Nikki Giovanni is one of America’s most famous poets. She is a New York Times bestseller, a one-time Woman of the Year winner from Mademoiselle and Ebony magazines, a recipient of the first Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, and a holder of a Langston Hughes Medal. She wrote that “writing is … what I do to justify the air I breathe.” Below is a poem she penned for the Prospect, reflecting on the March on Washington 50 years later.
I was home
In Lincoln Heights
Named for Abraham
As many other small black
Only 20 years old
I had picketed Rich’s
Department Store in Knoxville
I sat in with Fisk University
But not all that Brave
Mommy didn’t want
Me to go
Neither did my father and I wondered
Would it matter
50 years later I know
We, too, were
I didn’t go
I stayed home
And reminded myself:
We also serve
Nikki Giovanni, currently an English professor at Virginia Tech, gained fame after self-publishing her first book of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk, in 1968 at the age of 25, shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. She soon began winning awards for her poetry, essays, and books for young people; appeared on television; recorded albums; and was anthologized over and over. Some of her best-known poems include “Nikki-Rosa” and “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why).”
Before she became famous, Nikki (as her friends and students call her) enrolled at Fisk University. There, she met civil-rights leaders Diane Nash and John Lewis, founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) (pronounced "snick"), who first gained fame going south as Freedom Riders. Nikki graduated, joined the Black Arts movement, and became friends with Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali along the way. She published extensively for decades before becoming a professor at Virginia Tech, where I was her student twice.
Nikki’s poem, “We, Too,” echoes Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too, Sing America.” Hughes wrote:
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Earlier this week, I talked with Nikki about her poem, coming of age at the height of the civil-rights movement, and the problems facing the country today.
What was life like for you in 1963?
I was 20 years old in 1963 so I was actually in college. As I mentioned in the poem, I had picketed Rich’s Department Store.
I went to high school in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was living with my grandparents. I picketed because grandma was a rebel. They had a mass meeting about Rich’s Department Store and my grandmother said, "'John Brown'—who’s my grandfather—'John Brown and I are too old to march, but my granddaughter’s here and she’ll be there first thing in the morning.'" So I was like, "Oh God, grandma’s going to kill me." We picketed Rich’s, as we should have, and that fall I went to college.
What about the sit-ins you mention in your poem?
That was in Nashville—in Fisk, not just Nashville, but Fisk University. John Lewis actually graduated in my class—he’s a congressman now—and John and I actually marched together. But Diane Nash was the big leader at Fisk, and of course you remember Diane; when the buses were attacked in Anniston, Alabama, it was Diane Nash who said, "We will continue the Freedom Rides." With James Bevel, who ultimately became her husband, she led the Fisk group from Nashville, and they took private cars into Alabama and they boarded the buses again, and were all arrested in Mississippi.
We were there, but we were sitting-in in downtown Nashville. When you think about it—and I’ve always tried to be clear—when you think about the people whose lives were in danger and the people who actually lost their lives, you realize how small a contribution you made by sitting in at Woolworth’s or some of those places in Nashville. You looked at the people who did the really big things, because [in 1964] you’re going to have Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman [three civil-rights workers killed by a lynch mob in Philadelphia] in Mississippi registering people to vote. You realize that people made great sacrifices and we just did what we needed to do.
What about the day of the march?
I didn’t go to D.C. I was home. We looked on the television, everybody did—I didn’t know anybody who didn’t. I’m from a little town called Lincoln Heights, and if it’s called Lincoln Heights, it’s black. I don’t think any white people live in Lincoln Heights because they named all of these places—or, we, I should say—we named all of these places after Abraham Lincoln, as communities grew up where black people felt safe.
As for those of us who stayed in Lincoln Heights: One, we didn’t have the money and two, my parents didn’t want me to go, my friend’s parents didn’t want her to go, so we all stayed home and watched it on television. It was thrilling.
What stood out most from the march?
In terms of where the march was, it was an amazing thing for me to see that many people. Lincoln Heights is located on I-75, so the buses coming down from Detroit and from Akron and Columbus were coming our way, so you begin to feel like this is really, really, really getting big.
With the buses you could begin to feel there were a lot of people going to be involved, and clearly the buses rolled. And until Malcolm X criticized that, I thought it was a good idea. Malcolm was withering in his criticism, so I was thinking, whoa, maybe he had a point.
When did you become the head of the SNCC chapter at Fisk?
John and them had started it, but we had a dean who was more conservative and she had put it off campus, and that just didn’t seem right to me at all and to many others.
Fisk had about 1,100 students at that time and I put a sign up on the bulletin board that said, "Everybody who thinks we should have a SNCC chapter, meet in the chapel," and I was shocked—about 500 people showed up.
