World-renowned poet, activist and educator Nikki Giovanni entertained a packed Strong Auditorium on Friday evening for the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address.
Giovanni, the author of nearly 30 poetry books, shared her work, passed on advice to President Barack Obama and discussed civil rights issues in the culminating event celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.
In the introduction to the speech,UR President Joel Seligman noted the importance and relevance of King’s dream.
‘Part of Dr. King’s dream was realized on January 20, when barriers fell,” Seligman said, referring to Obama’s recent inauguration.
Seligman then applauded Giovanni’s prestige.
‘[She is] one of the most widely read American poets with a strong voice in the black community,” he said.
Giovanni began the speech by proudly applauding the significance of Obama’s historic victory. ‘It’s a new day for black America,” she said. ‘Obama didn’t become president because he’s black; he became president because he is a competent man.”
She then went on to offer the new president advice, suggesting the creation of a secretary of arts and culture and a secretary of sport. ‘The biggest export in America is entertainment. The hip-hop generation has been taken around the world.”
Giovanni then dove into her poetry, sharing her inspiration for her newest book, ‘Bicycles: Love Poems,” published this past year. She said that the wheels of the bicycles
symbolized anger and frustration, especially from the recent shootings at Virginia Tech, where she is currently a professor. Yet the connecting piece between the two wheels of hate was love, and this inspired the title to her most recent collection of poetry.
Several students expressed enjoyment with both Giovanni’s poetry and the inspirational stories that she shared behind those poems.
‘I really liked the story behind “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day,'” senior Laney Widener said, referring to the poem Giovanni shared about a day she and her son were refused cotton candy because the employee was afraid that it would melt.
Giovanni’s discussion about poetry served as a backdrop for a larger discussion on civil rights. In speaking on the civil rights movement, Giovanni emphasized the Pullman Porters as a critical yet, at times, underappreciated civil rights movement. The Pullman Porters was a group of African-American railroad workers who formed the first African-American labor union to sign with a major U.S. corporation.
‘Without the Pullman Porters, the civil rights movement would not have been financed,” she said.
Giovanni also spoke about the importance Rosa Parks had in the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., who came to represent Parks after she was arrested for her famous refusal to move from her seat.
‘Without Rosa Parks, we wouldn’t have Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said. Giovanni further applauded King’s defense of Parks. ‘He didn’t back down.”
Giovanni championed civil rights not only for blacks, but for women and gays as well.
She stressed in particular the importance of unionization and added that it was imperative that women make the same amount of money as men, because these finances would help raise children and keep family life stable. She also supported gay marriage rights.
‘Civil rights are civil rights,” she said, before humorously adding, ‘If anyone is crazy enough to marry, then they ought to be able to.”
Dean of Minority Student Affairs and Co-Chair of the College Diversity Roundtable Norman Burnett explained that the selection of Giovanni was based on a College Diversity Roundtable committee decision, but he noted a difference between Giovanni and other speakers who were brought in the past.
‘Before we had speakers including Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III and Andrew Young,” Burnett said. ‘Giovanni is a different speaker, but she still has an overarching connection with civil rights, which is what we were looking for.”
President of the Black Students’ Union Ashley Anderson opened the evening with an introduction.
‘Introducing Nikki Giovanni meant a lot to me,” she said. ‘I was extremely humbled to be given the opportunity.”
BSU, along with other student activist groups, has representatives on the College Diversity Roundtable.
Giovanni concluded the lecture by advising students to persist in their dreams.
‘One thing that has never bothered me is failure,” she said. ‘All you can do is your best and enjoy it.”
She also noted the benefit and longevity of acts of kindness. ‘It’s so important that we do what we can do,” she said. ‘Sometimes just a kind word or action goes a long way.”
The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address was a part of a week-long celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.
The speech was sponsored by the College Diversity Roundtable and the Office of the President.
Willis is a member of the class of 2011.