The University of Michigan had the pleasure of listening to Nikki Giovanni speak on Wednesday, February 8, as a part of the university’s Black History Month event “A Conversation with Nikki Giovanni” held by the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) and cosponsored by the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS). A Black female poet who found her voice through spending childhood sick days reading the works of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, among other notable authors, Giovanni has published a multitude of works, ranging from poetry collections, to essays, to film.

Giovanni has made a name for herself, having won 57 individual awards and being recognized with honorary degrees from more than 27 universities, and is continuing to pave the way for the next generation of Black creative visionaries.

This event was Giovanni’s first return to campus since 1999, when Mosher-Jordan’s Nikki Giovanni Minority Lounge was dedicated in her honor. Giovanni, who had the opportunity to visit the lounge upon her arrival to Ann Arbor, shared that she hopes that it serves as a sanctuary where students “feel the warmth, and (know) that somebody’s got their back.”

Taking place at Rackham Auditorium, Giovanni began with a recitation of her poem “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)”, The enlightening poem invited listeners to consider the work that has yet to be completed here on Earth in terms of human rights and racial equality prior to setting foot in space. Giovanni described the role of poets as “working with NASA” in a sense.

“We (poets) dreamed of what space would be,” Giovanni said.

This dream is rooted in a harsh reality, one that Giovanni so eloquently summarized through saying, “We on Earth don’t get along with life that we know.” How do we expect to potentially approach martians, another life form, without working to ensure equality and peace among the human race?

The poem gave way to further discussion spanning all of Giovanni’s work and experience, through a Q & A held on-stage and moderated by Saraellen Strongman, Blaire Tinker and Kayla Tate. Guided by questions from the audience sent in ahead of time, Giovanni covered topics ranging from human rights, literature and the Black Arts Movement (BAM), and the burden of social media on modern-day society. Strongman, an assistant professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, found the experience of moderating the conversation with Giovanni to be super exciting.

“It was so exciting to be a part of the conversation and to listen to her talk about not just her work, but also how hopes she has and how she thinks about younger generations and contemporary current events,” Strongman said.

Strongman shared that Giovanni’s work, despite being written in the 1960’s and 70’s during the Black Arts Movement (BAM), still remains relevant and poignant today.

“Her work, both from then and certainly through decades and decades later, takes up issues of race, gender, politics, nationalism in ways that are really important,” Strongman said. “And also (her work is) artistically stunning. She's an incredibly skilled writer, as well as inspirational and incisive, an intellectual and thinker as well.”

Throughout the conversation, Giovanni shared about her love of reading and the power of libraries, specifically, their contribution to an individual’s social capital. Giovanni grew up frequenting a Carnegie Library, and remembers her childhood librarian, Mrs. Long, a Black woman who went out of her way to find books for Giovanni to read and even access them from other libraries. During the event, Giovanni said that she thinks that any creative person should read.

“To me, books are like music,” Giovanni said. “Nobody thinks it’s strange that you’re listening to the same song over and over again. I do that with books.”

Giovanni said that the sound of Detroit is all over Earth, referring to the city’s rich musical history and the way in which people communicate through music. With respect to music, Giovanni spoke about the way in which going to church gave individuals a voice, through which they could sing and speak in front of their congregation and build their confidence. That being said, Giovanni called on both church goers and non-church goers alike to speak up and take action in their communities.

“We broke down segregation, but we did not break down racism,” Giovanni said.

With the event being organized by a multitude of on-campus organizations, including student-run organizations such as the Black Student Union (BSU), Strongman was impressed by the work of Michigan students to inspire events such as this one and to bring about the change that Giovanni spoke about.

“I'm so grateful and thankful for them for being the driving force behind it,” Strongman said.

An outline of the University’s Black History Month events can be found here. For more information on Nikki Giovanni’s work, visit her website.