So we petitioned the student council to say, if, for example, the sororities and fraternities could meet, then we figured that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had a right to also gather, that we were no more nor any less political than anyone else, because if you think about Delta Sigma Theta, which is my sorority actually, it was the Deltas who marched with the suffragettes in 1913, and that’s what started our sorority. So everybody is political and we thought that the dean was wrong.
I put it back on campus and I graduated, not that semester but the next semester, and it continued until the police actually ended up on campus, which was unnecessary and sad, and a couple of people got shot. It’s hard to explain; racism is a bad thing, and I think any time you’re shooting students it’s ridiculous, whether it’s Fisk University, which happened as you know, or whether it’s ultimately Kent State where they shot the students. You know, you don’t shoot students! You don’t shoot people because you disagree with them.
What are the biggest problems the country faces today?
The biggest problem—at least to me—is that people need both jobs and money. We can’t ignore the fact that our unemployment figures are skewed based on who is actually looking for a job. And so many people—black, white, brown, and yellow—have stopped looking for jobs. They say, "The unemployment figures have gone down," but they haven't gone down: People have stopped looking.
Obviously the right to vote is important. The Roberts Court is a disgrace. I think that John Roberts should not be a Supreme Court justice; he’s biased—I don’t know when he last read the Constitution, if ever. People have to have the right to vote; the right to vote is inviolate. I’m in favor of prisoners voting—I don’t see why, if you stole money from me and you got put in jail, that means you lose your right to vote. You’re still a citizen, you’re still subject to the First Amendment, you’re still subject to the Fourth Amendment, so why is it all of a sudden the Fifteenth Amendment doesn’t kick in? Things like that bother me.
I was driving over to campus on Saturday and there was a man sitting on a corner in Blacksburg with a sign that says "Need Food." We’ve got billionaires in America and somebody is hungry—this is a white guy—and somebody is hungry and says "Need Food." I didn’t talk to him because I was in my car, but I probably should have just asked, "Sir, are you a veteran?" The war is stupid, but look at the way we’ve treated the veterans. It’s an insanity.
I’m very disappointed, as you know, with Barack Obama because I think we expected a different tack. We wanted change, and the change we wanted wasn’t more war or more drones. The change we wanted was more peace and more jobs and some sort of circulation of money. If we don’t have a middle class, America’s not going to make it, and the middle class is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, and that’s both black and white. We have to have a middle class.
What are the differences between the conditions that created mass movements in the 1960s and now?
I think that there are racists in America—I’m not a fool—but I don’t think that racism is front and foremost. So even George Zimmerman—who murdered Trayvon Martin in cold blood and should have been convicted and who, because of racism, was not convicted of murdering that unarmed child—even with that going on, we’re not just not having it happen as often. When I was your age, even, we still had lynchings, we still had people doing horrible things like that to each other, so I think that that’s been a good change. But I also know that we need to move forward. I don’t think it’s embarrassing to think about moving toward a peaceful situation.
What about the future?
I think the country is better today than it was 50 years ago. I think we have matured but I think we lack leadership. The people want to move forward, I think the American people want to move forward, and I think that there are some people—I wish I knew who or where or why—who want to take America back to the ’20s, who liked it when black people and white people didn’t speak, when you could have signs that said "Colored" and "White" so that poor white people didn’t have to recognize they were poor, because they then were always going to think they were better than [blacks], and taking that away has brought us closer as a nation. Again, do we still have a long ways to go? You bet. But I look around all the time—I’m telling you, I can see—if I were God and I could run the United States, I could see a million jobs, from roads that need running, to … [she laughs].
But I don’t think we have any visionaries and everybody wants power, and whatever they can grab, and they don’t care.
Is it harder for people to organize and press for change today?
I’m just a poet so I can’t solve the problems, but I know we need to rethink what makes us potentially a great nation and the one thing is still, the term you’re coming back to is the "middle class." You have to have people educated, you have to have citizens involved, citizens must pay their taxes—and that includes the rich—and the rest of us, we work together because we get along. You and I are talking. I teach at Virginia Tech, some students like me, some students don’t—that’s fair. But it’s not that black and white people, or black and brown people or whatever the color can’t get along—we get along. It’s that right now too many people are chasing too few resources, and that’s where leadership comes in.
Do you have any final thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington?
I’m glad that we are celebrating it. I hope that when people start to recite that speech they recall that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said we are here to cash a check. “I have a dream” was the end of the speech, not the beginning. “We are here to cash a check, we have a promissory note,” and if you recall in that march, it was not just “we black people,” it was “we white,” “we union,” “we yellow,” “we brown,” “we the people” have a check that’s a promissory note that says if we do what we should do as ethical human beings, we should be rewarded for it, and that remains true.