Gil Scott-Heron got it wrong when he told us that the revolution would not be televised. It's been televised repeatedly, and can be witnessed in all its glory in films and videotapes featuring the choreography of Alvin Ailey and performances by artists such as John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Public Enemy. Moreover, you can find the revolution in the writing of Gwendolyn Brooks, who was sitting in the dark because she couldn't afford to pay her electric bill when word came that she'd won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize. And you can hear it in the words of poet and essayist Nikki Giovanni, who has been telling her form of the truth for more than a quarter-century.
Giovanni is being discovered anew by today's freshest rappers and hip-hoppers; she's mentioned by name in "Swoon Units," a song on Digable Planets' 1993 album reachin' (a new refutation of time and space). Her latest collection of essays, Racism 101, published this year by William Morrow and Company, is evidence of her growing audience. "It's been a critical and commercial success," Giovanni says. "Really, it's a huge book. We're up to our fourth printing. That's good for any writer, but for a poet it's extraordinary."
The work that preceded Racism 101 is equally impressive. Since her first collection of poems, Black Feeling Black Talk, appeared in 1968 just prior to her 25th birthday, Giovanni has published nearly twenty books, made numerous recordings of her work, earned countless awards and was the subject of a lovely PBS documentary. But she's also borne her share of criticism for her brash Sixties-era poems. For example, some observers faulted her for the poem "Detroit Conference of Unity and Art," which they felt diluted her message about freedom and equal rights with frivolous references to her relationship with activist H. Rap Brown, to whom the piece is dedicated. "No doubt many important/Resolutions/Were passed/As we climbed Malcolm's ladder," she wrote. "But the most/Valid of them/All was that/Rap chose me."
According to Giovanni, she's simply too busy to focus on this sort of sniping. "It doesn't generally bother me, because I know what I've put into the product," she says. "And if somebody is getting something out of it that I didn't put into it, like people saying, `Oh, she's bitter,' which is what they say about black writers, that doesn't have anything to do with me. Little minds can't control you.
"If black writers write about black things," she continues, "[some] people say, `Oh, she must hate white people because she doesn't have anything nice to say about us.' But I don't think of the world in just black and white at all. I see the world in many different shades. But I don't think that I should compromise my vision because some critic is going to be uncomfortable. They are welcome to pick things apart. And they will do just that. But they are not welcome to determine what I write about. And they won't."
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To Giovanni, what's more important is that people have the opportunity to hear her reading her poems. "I read in my own voice," she notes. "I never was a singsong reader. I think you should just talk to people. There's no point in people going to hear you live if all they're going to get is what's written on the page. They can read that without you. I think you try to give people information. But it's not improvisational. Unlike a jazz musician, poetry is not about improvisation. We do tend to follow the script. But a lot of times I think what people need to know is what occasion the poem has. Why you wrote it, the kinds of things you saw in it."
Not that Giovanni is always comfortable making such revelations. Among her most memorable and controversial pieces is a late-Sixties poem entitled "Ugly Honkies, or The Election Game and How to Win It," in which she writes, "The worst junkie or black businessman is more/Humane/Than the best honkie." When asked if she really believed that then, and if she still does now, Giovanni reacts with displeasure. "That was written in 1960-something," she counters. "I'd say that was something kind of old to bring up." When pressed again, she finally responds, "Well, I'm always going to stand by my work." Then, after a quick breath, she adopts a sugar-sweet, grandmotherly tone and changes the subject, asking, "Are you and your kids going to come out for the reading?"
The answer is yes. I cannot agree with everything Giovanni says, but I admire her for speaking her mind. She once wrote, "While language is a gift, listening is a responsibility"--and in spite of her contradictions, Nikki Giovanni deserves to be heard.
Nikki Giovanni. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, Shorter Community A.M.E. Church, 3100 Richard Allen Court, $15 Denver Public Library Friends Foundation members/$17 nonmembers/$10 students, 640-8898 or 640-8948.