Nikki Giovanni: Thug Poet!

Nikki Giovanni came through Berea two weeks ago. She’s the great African-American poet who began brightening our world in the 1960s with her poetry and social criticism. At 69 years of age she continues spreading her light. She did it again at a Berea College convocation and in at least two other Berea venues.

When I saw her she dispensed advice on all manner of topics:

Cancer: Nikki is a cancer survivor. She’s had a lung removed, and has learned to make cancer her neighbor. You don’t “battle” cancer, she said. If you do, you know who’s going win that one – cancer every time. Instead, you make friends with the disease and learn to live with it, and try not to make it angry with you. Men can get breast cancer too, she reminded us. Get any lump checked out immediately. Act immediately too on any cancer diagnosis. Don’t delay treatment.

Second opinions: If you’re diagnosed with cancer, be sure to seek a second opinion. But do so far away from the location of the first diagnosis. If your second opinion comes from the same location as the first, the diagnosis is sure to be the same as well.

Obama’s Re-election: So you’re unhappy that a black man is the President. He won! Get over it!

Raising children: I’ve done my work as a mother. I don’t need to hear about my children’s problems. That’s what their best friends are for. I’m not my child’s best friend; I’m his mother. Don’t phone me with complaints or bad news. If it’s not good news, I don’t want to hear about it.

Education: It should be free for everyone — as it is at Berea College. Nikki loves her University of Virginia, and is proud to be associated with it. It has lots of money, and sometimes uses it well.

Phone calls in the middle of the night: Phone calls after midnight never bring good news. Don’t answer the phone then. The bad news will still be bad in the morning.

Taxing the rich: Why do billionaires resist taxes? They don’t need any more money. Take away 30% of what they have, and they’ll still be billionaires – or at least multi-millionaires. Take away 30% of millionaires’ wealth, and they’ll still be rich. Take away 30% of what those making $100,000, and they’ll be quite well off too. But take away 30% of what those making $30,000 earn, and you’ve sunk them into poverty.

Male Violence: “Men,” she said, “It’s not a good idea to hit women.” If you do, you’re not only mistreating your woman, you’re teaching lessons to your children. You’re son will conclude, “Oh, that’s the way men treat the women they love.” Your daughter will conclude, “Oh, that’s the treatment I can expect from the men I love and who say they love me.” And the cycle will continue.

Tupac Shakur: Nikki sees him as one of the great poets of our time. He stood for something. Yes, he was a “thug.” “I love thugs,” she said; “they’re always the victims of pursuit by the police. And on principle I’d always rather stand with the ones being chased than with the chasers.”

Nikki Giovanni also read her poetry about yellow jacket bees, her son Thomas, her “Mommy” who died five years ago, her first acclaimed poem, “Nikki-Rosa,” and phone calls after midnight. She spoke of the “Thug Life” tattoo she wears on her left forearm. She put it there in honor of Tupac Shakur, the great African-American rapper and social critic who was shot dead in 1996. Tupac, she reminded us was one of the great men of our era.

I loved Nikki’s talk. My eyes welled up more than once while she was  speaking. That always happens to me (and continues to embarrass me) whenever I recognize something as true.

Nikki Giovanni is true.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “Nikki Giovanni: Thug Poet!”

  1. Wish I had been there. If you don’t listen to Tupac I can recommend getting the song lyrics to Brenda Got a Baby. It is heartfelt social commentary and would be at home in any upper level teaching environment themed around social responsibility and compassion.


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