Published: The Atlantic Literary Review, quaterely Oct-Dec 2013; Volume 14. Edited Mohit K Ray. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors Pvt Limited.
Barack Obama has made political and racial history in America. Five and six decades ago it was a different scenario.The Blacks had to struggle for a dignified survival. In the present paper Nikki Giovanni captures the zeitgeist of those difficult times in the literary tradition of the United States when the experiences of a Black woman writer were considered to be deviant. Her works reflect the undaunted spirit of ‘fighting back’ and the consequent kaleidoscopic shifts of emotions—agony, humiliation,defiance, retaliation, acceptance and finally rejoicing at being a Black.
If Sylvia Plath’s poetry reeks of the malaise that has infested the White American’s psyche, the poetry of Nikki Giovanni suggests the remedy of how to bring it back to normalcy and answers a long chain of questions in a very subtle way: why is a Black psyche different from a White one? Why is it hard to shatter the belief of a Black that “everything we look upon is blest”, whereas the White suffers from the consciousness of neurosis and the feeling of “damnation on this earth”? The search for self is continued in Giovanni’s poetry , the anger very much a part of it but the pleasure she gets from children , family and life which seems to be at its minimal in White’s lives has been given full play here .And here lies the magic potion that alone can save the American consciousness from its emotional doom .
Currently a widespread interest is being shown in Black American poetry not only in the American academic community but among general readers as well .Any discussion on “Black Experience” is considered a part of scholarship. Some Black authors and editors think that publishers are more receptive to them now than at any time over the past decades . But it was not always this way. Their culture didn’t catch with the public attention until the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s. The Black Arts Movement in the 1960s brought Black literature to the forefront when Le Roi Jones gave the Blacks an identity and pride essential to the moral survival of human beings by openly admitting the cultural differences which distinguish them from their White counterparts.
Black women writers had to struggle simultaneously on two fronts. They were excluded from Afro-American literary tradition by Black scholars and from the literary anthologies and critical studies of White women.* Against these heavy odds emerge some very talented Black women poets and Nikki Giovanni, in the words of Ida Lewis, is the princess of Black poetry. She is “an extraordinary example the young Black spirit enjoying a newly reopened life.”(Ida Lewis 1972: Foreword). Her poetry springs from the solid and heartily accepted fact that she is a black. Blackness has a very special meaning for Giovanni. While White is the Victorian ideal of feminine purity and associated with innocence, virginity, passivity and saintliness, Blackness for her opens up a different world. It is a world of force, power, beauty, sexuality and passions. And she is proud that she belongs to this world. In GEMINI, “an extended autobiographical statement on my first twenty- five years of being a black poet” she writes, “I’ve always known I was colored .When I was a Negro I knew I was colored; now that I’m Black I know which color it is . Any identity crisis I may have had never centered on race .I love those long, involved, big worded essays in “How I discovered My Blackness.” (1971:24) The account that follows reveals no signs of sorrow or helplessness about being Black, but pathetic it certainly is. The struggle of her grandparents and parents gave direction to her fate as a poet and her struggle for the search of an identity continues: “How and why I became a fighter is still a mystery to me. If you believe in innateness, then I guess the only logical conclusion is that it’s in my blood.”(1971:29) This statement reveals the racial predicament she was in which compelled her to express her feelings about the most abysmal evil in the modern world. Her confidence and pride in “self” was not shaken, but it did make her a revolutionary poet.
Black poets are practically and magically involved in collective efforts to trigger real social change and correction so that they feel free from all the constraints of racial discrimination, free the way Whites feel free. Giovanni calls herself “the first in my family to feel free.” The freedom she wanted and the freedom she chose was to cry out:
We seek the freedom of free men
And the construction of a world
Where Martin Luther King could have
Lived and preached non-violence.
(The Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., Giovanni 1968:8}
The headstone of Martin Luther King’s grave reads, FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST, but it is a slave’s freedom.For Giovanni it is freedom for living Blacks, courage for living Blacks, power for living Blacks, in other words a revolution for living Blacks:
Blessed be machine guns in Black hands
All power to grenades that destroy our oppressor
Peace, Peace, Black peace at all costs.
