On Monday evening, acclaimed poet and essayist Nikki Giovanni gave a wide-ranging, moving, insightful, and often uproarious talk entitled “Grit, Grace, and Glow: Celebrating Black Excellence” in the Pearson-Hall Theatre of the Lang Performing Arts Center.
During the event, Giovanni read her poems “Tennessean by Birth”, “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why),” and “A Bench,” fielded questions from the audience, and signed copies of her books.
After listing Giovanni’s extensive accolades, which include an Emmy nomination, “Woman of the Year” honors from numerous publications and associations, and the keys to over two dozen North American cities, Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton introduced her as a “poet and a pilot.”
“We're unsure exactly where [Giovanni] will land with metaphor or rhyme, taking us on a bumpy ride because at some point we must fly through the storm,” Willie-LeBreton said. “There is no map that takes us far around it. This is our fate, to move with a poet-pilot's guidance, despite the lightning, heart beating with the thunder, knowing that after darkness eventually comes dawn and the poet-pilot has guided us to a smooth landing, a new place, a wonder with the chance to begin again."
After discussing politics, religion, and Nashville’s history as “Music City,” Giovanni read her poem, “Tennessean by Birth,” about her home state, which she left as a child when her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Repeating the lines, “I’m a native Tennessean, I was born there” throughout, Giovanni expresses pride in her identity as a Black woman born in Appalachia.
“I’m a native Tennessean. I know what it is to be free. I am singing the country blues. I am whittling a wooden doll. I am underground mining coal. I am running moonshine. I am a white boy with a banjo native to West Africa. I’m a Black boy with a twang native to the hills. I am smart. I am cool. I am unafraid. I am free. Yeah, I’m a native Tennessean,” says Giovanni in the poem's final lines.
She then read her 1968 work “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why),” before ending with a poem from her forthcoming book, Make Me Rain. Entitled “A Bench,” the poem is dedicated to her friend, the late Toni Morrison, who died before the two could collaborate on a book about benches commemorating slavery in America.
“Benches are friends we call on on sad days...they are the voice on the other end of the phone who says, ‘Write’ when you are so sad at losing your mother. ‘Write’ when you don’t know where to go,” read Giovanni, recalling Morrison’s advice to her after her mother passed away.
A q&a session with Giovanni rounded out the event as she answered questions about her creative inspiration, fashion sense, and advice for future generations of activists.