For award-winning writer and poet Nikki Giovanni, the beauty is in the narrative.

‘Everything has a story,” she said on Friday, Jan. 23. Her key to success in life is in understanding and interpreting the story of everything and everyone around us.

She sat down with a small group of press and UR staff in the Welles-Brown room in Rush Rhees Library to share a little of her own story before delivering this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address. I happened to be there with a couple of press officers from the University Office of Communications.

Nikki, as she introduced herself, had kind eyes and a sharp, witty sense of humor. Her soft and friendly appearance was complemented wonderfully by her abrupt, opinionated style of speaking. Shortly after entering, she ordered a coffee from Starbucks, and, by the time I got back with her drink, she had engaged the group in a lengthy discussion about the poor state of the American public transportation system. Finally, someone threw in a question about Giovanni’s writing.

Coming from a large, educated family (Giovanni is a third-generation college graduate) she had to learn to articulate herself early on. ‘I became a writer out of self-defense!”

But she started writing ‘seriously” at Fisk University. She recalled starting a literary magazine with her friends. ‘Of course the dean did not like it, but she didn’t have to,” she said. For Giovanni, universities exist primarily as nurseries of differing opinions. It is a university’s responsibility, she explained, to hire people who disagree in order to stimulate the creation of new ideas. If you work or study in a college and you’re not getting on anyone’s nerves, you’re simply not doing your job. At the moment, no one had brought up Arun Gandhi, but, as it turned out later, several of us were thinking of him as Nikki offered these thoughts.

‘You can’t just replicate what you like [in hiring or tenuring faculty],” she said passionately, emphasizing every word. ‘You can’t keep the same people and stay alive. You need new blood; you need someone to annoy you. You have to tenure people whose work is not always your cup of tea so they can keep their voice. You can’t cower people so that they don’t say what they think, because they have responsibilities to give their dogs shots and buy their mothers new clothes!”

The conversation moved to Giovanni’s experiences with the members of the civil rights movement. To my amazement, she talked openly and warmly about Rosa, Coretta and Martin. She ran through the major events of the civil rights movement and offered up commentary as casually as we regular folk talk about our weekends.

It turns out that Dr. King flippantly called Rosa Parks ‘that silly lady” because of her humble background compared to the distinguished collegiate pedigree of the King family.

‘But, it was the woman who did it,” Nikki stressed. ‘Without Rosa, we’re not going to have Martin.”

She also explained why the news of Parks’s arrest reached so many so quickly in Montgomery Parks lived in the projects and the news spread fast.
As she continued to discuss the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she made the following brash observation: ‘I love policemen, because police are always dumb.”

She apologized if anyone in the room had policemen in their family who they thought were smart. Making such a wide-sweeping generalization was apparently effortless for the poet. She continued her story despite uncomfortable glances from the others in the group.

The Montgomery police tried to arrange the protection of black riders by putting policemen on their buses.

‘Now, no black person on earth would get on that bus,” she concluded. ‘Everybody started walking.”

For a while, we continued to talk about Giovanni’s experiences with leaders of the civil rights movement as well as her friendships with people like Dizzy Gillespie and Morgan Freeman.

‘Lena Horne used to babysit my son,” she added nonchalantly.

At a lull in Giovanni’s vibrant accounts of famous personal friends, we asked for her opinion on today’s political situation. Giovanni does not consider Barack Obama to be a fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

‘Barack Obama is not King’s dream he’s Huey Newton’s dream,” she stated, referencing the founder of the Black Panther Party. ‘We have created a hip-hop nation, and the hip-hop nation created the president.”

Unlike many other members of the American, college-educated and liberal elite, Giovanni was reserved in her praises for the new president.

But she did make sure we knew what she thought of New York Governor David Paterson in regard to his ‘trashy” conduct toward Caroline Kennedy in her bid for the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton.

‘He jerked her around,” she said. ‘David Paterson does not have any class. That family deserves more respect. [Kennedy] hasn’t wanted power, but she wanted to serve. David Paterson, you’re not just blind, you cannot see! That’s the truth.”

In the span of about two hours, Giovanni said more offensive comments than I think I have heard in the past week. But her statements were not tinted by fear of retribution. She did not lower her voice or her eyes when she called David Paterson ‘trashy” and policemen ‘stupid.”

Maybe it is because she is old, or maybe it’s because she is tenured. Maybe it comes naturally, or maybe it’s her history with Martin and Rosa that fills her with such an unapologetic vigor to tell things her way. Whatever makes her feel like she has the right and is in a place to say all of these things, I have come away from this impromptu encounter with a greater appreciation for blatancy. Whether inspiring or infuriating, this no-B.S. attitude makes an impression and creates a story, and stories are great, because they live with us forever.

Dukmasova is a member of the class of 2009.

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