(A Litany for Peppe, Giovanni 1968:9)
At its bleakest, the lines let the human condition speak for itself. The goal is crystal clear, her logic is crystal clear, and her manner is crystal clear. Her goal is to achieve power which means the ability to have control over her life, her logic is that America does not have anything that Blacks cannot build again if they need it, and her manner suggests revolution, anarchy and total chaos. Her revolution is not to die for but to kill for: “…we’re after the same honkie –and however we get him is our business.”(1971:50)
She has been successful in revolutionizing Black thought through her activities and her poetry. She is also a product of the explosive sixties which more or less created a militant Black poet. Black militancy in its extreme protests embraced an eye-for –an –eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth doctrine with actual physical violence as a tactic if necessary. But its major emphasis was on its central code, upon an undeviating Black solidarity for Black goals. To achieve this end Giovanni along with others, set up a Black Arts Festival, she roared on the radio telling all the honkies not to come, she put out a magazine called Love Black, and she screamed in her poems:
johnson is the vilest
the world has ever
in the alleged civilized
(Records, Giovanni 1968:16)
Like most Black women poets, freedom to her means racial struggle first and a sexual one second. Susan Juhasaz in THE DOUBLE BIND OF THE WOMEN POET says that women poets have to struggle against the strain of the double bind ; that is there is always a conflict between her two selves “If she is ‘woman’, she is must fail as ‘poet’; ‘poet’ she must fail as ‘woman’.”(1978:3) But Black poets face a triple bind involving race and sex oppression alike. Giovanni accepts her Blackness and womanhood willingly but in her poetry calls for a revolution on both counts .She knows fully well the emotional chemistry of the Black psyche. Her fight has been not to become White but to bring some Black humanity, some Black blood into the pallid mainstream of American life in its manifold aspects –cultural, social, and psychological. This is the true meaning of Negro revolt, changed by poets like her into a revolution .Her only grudge is that it has not yet been completed: “And I had no idea you are so far away from Uncle Tom’s cabin in Slavetown. I thought I could make it in a day or two but it’s taking much longer.”(1971:52)
Like male Black poets, Giovanni inspires her people to liberate themselves from various types of bondage and not to submerge themselves in the melting pot but to keep their identity, pride and respect unscratched .Her attitude however, differs though the goal is the same. She is, as it were, desperate to settle the score. She is not interested in making the things look agreeable or acceptable; rather she cares how the things really are and how they should or would become. Instead of being influenced by ideologies or following big leaders, she comes to the basic question of how the individual is affected by it. In this centripetal force of the revolution, she differs from many others who give importance to the Black community and the masses. But Giovanni never considered herself as carrying the burden of the revolution. Her struggle is a personal search for individual values in the Black community, the values which are what the young Black critic Edward Black has defined as “pre –individualistic”—
In the pre-individualistic thinking of the Negro, the stress is on
the group. Instead of seeing in terms of individual the Negro sees
In terms of “races,” masses of people separated from other masses
according to color. Hence an act rarely bears intent against him as
a Negro individual. He is singled out not as a person but as a specimen
of an ostracized group. He knows that he never exists in his own
right but only to the extent that others hope to make the race suffer
vicariously through him.
(Ida Lewis 1972: Forword)
In her feminine approach to the revolution, Giovanni differs from other female poets. Margaret Walker Alexander’s celebrated poem FOR MY PEOPLE, though it includes personal anguish, is largely addressed to Black Americans in general:
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born.
Let a bloody peace be written in the sky.
Gwendolyn Brooks, justly praised for her sympathetic revelation of the Afro-American experience, begins with an emphasis on the attitudes of a Black woman to emphasize the ideas of Black people in general. But she seldom endows women with the power, integrity or magnificence of her male figures. The passive and vulnerable Annie Allen, the heroine of her Pulitzer-prize –winning poem, deserted by her soldier husband is left pathetically mourning her fate in her little kitchenette. Brooks’ voice is more reassuring when she addresses her people in general. Similarly Mari Evans’ poetic journey has been an individual search of communal values. In Tony Morrison’s novels, however, we see a conflict between conformist acceptance and defiant rebellion in Black community. But the moral universe of Giovanni is governed only by themes of heroic self- definition through protest.
