Nikki by Chandler Phillips
“Chandler, you’re up.”
We each had to choose a woman in history whose activity we greatly admired and this week
was my turn. I looked at the teacher and walked to the front of the room. While this was just
among the many class assignments during finals week, I strangely felt my nerves start to run
loose. This woman had impacted me so much, had showed me what it meant to be a Black
woman, now it was my turn to do something for her: to tell her story right.
I began, “Giovanni dedicated her life to sharing stories with the world...”
When I shared her life to the class, my purpose was to reveal different ways that a person can
affect lives. While many AdoptAWoman presentations included women who were first and
foremost known as activists or figures in politics and law, Giovanni was known as a poet. While
Giovanni’s activism took shape in an alternative way, her work and the role she has played in
social justice should never go unnoticed.
One classmate asked me, “What was her purpose? How is writing poetry a form of
activism?” I sifted through an explanation of how Nikki Giovanni took a different path in her
activism, and it is one that I believed needs to be utilized even more. Through her pieces, she
made people feel, a quality that is still clearly lacking for many. While others may have changed
laws or policies, Giovanni did something much harder. She tried to change mindsets. Racism is
in the mind. No matter how many bills are passed or legislation presented, if people still have
discriminatory thoughts and behavior, our work for equality is not even close to being over.
When Nikki wrote about the Pullman Porters and Emmett Till or the Deltas and the Suffrage
Walk, she was giving the world a look of what it meant to be Black. She was allowing people of
all races to take a glimpse into what it meant to walk outside and have someone yell racist slurs
at you... or what it felt like to look at a glaring phone that showed you pictures of the noose that
was hung just feet away from your dorm. She revealed what it was like not to see inequality,
injustice, dehumanization, or hopelessness, but to live through it. My admiration for this woman
and her work comes from the understanding that in order to be a poet, you must tap into these
difficult and raw emotions that many people, especially people of color, intentionally try to avoid.
The amount of hurt and pain it causes us is often too much too wrestle with. Yet, this woman
Nikki Giovanni seeks to feel everything through her poetry.
A white girl later asked me the question, “Do you think Ms. Giovanni liked being called
the “Black Princess of Poetry.” Like did she like the fact that “Black” had to be a part of her title
instead of just the “Princess of Poetry?”
I could not stop the words from rushing out of my mouth.
“I don’t think she minded the title; in fact I would say she took pride in it. So much of her writing
was based around race, about being a Black woman. She did not shy away from the topic, but
instead embraced it. I’m sure you all have read the emails sent out by Moneta and Broadhead.
They talk about being “colorblind,” about looking at one another and not seeing race. Why? We
are all different colors, and no matter what others say that will not change, nor should it.
Personally, I take pride in being Black. I do not want a world that is “colorblind” because I want
my color, my people, and my culture to be recognized and appreciated. Not just mine, but
everyone’s. There is beauty in color, and Giovanni acknowledges that in her writing. To be
called a “Black Princess” shows that you are the princess of an incredibly beautiful community.”
In the last minutes of my presentation, I shared with them one of my favorite poems. I began to
open my mouth then paused. I was not the only one who had presented an incredibly impactful
woman in history. That was, in fact, the point of the class. Then I heard a voice in my head ask,
Chandler, what have you learned?
I have learned that there are many pathways to change.
I have learned that societal issues transcend generations.
I have learned to appreciate progress so that we can make more.
I have learned that history may overlook you, but change will not.
The final line left my mouth. I gathered my things and returned to my seat and from the corner of
my eye I saw a residue of a smile left on the professor’s face.
Nikki Giovanni was then and will forever be a source of inspiration. One of the biggest
opponents in this fight for equality is discouragement. As people try to demean others, those
being oppressed can easily fall into a hole of despair. See, it is difficult to see hope through
tragedy. However, Nikki Giovanni faces all of these emotions head on. She does not hide from
the pain hurt and cruelty. Instead she embraces it. She uses the anger and sadness oppressors
have put upon her and turn that hate into something beautiful; into poetry.
NikkiRosa by Nikki Giovanni
childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you’re Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
all to yourself and
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those
big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in
and somehow when you talk about home
it never gets across how much you
understood their feelings
as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale
and even though you remember
your biographers never understand
your father’s pain as he sells his stock
and another dream goes
And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that
and though they fought a lot
it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference
but only that everybody is together and you
and your sister have happy birthdays and very good
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy