. And what you see is a lot of people have earplugs and they are listening to something. Usually, what they are listening to is podcasts. They are listening to somebody talk to them, and I am thinking, I talk. And maybe it’s time that we who like people started to talk to people and not just let the haters do it.
What was your hardest time as a writer, and how did you get through it?
I don’t know if I can really answer that. Writers are always questioning what we say and how we want to say it. I think the hard time with any writer is when you are sad. And you are calling me at a very sad time. My dear friend Charles Steiger died. I was debating whether we should wait for this conversation. I really loved Charles. How do I get through it? The way you get through it is you write through it. You cry through it, too. I had to laugh at myself and say it is funny that Charles dies right after A Good Cry because it made me want to have a good cry. We are going to miss Charles a lot. He was a good man. There are probably a lot of good men, but not a whole lot. [Laughs.] You miss people with his vision and who cared the way that he did. So, it’s been a sad week. What made me happiest about Charles is I never let him down. I never said something I did not do. If you can just say that about anyone that you love — well, that’s the best that you can do.
Who are your inspirations?
We started this conversation with Louvenia Watson. Grandmother just meant a lot to me. I had to laugh about it. I never think of myself as going to heaven. There are just people who I dislike, like Donald Trump. I hope he goes to hell. So, I’m not going to heaven.
I think you will.
Well, thank you. But there are day-passes. Because there are day-passes for everything. So, I say when I go to hell, I’m going to be a good girl and get a day-pass and get a chance to go up to my grandmother, so I can ask her, “Why did you put up with me?” I can sit down with her as an old lady and say, “Were you proud of me? Did I do a good job?” Because I know that she went there. I know that. I’m sure that you are not supposed to smoke there, but I am sure that Louvenia is there smoking. I bet you she sneaks over and has a cigarette.
Did you read poetry to your grandmother? I think you would be doing poetry while she is smoking and listening to you.
And some red wine. I know my mother is in heaven. If mommy is there sitting with us, I know that she is having a beer. So you can see what the group is going to look like. I would probably take a really good bottle of wine for my mother — and grandmother loved Winstons. We’ll just be sitting there saying, “Well, how did this happen? How did that happen?”
In 1972, you interviewed Muhammad Ali, the Greatest of All Time. Do you see his greatness in our new generation — in our Colin Kaepernick, in our Serena Williams?
That young football player and him kneeling down — I see Ali’s set on him. I think that is wonderful. But when Ali did what Ali did, nobody had done what he had done. And so, there isn’t anybody like Muhammad Ali. Because, as you know, he had to give up his belt, and, of course you know, his life was being threatened a lot. He just decided, I am not afraid. I’m a man, and I am going to stand up for what I believe. So, he did. I am lucky because when they took his belt, he didn’t have a job and he wrote poetry.
[Laughs.] Yes, it was awful. We had a mutual friend: Victoria Lucas. She called me. She worked with one of his people, and she said, “Would you like to do some poetry with Ali?” I said, “Are you kidding, I would love to.” So, we traveled around for a while. So, I was just very lucky to get to know him. So, I’m happy for Serena, and I go whenever I get to watch her. I’m happy for Colin. I’m happy for all of them. You have to look at who did what when. And when Ali did what he did, he was all alone. Jackie Robinson was a Republican, and I’m not against him. When Ali stood up, he really stood alone. And he said, this is what is important to me. You have to recognize that he opened the door. Now there are other athletes, other people going through that door.
It is my personal conviction that the aims of the women’s power movement ultimately fall short of the mark if women do not occupy 50 percent of the power structure positions in government and the executive suites of the United States. The challenge is that of simple arithmetic. What would Nikki consider success and equality in women’s suffrage?
Well, you know I have trouble with people who are saying it ought to be a 50 percent situation because some women are not nice or smart. And we know that some men are not nice or smart. And what we are looking for are nice, smart people. We’ve seen some black female judges who have just been terrible, and some, incredible. I am a member of Delta Sigma Theta, and we have looked at incredible women like Barbara Jordan. So, I think that what we want are more outstanding people.
I just don’t want to get caught in that trap — they all have to be men, they all have to be women. I’m a Christian — oh, they all have to be Christian, they all have to Israeli. What you want is good people. We don’t have enough good people. Somebody needs to open a grocery store selling backbones. When you look at [Paul] Ryan — when you look at the Congress, they don’t have their backbones. I don’t know what they are doing, but I know that they don’t have them. Americans have been bought and sold. It is amazing to have Americans that don’t care if someone has committed treason in the White House just because they are getting enriched by it.
It’s no one thing now. I said the other day to a group — “Fortunately, God doesn’t call me.” But if God called me and said, “Hey Nikki, it’s God, do you have a minute?” And, of course, you know, you would have a minute for God. If he said, “I am thinking about closing down planet Earth. I’m thinking about getting rid of human beings, what are your thoughts?” I think we’d all be in trouble because you can’t lie to God. I’d have to say, “Well, you know, it hasn’t worked. It’s been several thousand years and it hasn’t worked, so maybe we need to shut this all down and start all over again.”
Could you say that you think this has been a good idea?
I just want to project love and positivity. It’s part of my M.O. Those are the choices and the decisions I have made. That it is more powerful to make a way for hope. To make a way for love. It’s not as easy, and a lot of times it may not seem like it makes any sense in terms of what you are seeing. A lot of times I feel exactly as you do.
That’s not what I asked you. I said if God called you and said, “How do you think we are doing?” what would you say?
I would say that I think we are working through it.
I am going to read you a poem of yours:
i used to dream militant
dreams of taking
over america to show
these white folks how it should be
i used to dream radical dreams
of blowing everyone away with my perceptive powers
of correct analysis
i even used to think i’d be the one
to stop the riot and negotiate the peace
then i awoke and dug
that if i dreamed natural
dreams of being a natural
woman doing what a woman
does when she’s natural
i would have a revolution
Yes, I love that poem. It’s also prophetic, isn’t it? I’m going to be a natural woman. I’m not going to let [anyone] take my womanhood away from me.