The philosophic assumption of Giovanni towards the precarious condition of Blacks and revolution raises fundamental questions: “Who am I? What am I? How did I come to be? How related are love of self (love of family, love of community, love of humanity) and revolution?” (Ida Lewis 1972, Foreword) She finds the two intertwined and in a typical feminine way places the love of self on a higher pedestal. Simone de Beauvoir’s remark that men go for transcendentalism and women for immanence (1988:726) is acceptable, but contrary to her belief, immanence does not necessarily shut them up. In the case of Giovanni her Black self becomes the spring board for straining towards higher things in life.
Family is the central core of Giovanni’s poetry. Her belief in the family’s love is so firm that it has become her poetic philosophy that a good family spirit produces healthy communities, which is what should produce a strong Black nation. MY HOUSE is built upon seemingly insignificant things which actually go deep inside the heart –kisses, hugging, pork chops, sweet potatoes, quilts – and she calls it revolution “cause what’s real/is really real.”(My House 1972:68)
In her poems her glorious past and her personal experiences are unfurled before us in their manifold layers reminding us again and again of the wealth of Black love:
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.
(Nikki-Rosa, 1968; 10)
She snubs anybody who says that the Black family in America has been declining—“We are not deteriorating: our structure has always been the extended family – many generations living under one roof.”(1971:124)
Giovanni’s poems reveal the central themes of our times in which “thirty million Blacks search for self-definition and self-love.”(Ida Lewis, 1971: Introduction HER WORLD IS A WORLD OF BLACKNESS)
i wish i were
oh wow! when they put
the light on
me i’d grow
longer and taller and
(Poems For My Nephew 1970:43)
The most conspicuous features of this Black world are the beauty of Blackness, the treasure of Black love, and the ugliness of virtually everything White. In GEMINI she draws a long comparison expressing contempt for White literature, White women, White environment, White mentality, White reticence and even the White god:
The Black man sings for enjoyment; the white man creates record
companies for profit. (pp 92 -93)
Blacks as a people haven’t jumped into long books because they usually
have proven to be false. White people write long everything…because they
are trying to create a reality. They are generally trying to prove that
something exists which doesn’t exist. (p95)
We sang our songs and they copied what they could use and mass-
produced it and banned what they didn’t understand. (p97)
A Black person will have one big meal and thoroughly enjoy it even if he knows there will be nothing tomorrow. He will be full for one day. The white man will measure out and starve himself or never be full forever.
We had many gods, one for damned near everything we could lay our hands on,
while they had one (how many gods could one castle hold?)….They were waiting on a messiah to solve their problems; we had no problems to be solved. We are the poems and the lovers of poetry. (P.95)
The list is long. In conclusion she spells out the essence of Blackness:
Black is a sacrament, It’s an outward and visible sign of an inward
and spiritual grace. (p.98)
Let us say amen to her firm belief that beauty and love can transform the entire world and our own little world: “I think we are all capable of tremendous beauty once we decide we are beautiful or of giving a lot of love once we understand love is possible, and of making the world over in that image should we choose to. I really like to think a Black, beautiful, loving world is possible. I really do, I think.”(1971:149)
*See Deborah E. McDowell, New Directions for Black Criticism
Appeared in Feminist Criticism. Feminist Criticism ed. Elaine Showalter,1985.New York: Pantheon Books .
- Beauvoir, Simone de. 1988. The Second Sex Translated. London: Pan Book Ltd.
- Giovanni, Nikki. 1968. Black Judgment. Michigan: Broadside Press.
- 1970. Re: Creation. Michigan Broadside Press.
- 1971. Gemini: an extended autobiographical statement on my twenty five years of being a black poet New York: The Bobbs- Merrill Company, Inc
- 1972. My House. New York: William Marrow and Company.
- Juhasz, Suzanne. 1978. Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women. New York: Octagon Press.
- Spacks, Patricia Meyer. 1975 The Female Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Walker, Margaret in Darwin T. Turner. Editor1970. Black American literature. USA: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company