Nikki Giovanni: ‘There’s Nothing Greater on Earth Than Black Women’
With her new book ‘Make Me Rain,’ the 77-year-old outspoken poet adds to her revolutionary body of work
We know Nikki Giovanni as a guiding light, an outspoken truth-teller, and an award-winning author. She’s one of our living legends, an honor Oprah bestowed upon her 14 years ago. But Nikki — as she insists on being called — doesn’t fuss over titles or accolades. “I’m just a poet,” she tells ZORA. That description has become her common refrain and the title of a poem in her newest collection of poetry and prose, Make Me Rain, released today. “All I have are words,” she writes in the poem. “And maybe a bit of hope.” Nikki’s six decades worth of work is sustained by that pairing. At 77, she continues to give us words that hum and humanize and a hope that breathes new life into our imaginations.
Among the leading poets of the Black Arts Movement, Nikki published her first volumes of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk, and Black Judgment, in 1968. With the latter, she gave us the treasured poem “Nikki-Rosa.” Before the age of 30, Nikki interviewed Lena Horne, Muhammad Ali, and James Baldwin. With more than 30 books to her name, Nikki is currently a distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she’s taught for the last 33 years.
ZORA spoke with the revolutionary poet last week about her latest work, how she defines herself, her $14 champagne ritual, and how Toni Morrison helped her process grief.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZORA: The title poem, “Make Me Rain,” is so rich and tender. What do you hope readers take away from the poem?
Nikki Giovanni: “Make Me Rain” is a love poem. All poets write love poems because all poets are always in love. I like the way that rain turns into so many different things, all of which relate to you. If it falls on your tongue, it can be ice, it can be snow. Rain does so many wonderful things. You cannot live without rain. That’s just the way it is. Black women are rain. We have watered this ground. There’s nothing greater on Earth than Black women, in my opinion.
I first read “A Short Bio of Nikki Giovanni” on the back flap of A Good Cry. Now it’s included in Make Me Rain. You write about being a little girl dreaming, snuggling under your grandmother’s quilts, and listening to jazz on the radio. You prefer this bio over the customary one that lists your accomplishments. How did you determine that there’s more value in your true story than in the honorifics?
After a while, you get tired of hearing people make references to insignificant things. I’m not knocking it because the awards and things are nice. But I like the idea of people recognizing, well, there was a little girl. And I’m not the only little girl who looked out the window and daydreamed. I wanted to share that. By doing that, I’m able to open up doors for young women who are not sure about how they want to view themselves or how they want people to view them.
I ask my students all the time, “Don’t you get tired of people asking, ‘What do you want to be?’” I get why the question is asked. But why can’t people take you as you are right now? What’s wrong with what you are? Why can’t you be what you are? And so I say, “I don’t have to be something. I don’t have to explain what I want to be. I am. And being who I am, I can own myself.”
“My generation has done what we can. The young people have created something, and we should make sure we’re not in the way of their creation.”
Four years ago, you said, “I’m not political. I’m just a little old lady trying to look at the world.” Do you still feel that way?
I guess everybody, in our own way, is political. I was trying to say I’m not trying to create a group. I’m not trying to lead a bunch of people to do something. I’m just a little old lady who’s trying to do her best to live in this world and to share what I have. My only real weapon, of course, is words. And so I always have to use the weapon I have, which is words. But I’m not trying to start a movement or lead one. That’s what I was trying to say, though I admire many of the movements. I admire Black Lives Matter and what those young women have done. I love what Black Lives Matter has done because it has allowed all of us to be a part of it.
Yes. My generation has done what we can. The young people have created something, and we should make sure we’re not in the way of their creation. We should let them know how much we appreciate them, how much we like what they’re doing, and how much we support them. I think that people need to recognize that these are the people we celebrate.
My generation broke down segregation. So we have young people living in a nonsegregated world. But that doesn’t mean they are living in a nonracist world. We have a racist world, and we have a Nazi as the president who stole our presidency and who’s trying to steal it again. Young people are fighting against it. They are fighting for our lives.
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Let’s dig into your poem “Vote” for a bit. You’ve witnessed a lot of presidential elections in your lifetime. How are you approaching this one?
Let me start by saying the life and work of Fannie Lou Hamer mean so much. She fought so hard and was brutally beaten by cowards. So I’m going to always vote. If there’s any little bit of me that’s living, take me to the poll, so I can vote. You have to vote because you have to let people know you have a voice. And no matter who you are, you should be able to vote. In the poem, [I advocate for prisoners to vote] because people say, “Oh, no. We can’t have the prisoners voting.” Well, they’re citizens; why shouldn’t they vote? We also need to take a voting box into all the nursing homes. We need to make sure those people have a voice too.
