Nikki Giovanni

On this date in 1943, poet Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni Jr. was born in Knoxville, Tenn., to Yolande Cornelia Sr. and Jones “Gus” Giovanni. She was nicknamed “Nikki” by her older sister. She grew up in Cincinnati and Wyoming before moving in with her grandparents in Knoxville when she was 15.

Giovanni enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, her grandfather’s alma mater, where she graduated with honors in history in 1967. She briefly attended Columbia University before starting to teach at Rutgers University’s Livingston College, where she was an active member of the Black Arts Movement. In 1969 she gave birth to Thomas Watson Giovanni, her only child. She also taught at Ohio State and Queens College in New York.

In 1970 she began making regular appearances on a TV program called “Soul!” that combined entertainment and talk promoting Black culture. She also helped design and produce episodes. She has published multiple poetry anthologies and nine children’s books and released seven spoken word albums from 1973 to 2021. In 1987 she started a long career teaching writing and literature at Virginia Tech.

After self-publishing her first book of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk (1968), she published prolifically, with over 30 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry collections. Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet (1971) was nominated for the National Book Award.

Giovanni was treated for lung cancer in the early 1990s and underwent several surgeries. Called one of 25 “Living Legends” by Oprah Winfrey, she has received numerous awards, including the NAACP Image Award (2000). In her autobiography, she writes, “God is dead. Jesus is dead. Allah is dead.” (Cited by Christopher Cameron in Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism, 2019)

Although she had professed belief in God in a 1969 interview, when interviewed by James Baldwin in 1971, Giovanni stated, “I never wanted to be the most moral person in the world. I would like — I would sell my soul — You know what I mean? What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul? The world! You know what I mean? The world. That’s what it profits him.” (Cited jn Black Freethinkers, ibid.)

PHOTO: Giovanni in 2007 at the Arkansas Literacy Festival in Little Rock; David Quinn photo under CC 2.0.

Freedom From Religion Foundation