Academic journal article African American Review

Utopian Movements: Nikki Giovanni and the Convocation Following the Virginia Tech Massacre

Academic journal article African American Review

Utopian Movements: Nikki Giovanni and the Convocation Following the Virginia Tech Massacre

Article excerpt

Each act, gesture, and movement is political.--Addison Gayle, Jr., The Way of the New World (1975)

The scenario seems implausible: a sports arena, over ten people in rural thousand of every stripe listen to a poem written by a black feminist, who recites it while wearing a tie and a suit with a masculine cut. Upon the conclusion of the woman's poem, the entire audience rise to their feet and cheer. The President of the United States is in the first row, and he too stands and cheers. Then, the audience mirrors the poet's defining action: acting in unison, the members of the audience spontaneously create and perform a poem, chanting it over and over.

This sequence of unlikely, even utopian events occurred on April 17, 2007 at the Convocation following the "Virginia Tech Massacre," in which student Seung-Hui Cho fatally gunned down thirty-two students and faculty members before ending his own life. (1) Nikki Giovanni, a luminary of the Black Arts Movement and a professor at Virginia Tech who had personally confronted Cho in the semesters before the shooting, read her poem "We Are Virginia Tech" to the over-capacity audience in Cassell Coliseum, which seats 10,052. At the poem's conclusion, the full house, including then-President George W. Bush, rose cheering and chanted, "Let's Go, Hokies!" In this context, the familiar sports chant "took on new meaning," as one local newspaper noted. The chant became a poem. And the audience members became poets, performing in alliance with a black feminist poet. (2)

These events became possible, this essay argues, because of the confluence of three factors: Giovanni's contribution to and inheritance from the Black Arts Movement (BAM), the physical space of the Coliseum, and finally, the interplay between what Giovanni said and showed and what she temporarily silenced and covered. By integrating these three elements, Giovanni coordinated a utopian performative (to use Jill Dolan's term) that was not felt or imagined as an idealized futurity but instead enacted in the present through collective bodily movement. The distinction between a utopia that is felt or imagined and one that is enacted through collective movement is important, I argue, because the latter solves key problems confronted both by the BAM forty years ago, and by performance scholars today. And with this movement-based utopian performance in the Cassell Coliseum, a queerly dressed poet not only united the Virginia Tech campus in its moment of crisis, but also triumphed over the President of the United States.

Terrors

Most mass murderers in the United States have been white men who have been privileged to remain racially unmarked. Seung-Hui Cho, however, was instantly and overwhelmingly defined in the media by his race and national origins. Lucinda Roy, then chair of the department of English at Virginia Tech, argued that persistent mention of Cho's "ethnicity ... suggested that it could be construed as a clue to his perverse behavior, or as something we needed to purge" (Roy 262). SuChin Pak, a writer for MTV.com, noted similarly that the persistent description of Cho as a "Korean national" suggested that "somehow Cho's place of birth, his immigrant status, has something to do with the massacre" (qtd. in Roy 261). Roy described racism immediately following the shooting as "potentially explosive" because "it was fed both by those intent upon promoting racial tension, and by those who failed to understand that continually identifying a killer in terms of his ethnicity could lead people to conclude that all those of Asian descent were suspect" (Roy 261-62). In response to these dangers, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) issued a statement:

    As coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting continues to unfold, the
AAJA
   urges all media to avoid using racial identifiers unless there is a
   compelling or germane reason.... The effect of mentioning race can be
   powerfully harmful. … 
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