Nikki Giovanni at Oakland Museum of California

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Originally uploaded by geminipoet

The Oakland Museum of California is the jam. A few weeks back Barb & I hit up there First Friday for a chill night of California history (past and the rapidly evolving present), ecology (from the wetlands to the Sierras), and dancing to the oldies (Do the twist, again!). Ok, we didn’t participate in the dancing to the oldies but a lot of folks did which was a beautiful thing to see and experience, especially since it happens in our backyard of Downtown Oakland.

So here we are again, back at the Oakland Museum to come hear Nikki Giovanni speak at a free, first-come-first-serve, complete with complimentary snacks and coffee in celebration of National Library Week. Holler, Oakland!

And Oakland hollers back with a packed line waiting to get in and a mix of folks patiently waiting for a chance to experience Ms. Giovanni (a fellow Gemini Poet). I should note that I do not know Nikki Giovanni’s work but I do know the name. It feels like I always have, even before I started writing poetry, and that made me even more eager to see if Nikki Giovanni, the Poet, lived up to the hype of Nikki Giovanni, the Personality.

Happy to say that Yes! Ms. Giovanni exceeds the hype. She leapt right into the fray with commentary on the Democratic race and had pointed remarks for both candidates. But as to the questions of who will win it all in 2008, Ms. Giovanni summed it up with this-
“What the hell does it matter? We’re colored, we’ll survive anything.”

Earlier it was announced that Ms. Giovanni could only stay until the Museum closed for book signings but she threw that to the curb announcing that she would sit on the sidewalk all night if need be to sign every book in the place. “I ain’t afraid of Oakland,” she sated instantly winning over the full house.

We only got to hear three or four poems but the night was packed with personal anecdotes celebrating survival and art. Every story masterfully laid out in rich detail, historical perspective, and the proper language for the proper moment. If the story was critical, the language was heated. If the story was lighthearted, the language was joyous. And if the story was crass, the language was hella crassed and unapologetic.

This stance of direct language reflects the seriousness that an orator must bring if they are to be a bridge of experience, a link between the vanguard of struggle and the next wave that must continue the struggle. The choice of story to connect the generations acts as the conscious of the present. Nikki Giovanni is that bridge and that conscious.

A short Q&A brought an interesting array of perspectives. An Oakland great-grandmother wanted to know if Ms. Giovanni planned to publish more children’s books. (Yes, a variation of Aesop’s Fables and a Children’s History of Rap where Giovanni traces the roots of rap all the way to the formation of opera and the Greek chorus.) A young Black male asked for more insight into black feminism. (Giovanni answered that that question would take up the whole night. I was wondering if the young man was listening to how Nina Simone, Rosa Parks, and Giovanni’s mother and sister where the core of the evening’s conversation.)

Nikki GiovanniFor me, the most interesting question came from a Black woman writer asking if Ms. Giovanni could speak, as a writer and a distinguished professor of writing, on the differences between the difference between today’s and yesterday’s Black Lit. Ms. Giovanni responded with some joy, commenting on how glad she was to see Black writers on bookshelves and also seeing entire sections of bookstores dedicated to them. She also remarked on how today’s writer-of-color can deal with an agent or bookstore owner of similar background, a luxury Ms. Giovanni didn’t have as an emerging voice. She also hoped that more writers would take advantage of these opportunities to generate work in their own distinct voice (“Why write in another person’s voice if that person doesn’t like you in the first place?”) of their own personal histories, no matter how challenging it may be, (“Anytime you tell the truth, it’s painful.”) and then to get those stories out to the community (“Your job is to find someone who loves you.”).

“The young writers need to know that there are stories to be told. The story of who we are should be told. It is, after all, an American story.”

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  1. Sounds wonderful. Thanks for the recap (a very detailed recap indeed). Makes me think about why it has come that the poet as orator has been pushed aside in favor of the idea of poet as artist. So many poets are clearly not orators. Some inspiring quotes there, too.

  2. Good write-up. Poet as orator versus poet as artist is interesting. I think some for communities, those with “voice” are called upon to orate, precisely because they have and they are voices where it’s perceived that many do not have voices/are said to be without voices. But for sure the folks in the room really placed/viewed Ms. Giovanni in that important role. I actually kept thinking of who in my community we call upon to be our voice. Sometimes I am with this and then sometimes I want to say that this person’s voice enables all of us to have voices.

    Debbie is totally right though, that so many poets clearly are not orators, or at least effective public speakers, hence not “called upon” by their respective communities to be voice. The fact that so many poets are not orators can be quite disappointing. Then again, not every community views “oral tradition” and the storyteller in high regard.

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