She’s pretty small—I can’t tell how short really—but when she walks into the the-ater, everybody is straining to see her and her curly grey hair tightly hugging her head. She’s this light, not even as dark as caramel, woman and her name is Italian-sounding—Nikki Giovanni—so if I didn’t already know the titles of her published books (two are Black Feeling Black Talk and Black Judgment) and couldn’t tell from the monochrome audience, I wouldn’t have guessed she was African-American. Maybe Portuguese.
With respect to any of the other myriad speakers who give lectures on college campuses, you could probably ask: does race really matter? You’re going to see a poet, an activist, a professor, a mother, a woman, and she’s going to talk and you’re going to listen. But it’s not so simple with Nikki Giovanni. Nikki is poet, activist, professor, mother, woman, sure; but more than that—more importantly—Nikki is black. Nikki is race. Everything Ms. Giovanni says is racialized and everybody in the audience is made painfully or happily aware of their racial identity. The aforementioned monochrome audience isn’t entirely black, of course, or even shades of black, but to hear Nikki speak you’d think all the flaxen-haired and almond-eyed listeners were barred at the door. The pronouns she uses are “we” and “them” and “they” and the adjectives, “Negro” and “colored” and “black” and “white.”
What’s a first-generation South Asian like me supposed to do with that? Try hard to identify with the little colored-girl angle; try not to imagine that you too “tickle” Nikki Giovanni as the “white people” do. Living with the American binary construction of race is hard for the whole mess of other immigrants, “model minorities” mostly, who are considered colored to the whites but still privileged over the coloreds. What are you supposed to make of that? I’m sitting in about the fifth row, wondering whose side I should be on here—if I’m going to have to pick sides—and then Nikki’s pulling her sleeve up to reveal a “Thug Life” tattoo (in honor of and mourning for Tupac Amaru Shakur) and all I can think of is the cover of that old Sophia Loren movie, What a Woman! I forget that Nikki is black and addressing exclusively the black audience. I pretend that I am not the white enemy to which she refers. I am wrapped up in the magic of her words and wit and bold tattoo.
What a woman Ms. Giovanni is. What a woman, in what I assume is her trademark getup of slacks, dress shirt, jacket, and tie. When Nikki says that women are an “automatic revolution,” I get the feeling she’s self-projecting. She is feminine and masculine and human. She starts her speech by deriding the hue and cry over the appearance of Janet Jackson’s breast at the Superbowl; given the brutal nature of football, she says, the potentially-nutrient-producing-breast was “obviously the only wholesome thing happening.” Nikki says things like that, funny things; the whole audience is laughing: black people, white people, little brown people like me. Nikki says, “Planet Earth is crazy,” and we keep laughing. She tells us that the most important thing that must happen and will happen in the 21st century is that we humans will go to Mars. “Because,” she explains simply, “Mars can’t come to us.”
Nikki is dead serious as she’s telling us how every 10th person is going to get the chance to go to Mars. The “conversation” about space will change; this is what she told NASA when they invited her to speak during Black History Month. It’s funny to hear this intellectual talking about sending people to Mars. But then Ms. Giovanni says bluntly that the trip to Mars is Middle Passage. Don’t know where we’ll be going. What we will find. What hardships we will incur. And there may be no way back. There is an audible intake of breath in the theater as we remember that this comedian—who says smiling naughtily, “Oprah doesn’t like me”—is also the bitterly angry activist who asks readers, “What can I, a poor Black woman, do to destroy America?” and ordered, in Poem (No Name No. 2), “Get Black Bitterness / NOW.”
Nikki Giovanni is angry. I wonder if I’m laughing so hard at everything she says and clapping harder than I did for Naomi Klein, Sekou Sundiata, J.M. Coetzee, or Alice Walker (a few of the lecturers who have spoken at Duke this year) because she’s just plain funnier than everyone or if I’m too nervous about what she’s saying—shocked, excited, scared—and I have no other way to cope with my emotions. I feel I love her. I want to cheer when she says with disgust, “I get so sick of slavery being taught from the point of view of those people who invented slavery.” I agree completely; history is written by the winners, isn’t that what Mel Gibson said in Braveheart?
I don’t like white people any more than Nikki does. I am proud, and I too am angry, when Nikki says that they didn’t go to Africa to get slaves. They went “to get Africans with the hope of making them slaves.” All of us in the audience can probably see these Africans that Nikki Giovanni invokes, during Middle Passage, singing that they have done made their vows to the lord and crouching together the way they were pictured in Spielberg’s Amistad. I imagine that I identify and have a right to clap when my African-American seat-neighbors do. I do, don’t I? Nikki reads lines like “whatever is wrong with us will not get right with us” and I nod in acknowledgment. I want her to know that I am listening, that I know that her words are meant for my ears. But I know that Nikki Giovanni is not speaking to me.
Nikki Giovanni is not speaking to me when she says that “we” are here to “cash a check.” My skin may be physically darker than hers but that check doesn’t have my name on it. Those reparations are not for me, and I don’t even know that she has a right to demand them. She calls hip-hop artist Eminem a racist. He makes money “off of black people” and earns a living “off of things that [black people] created,” she says angrily. She implies that black youth—and here she makes specific reference to college students—do not self-segregate so much as the white kids choose not to speak to or associate with them. She wonders aloud how anyone can have the nerve to dislike black people, who brought only good will to America. “And it’s not,” she qualifies, “because we forgot.”
Fine, I think. It’s not because you forgot—and this is the first time the pronoun shifts and I remove myself from the picture. You haven’t forgotten, but isn’t it time to forgive?
I love Nikki’s anger—it energizes and inspires and moves me—but there’s something to be said for forgiveness. Peace. Moving on. Even Alice Walker’s banal calls for pillow fights and love (though they grated on me, and I did not clap for her even once the way I smacked my hands together for Nikki) say something useful. There’s something beautiful about integration. Equality. Universal rights. I guess that’s what Nikki is trying to get at by asking for reparations, by saying that she can “solve any problem of the black family with a check.” But as she further waxes political, everything is made not only literally but metaphorically black and white. Simplistic. Eminem, racist? Maybe, but Ms. Giovanni is ignoring the fact that some of the major consumers of Eminem’s music are white, suburban kids. Eminem is not just making money “off of black people,” but off of the white kids who identify with his music. And how can Ms. Giovanni ignore the contributions of Latinos and other ethnic groups to the art form she claims was created exclusively by blacks?
Nikki Giovanni is the most impassioned, persuasive, political woman I have ever heard speak. It is devastating to think that perhaps I am not supposed to be listening. I get this feeling like I’m eavesdropping on a secret meeting, that the revolution is being planned, black bitterness brewed, and when I go to get my book signed, Nikki is just going to laugh because a little brown girl like me couldn’t possibly understand. When she says “us,” Nikki Giovanni is not talking about me. But then she mentions that people often think they can’t call George Bush a fool because somebody’s going to get upset, and she retorts simply, “Well, he is, and somebody should.”
I am laughing again. Maybe Nikki’s message is not meant for me but I am affected by her forthrightness, her courage, and her passion all the same. In the dark, as the crowd rises to its feet, Ms. Giovanni is small. Her skin is even paler as the lights dim and she looks exotic. Maybe Portuguese. For a minute, I imagine that this angry woman with the Italian-sounding name has been inciting an inclusive revolution. We are one people. We have one goal. We are one color. For a minute, Nikki Giovanni almost belongs to me.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a freshman and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.