Nikki Giovanni: 2015 Writer-in-Residence
Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in the all-black neighborhood of Lincoln Heights in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her summers were spent at her grandparents’ home in Knoxville, where she eventually moved to attend high school. Encouraged to become part of an early matriculation program at seventeen, Giovanni attended Fisk University, her grandfather’s alma mater, from which she graduated in 1967. Giovanni came from a family of teachers who valued education and expected their children to follow in grandparents’ (John Brown and Emma Lou Watson) and parents’ (Gus and Yolanda Giovanni) footsteps and get university degrees.
As a child, Giovanni was a risk taker, highly intelligent, immensely creative, charismatic, and a lover of language. Influenced by her fiery, outspoken and free-thinking grandmother Emma Lou, Giovanni became a singular, individualistic child—her mentor and middle school teacher Sister Althea Augustine writing of her: “. . . she was a brilliant, precocious child, an avid reader and independent thinker and doer. She would come to school at her convenience and leave the same regardless of school regulations” (qdt. in Virginia Fowler’s Nikki Giovanni, A Literary Biography). Early on Giovanni became fascinated by the grace, intrepidity, and shear stamina of her people in the face of social injustice, and it was clear that no common path would be hers.
After graduating from Fisk, Giovanni published her first book, Black Feeling Black Talk (1967), and after a short stint in the Social Work program at the University of Pennsylvania and another at the School of Fine Arts at Columbia University in an MFA program where she was told she couldn’t write, she moved to New York where she settled into what she knew very well she could do better than anyone else--writing well--and soon made a name for herself as part of the Black Arts Movement.
Over the years since, Giovanni has been incredibly prolific, publishing more than thirty volumes of nonfiction, poetry, books for children, and essays. Her autobiography, Gemini, was a finalist for the National Book Award; Love Poems, Blues: For All the Changes, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, and Bicycles were significant in garnering for her three of seven NAACP Image Awards. Giovanni was the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award and the Langston Hughes Medal for Outstanding Poetry. In 2004, she was nominated for a Grammy for her poetry collection on CD, Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. Today, Giovanni holds the Distinguished Professor in English position at Virginia Tech.