Nikki Giovanni

This Day in History: June 7th

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Poet Nikki Giovanni Was Born

New York Times bestseller, Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 7, 1943, and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. The award-winning writer is the author of numerous children’s books and poetry collections.

She was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni. Jr, the youngest of two daughters in a close-knit family. Her grandmother influenced her intense appreciation for African-American culture and heritage at a young age. 

“My dream was not to publish or to even be a writer; my dream was to discover something no one else had thought of,” said Giovanni. “I guess that’s why I’m a poet. We put things together in ways no one else does.”

Giovanni enrolled at Fisk University in 1960, where she worked with the school’s Writer’s Workshop and edited the literary magazine. She also worked to restore the Fisk chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She earned her bachelor of arts degree in 1967 and organized a Black Arts Festival before starting graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University

By the time Giovanni graduated from Fisk University, she was committed to the civil rights movement and the concept of black power. However, at the time, there was not much interest in an African-American woman writing what was considered to be “militant” poetry.

Her first few collections of poems (Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement, etc.) were revolutionary and offered a deliberate interpretation of experience through a black consciousness. Initially, no one wanted to publish Giovanni so she formed a company and published her work independently. 

Giovanni’s earlier works quickly made her a prominent voice in African-American literature. During the 1960s she also was popular for reciting her own poetry and speaking. Her pieces typically expressed feelings of oppression, anger and frustration, which allowed her to explore new audiences outside of the average poetry reader. 

Throughout her career, Giovanni has been nominated for a Grammy, won seven NAACP Image Awards and was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has authored several books that have become New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestsellers (which is unique for a poet). Giovanni, a lung cancer survivor, also contributed to the anthology, Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors.

Nikki Giovanni has been given the keys to more than a dozen cities (including New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas), but she can be found at Virginia Tech, where she has been a University Distinguished Professor

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