The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni 1968-1998

After 50+ years of attending school I find it difficult not to turn to literature when September approaches, and this year is no different than any other year. In fact, I started reading The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni over a week ago. I suspect that I was originally drawn to the collection by someone posting a poem like this on their site,

Intellectualism

sometimes i feel like i just get in
everybody’s way
when i was a little girl
i used to go read
or make fudge
when i got bigger i
read
or picked my nose
that’s what they called
intelligence
or when i got older
intellectualism
but it was only
that i was in the way

a poem whose simplicity and immediacy definitely appeals to me. As a teacher I encountered far too many kids who seemed to feel as if their intelligence marked them, set them apart from others.

Unfortunately, there have been far too few of these kinds of poems in the first hundred pages of the collection and far too many like:

The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro
(For Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts)

Nigger
Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you
kill
Do you know how to draw blood
Can you poison
Can you stab-a-Jew
Can you kill huh? nigger
Can you kill
Can you run a protestant down with your
’68 El Dorado
(that’s all they’re good for anyway)
Can you kill
Can you piss on a blond head
Can you cut it off
Can you kill
A nigger can die
We ain’t got to prove we can die
We got to prove we can kill
They sent us to kill
Japan and Africa
We policed europe
Can you kill
Can you kill a white man
Can you kill the nigger
in you
Can you make your nigger mind
die
Can you kill your nigger mind
And free your black hands to
strangle
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can you shoot straight and
Fire for good measure
Can you splatter their brains in the street
Can you kill them
Can you lure them to bed to kill them
We kill in Viet Nam
for them
We kill for UN & NATO & SEATO & US
And everywhere for all alphabet but
BLACK
Can we learn to kill WHITE for BLACK
Learn to kill niggers
Learn to be Black men

Accompanied by endnotes like this by Virginia Fowler that provide context for the poems:

“The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro (For

Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts)”

“Black vs. Negro”: Naming has always had enormous importance to Black Americans because of its connection to identity and power. Africans brought to this country and sold into slavery were stripped of their names and forced to take the names given them by their new masters. In the 1960s special attention was focused on this issue. Those involved in the Black Power and Black Arts movements drew significant distinctions between the terms “Negro,” “nigger,” and “Black.” Sarah Webster Fabio wrote a definitive essay on this topic for Negro Digest, in which she offered the following analysis:

Scratch a Negro and you will find a nigger and a potential black man; scratch a black man and you may find a nigger and the remnants of a Negro. Negro is a psychological, sociological, and economical fabrication to justify the status quo in America. Nigger is the tension created by a black man’s attempt to accommodate himself to become a Negro in order to survive in a racist country. Black is the selfhood and soul of anyone with one drop of black blood, in Amer- ica, who does not deny himself.

The black community has always known-and it is becoming apparent to the world-that America wants Negroes and niggers but not black people.

James Baldwin makes reference to the observation that “the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men.” The Negro is a pathology: Baldwin has also said that there is “no Negro, finally, who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment to the ‘nigger’ who surrounds him and to the ‘nigger’ in himself.” Being black, then, is a reaffirmation of selfhood; it is a meaningful anti-dote to white racism; it is a move toward deniggerizing the world population of non-white people and of humanizing the white people. (“Who Speaks Negro? What Is Black?” Negro Digest, Sept.-Oct. 1968.)

Perhaps a black audience, or historians, might find poems like this interesting but they remind me of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, and I couldn’t finish that book even when it was wildly popular among my “liberal” friends.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found any poems that hold the same appeal for me that many of Robert Hayden’s poems did. I’m too frugal and too stubborn, though, to just discard the book now that I’ve purchased it. (I pride myself on having finished all but two books I’ve ever started reading.) Hopefully, I will find the later poems more to my liking and will be able to post on the book regularly in the next few days. Otherwise, there will continue to be blank space here at In a Dark Time more often than I would prefer.

3 thoughts on “The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni 1968-1998

  1. hi loren, thanks for this powerful, hardcore, gritty, truthful writing. phew. i usually run the other way when i see thinking like this but i’m glad i stuck around. steven

  2. Don’t you think, of all things, Loren poetry is the most subjective art – what we like, what gets to our soul as it were is just a matter for each of us. I quite like that first poem but hate the second. Some poems stay with me for life – Iago Prytherc is a lifelong companion – expect you like him too as you are an RST fan.

  3. I’d agree that there is a real subjective element in poetry, probably similar to that in music. I’m always amazed at how generational tastes in music are.

    It’s hard to forget those songs that we danced to when we were teenagers. And our taste is probably ever affected by those songs.

    It’s probably true in poetry, though perhaps less personal, and less emotional.

What do you think?