Nikki Giovanni is probably the most widely read poet living today. For the past thirty years she has been a writer, outspoken speaker and activist, professor, and believer in the power of love and family.
Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943, but her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio early in her life. Knoxville continued to play a role in Giovanni’s life and memory because her grandparents lived there, and Giovanni and her sister, Gary, spent summers and holidays at 400 Mulvaney Street. At age 14, Giovanni went to live with her grandparents and by supporting their activities: taking meals to shut-ins, demonstrating against segregation, assisting at political and charitable functions, she began to understand the importance of giving back to the community in which one lives.
In the ninth grade Giovanni encountered Alfredda Delaney, a woman who made a huge impact on her life. Miss Delaney was Giovanni’s English teacher and recognized that behind the tough and cool acting façade there was an intelligent and bored young writer. Delaney started Giovanni on a course of reading and critical thinking that began to sway the teen away from legal ambitions and toward writing.
Giovanni skipped her senior year and entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee at age 17. Having been raised by strong-willed women, Giovanni was herself, strong willed and independent. It didn’t take long for her to clash with the administration and by the end of her first semester, she was “released from the school” for attitude. Giovanni returned to Cincinnati for three years where she worked part time at Walgreen’s, took classes at the University of Cincinnati, and helped care for her nephew, Peppe.
In 1965 Giovanni was readmitted to Fisk and graduated in December 1966. Today she teaches at Virginia Tech.
As a poet, Giovanni’s focus is on the individual, the power to make a difference in one’s own life, and, thus, in the lives of others. She has written dozens of books of poetry for both children and adults. She has received more than 21 honorary doctorate degrees, was “Woman of the Year” in Ebony, Mademoiselle, and Ladies Home Journal, and a 2003 Grammy finalist. She is a space nut and even has an Equadorian bat named after her.