My Wobbly Bicycle, 147

Posted by on Jan 18, 2018 | 4 comments

images-1I hesitated several days before I said yes to interviewing Nikki Giovanni for the National Writers Series at the Opera House (date is now March 9). Black poet who’s raged against white people. Years ago, right? We were young. But she may feel the same,  even while smiling. I dunno.


download-1In Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I grew up, the few blacks lived in basically a ghetto behind the courthouse. Black children who wanted a high school education had to ride an hour on the bus over the Ozark Mountains to Fort Smith. We probably said to ourselves, “This isn’t right,” but until the federal government bonked our Governor Faubus over the head and said “You WILL integrate your schools,” it wasn’t much in our consciousness. I was in the 7th grade, then.


I was racist by omission. I had nothing against blacks, but I knew about as much about them as I did about the nuns who crossed the street to their school twice a day wearing their penguin outfits. When, finally, there were several blacks in our high school, my friends and I thought they were very cool: tall, reserved basketball players, mostly.


I’ve never had a close black friend. It’s my age, the culture I grew up in. I’ve since gotten to know and deeply admire a number of black poets. I met Gwendolyn Brooks, I spent several evenings and a weekend conference with the beloved Lucille Clifton and ferried her around when she visited campus. Also Rita Dove, Toi Dericott, and Natasha Trethaway are my distant friends. Over the years, I taught on the same faculty with Michael S. Harper, Marilyn Nelson, Chuck Stone, Charles Johnson, Gloria Hull, and Carol Henderson.


I’ve read the poets, of course: Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, James Weldon Johnson, Elizabeth Alexander, Frederick Douglas, Robert Hayden, June Jordan—and so on. I’ve both admired and quarreled with their work, as another poet is wont to do.


images-2Nikki Giovanni’s name was omnipresent through my younger years. She was one of the young black poets involved in what came to be called the Black Arts Movement (1965-75) that followed in the wake of the Black Power Movement. Its intention was to affirm the autonomy of black artists to create black art for black people as a means to awaken black consciousness and achieve liberation.


When that goal sounds kind of chauvinistic and circular, I remember that the early women’s movement was saying the same thing: “We need to exclude in order to support ourselves and our worth as women.”


downloadIn the meantime. IN THE MEANTIME! We’ve had killings, racial slurs, riots. Race relations have blown up in our faces. Whatever Nikki and I talk about related to her poems is bound to be weighted with the terrible (I’ll use that word) present. What have I gotten myself into? I ordered a pile of Nikki’s books from Interlibrary Loan. I got her new one—the one we’ll talk about—A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, read it once, and read it again later, carrying with me what I’d learned of her past. I know no way to do this situation justice than to look at the backstory. I wonder, do we live on different planets? Is that a truth to be acknowledged? Or would it be better to think in terms of unification? We’re both poets, we’re both Americans. We’re the same age. We’ve both had cancer. We’ve had failed and good relationships, we’ve had children.


I think I’ll write several posts on this topic before she visits on the March 9th. I’m intrigued. Particularly, I want to think and write about the difference in, say, Nikki’s poetry and mine.

If you have questions or thoughts that might help me shape our interview, let me know.










  1. I teach a course at Interlochen on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance and it has always seemed a great injustice that Zora Neale Hurston, the last major voice of that twenty-year period, was treated so badly by other black writers. Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, both expats at the time, were especially hurtful in criticizing Hurston for not addressing “the race issue” in her work. One thing I might ask N. G. is where she sees black poets and novelists working together, or at cross purposes, on the issue of race and its challenges. I believe race is primarily a white person’s problem: does she see white writers taking it up in their work?

    • Thank you, Jeff. These are good thoughts and that is a good question and I’ll put it on my list, although who knows where the conversation will go. I will have to let her take the lead.

  2. I don’t envy you, Fleda. I do have several close black friends, an African-American son in law whom I adore, and my youngest daughter has a live-in partner who is also African -American, and a kid I couldn’t admire more. To talk to any of these folks is to be provided with a window that, as a kid myself and surely even now as a a dotard, I have never peered through personally.

    So I do understand a lot of Giovanni’s rancor. But.

    But the trouble with her, to my way of thinking, is that she’s a lousy poet. (I’m 75 now, too old to worry what the hip and smart people think.) Has she ever written a poem that would not be just as well presented as a speech or a letter to an editor? Not that I know of. I can’t imagine that anyone would pay much attention to her if she weren’t (justifiably) angry, and I think she knows that full well.

    I say all this in full awareness that my perspective on what makes “good” and “bad” is conditioned by my own race, gender, class, sexual orientation…and all the rest of those usual suspects. (The literary theorists had to invent poets/critics so dumb that they didn’t know that from day one.) That said, I still think her poetry is…well, what I said.

  3. Fleda, it isn’t easy talking about these things or even thinking about them, so good for you to face up to it. Have you read WAKING UP WHITE? When I opened the book, I didn’t expect much, but as I read on it got better and better and was very worth the time spent reading it. I look forward to your further posts and am sorry I won’t be in town for Giovanni’s appearance at NWS. I had tickets for the the date she had to cancel and was very disappointed. Still am.

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