I do like Joe Biden, by the way. I think that he is a decent and principled human being. So I am proud to vote for Joe Biden. I’m voting for him because I think he is the right person for our country at this time. And I think that Sen. Kamala Harris will be a great vice president.
But I’ll also say this, I have a dog, and her name is Cleopatra. I would vote for Cleopatra over Donald Trump. She’s smarter and nicer, and she cares about me. She cares about other people too. She does her job. So I think that Cleopatra would be a better president of the United States than Donald Trump.
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In “And So It Comes to This,” you write about White supremacists, “Finally having to recognize: The only thing you have to offer … is your white skin. How sad. How sad.” There’s so much incisive truth in the whole poem but especially in those last few words.
We call it White supremacy, but there’s nothing supreme about what the White people are doing. What those White boys are doing. Those people are cowards. I wrote that poem because I really think that must be a damn shame that all you have to offer the world is the color of your skin. The so-called White supremacy movement is a cowardly movement. They try to hurt people in groups, and they try to intimidate people in groups. That’s cowardly.
What brings you pleasure these days?
Covid made us rethink who we are and who and what is important to us. I’m making more time for friends. Catching up with them on the phone and playing cards with them. I have a few friends that come over. We put masks on, spray the house, and play bid whist. My partner and I are very good. We’ve been playing together for so long that we pretty much know each other’s mind. But we’re not winning as much as we used to. And that’s good because nobody wants to lose all the time. So that’s part of the joy — spending more time with people we really like and less time with people we don’t care about.
And, of course, I like to cook.
You’ve always included food references in your work. Make Me Rain is no exception. What’s the best meal you’ve made recently?
I made a roast beef. I did it with chocolate stout. I don’t drink beer or stout, but I cooked with it. And it was incredible. I had a nice salad to go with it. I was very proud of myself because I haven’t cooked a pot roast in so long. And usually, you’re cooking a pot roast because you’re in a hurry. But this pot roast, it really reminded me of my grandmother’s. I browned it right. I had my stout, I had my potatoes, I had my carrots. It was really good.
What’s one ritual that you have, and how do you protect it?
At 7 p.m., I go out to the fish pond in my backyard. There are goldfish there, and I take a seat, and I drink cheap champagne. It’s a $14 bottle. I like it. My body tells me what time it is, and so I just go. You have to take time for yourself, you really do. It’s important to give yourself a little time to think and to enjoy the moment or whatever you’ve done today. To congratulate yourself because a lot of people don’t congratulate themselves. They don’t realize, “Oh, I did a good job today.” Or “I got that done today.” Instead, we pick on ourselves and say, “Oh, I’m no good.” You can’t think like that.
You’ve forged friendships with fellow iconic artists over the years, including the late Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, whom “A Bench” is dedicated to. In what ways has Black sisterhood nourished you?
[In 2005,] after my mother died in June and my sister died that August, I called Toni because I was feeling bad. I was talking, talking, talking. She was a good listener. And then she finally said, “Nikki, I have things to do.” And it was good, because I was being sad. So it’s as if she said, “Stop.” And I told her, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Toni said, “You just write. That’s what you do. Write.” And she was right, that’s what I do. I write. Your sisters listen, and then they finally say, “Okay, you’ve talked enough about this now. Get back to life. You have a life to live, go on and do it.” And that’s the kind of sister I want to be for my friends, for the people I know now. Because I’ve lost so many friends in the last two years.
What are some lessons about grief you’ve learned over the years that are helpful this year?
I’ve learned it’s okay to cry, because I was one of those people that held a lot of things in. That’s why I wrote the book, A Good Cry. I finally learned it’s okay to cry, and this was good. I learned to reach out to some of my neighbors, especially now with Covid. I have a couple old ladies that I know, and I know they need some help going to the grocery store, getting things. So I put my mask on and go pick them up. If I’m making something, I share it. You just try to do what you can do. And you try to let people know it’s okay to be upset. But you only have so much time to do that because there are things to be done.
What would you tell younger Black women about getting older?
Oh, I recommend it! It’s fun. We live in a world that keeps talking about being young. There’s nothing like getting older. Somebody said, “You know, we put up with our children so we can have grandchildren.” And I thought, “Yeah, that makes sense to me.” Old age is so wonderful.