Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove: Poets Redefining

By Walters, Jennifer | The Journal of Negro History, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove: Poets Redefining


Walters, Jennifer, The Journal of Negro History


Jennifer Walters [*]

Throughout the centuries, African-American women have acted as agents in their own history, and in doing so defined themselves, for themselves, their communities, and the larger society. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in literature, where experiences, analyses, and understandings are put on paper. And through these stories, African-American women continue the tradition of recording history and the changing times with perspectives that reflect the struggles and survival of African-Americans. Their unique contribution to American poetry brought black women power and a voice--a voice that began with such poets as Phillis Wheatley and thrives today.

Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove, two contemporary poets of great distinction, are examples of self-defined African-American women who found a voice through writing. Their poems are written in very different styles but involve similar themes. Giovanni's and Dove's successes are comparable and their paths similar, although they worked at different periods in contemporary literature. Both poets clearly possess a true passion and voice for writing, making their lives and works worthy of attention and discussion. This essay will compare the backgrounds of Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove and their contributions to literature and, in doing so, reveal how they as poets help to reshape African-American history.

In Nikki Giovanni's signature and perhaps most popular poem, "Nikki-Rosa," she writes that, although she was poor, "Black love is Black wealth," and while whites may only see the poverty she experienced they would

"... never understand that

all the while I was quite happy." [1]

These lines, often the most quoted of the poem, serve as a theme throughout all of Giovanni's poetry, whether writing about the Black Revolution or about being a woman, or remembering her childhood and fanmily.

She was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., on June 7, 1943, and nicknamed Nikki-Rosa by her older sister, Gary. Her family moved less than a month after her birth from their home in Knoxville, Tennessee to Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite better job opportunities in Ohio, Giovanni's family lived in relative poverty. But as the poem "Nikki-Rosa" suggests, there was a richness of family life in the Giovanni home while her parents instilled the importance of education and determination in life. [2]

Giovanni practiced these values as she excelled in school, and later tested as performing at a genius level. The struggle of Giovanni's father against poverty took its toll, and he became fairly abusive. She decided, on her own, to escape the tensions between her mother and father by moving back to Knoxville and living with her grandparents, Louvenia and John Brown Watson. In doing so she practiced the self-determination her parents had taught her.

Giovanni's grandmother Louvenia proved to be a great influence in Nikki's life. A clubwoman of the older generation, Louvenia engaged in many political and social activities, instilling in Nikki a definite sense of responsibility for her community, an awareness of racism in society, and the need to stand up against that which is morally wrong. [3]

In high school, Giovanni's English teacher, Miss Alfreda Delaney, challenged her and set her young student on a course of reading the works of various African-American writers. It was through writing about these books that Giovanni s own talent for writing came through. Another teacher, Miss Emma Stokes, helped Giovanni apply for early admittance to Fisk University.

Entering at age 17, Giovanni proved her intellectual capabilities and continued to exercise her own individualism. This sense of autonomy angered the dean of women, and Giovanni was expelled from Fisk one semester later in 1961 because she went home to visit her grandparents without obtaining proper permission. [4] Three years later, the new dean of women recognized the triviality of her predecessor's decision and asked Giovanni back. …

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