KOKOMO, Ind. — No matter what anyone says, words matter.
The importance of words, and of remembering the legacy of those who came before, were among many topics of discussion during a presentation by award-winning poet and activist Nikki Giovanni Tuesday (March 21) at Indiana University Kokomo.
“That’s all I have is words,” Giovanni said. “My duty to those people sitting up in heaven is that we value the words we share with each other. It’s important we use our words to make the world a better place.”
The crowd filling Havens Auditorium gave her a standing ovation as she first approached the microphone, and responded to her stories and poems with applause, verbal affirmations, laughter, and thoughtful silence throughout the evening.
Along with reading her poems “Rosa Parks,” and “A Poem for My Librarian,” Giovanni talked about topics ranging from appreciation for Black women, prejudice in Hollywood, her pride in being a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Civil Rights history, women’s reproductive rights, book bans, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, college basketball, and meeting Queen Elizabeth II. She also shared stories of growing up at her grandparents’ home on Mulvaney Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee, and visiting the Carnegie Library near that home.
“Of all the things I pay taxes for, I think libraries are my favorite,” she said, expressing concern about current pushes to ban books, including hers.
“We have to continue to fight,” Giovanni said. “Whenever anyone wants to shut you up or control you, the first thing they do is take away books. They don’t want you to think for yourself. Words are the most important things people do.”
She learned about activism from the adults around her, including her grandfather, who took her with him to go see the Southern Railroad cars arrive some evenings. She noticed that “Grandpapa,” who was a Latin scholar, was speaking to Pullman porters, and later learned he was helping with translations of law from Latin to help Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who won the Brown vs. Board of Education case in the U.S. Supreme Court to desegregate schools. Area churches were also quietly collecting money and passing it to the NAACP.
“If people had known that’s what Grandpapa was doing, they would have come and killed him,” she said. “Nobody thought Grandpapa did anything because he didn’t look like he did anything. They thought Mr. Watson was a nice colored man. It was grandmother they were afraid of; she had a big mouth. Sometimes things are not what they appear. It’s easy to judge when you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Giovanni said she was glad to see so many Black people at IU Kokomo.
“It’s part of the community in which we live,” she said. “It’s important to take advantage of what is here, and that we teach our children to take advantage. We cannot have integration unless we integrate with white people the way we want them to integrate with us. Let people know you are part of this community.”
She also spoke to the students in the audience, pushing them to graduate, to honor the struggle of those who came before them.
“You have to remember some people sitting up in heaven who were not allowed to read or write,” she said. “You take your hat off and you throw it up in the air, to say to those people, ‘I did that.’ That’s who you do it for. They’re sitting up there being proud of you, ‘That’s my baby, my baby graduated from college.’ We owe a duty to our ancestors.”
Giovanni has a long connection to the campus, starting from two summer sessions as a visiting faculty member in 1995 and 1996. She became friends with Karla Stouse, teaching professor of English and humanities, who commended her for her continued involvement since that time, including speaking to creative writing classes, assisting in the development of a Harlem Renaissance literature class, inviting students to an event she hosted at Virginia Tech in honor of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, and providing advance copies of Morrison’s book God Bless the Child for a class to study before it was published.
“She has always been a great friend to IU Kokomo,” Stouse said. “She continues to give, and give, and give.”
Giovanni has published multiple books for adults and children, including essays and poetry, as well as audio recordings. Her poetry collections include her first self-published book, Black Feelings Black Talk, and her most recent, Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose.
Her poetry, essays, and recordings have covered topics including gender, race, and social issues, and she is known as a champion for civil rights and social justice. She was a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech for more than 30 years, and won the 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the inaugural Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, the American Book Award, the Langston Hughes Award, and seven NAACP Image Awards.
Presenting partners for Giovanni’s visit include the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library, the Community Foundation of Howard County, IU’s Addison Locke Roache Memorial Fund, and a grant from Indiana Humanities in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities.