Acclaimed author gives 101 on hard truth

By Matt Coughlin
March 1, 2001

by Matt Coughlin

The air in the Grace Hall Atrium vibrated softly with the buzz of chatty visitors. From the back came the sounds of folding chairs being opened to accommodate the larger than-expected crowd. The visitors leaned in toward one another, elbows touching. It was after 8 p.m. when the nervous verbal quiver of the audience dwindled and Dr. Antoinette Iadarola , president,took the podium to introduce Nikki Giovanni, Cultural Kaleidoscope Week’s keynote speaker.

Giovanni is an award-winning poet and novelist and is currently a professor of English at Virginia Tech University. She has published over 27 books and has received 16 honorary degrees including a doctorate of letters from Cabrini in 1995. That year she gave the commencement address as well.

Giovanni’s message was one of understanding. Slavery is in the past as are many other wrongs, and we must move forward, think about where we are and where we are going Giovanni pointed out.

For the next hour and a half, Giovanni captivated the audience, at times inspiring them to call out in agreement. The atmosphere was more Baptist revival than Cabrini lecture, and it was a welcome change to those who came.

“You are always hearing about the first Negro to do something, but now it’s 2001. I don’t want to be the first to do something and I’m tired of hearing about the first to do something, after 2000 years there should be anymore `the first to do somethings.'” The crowd erupted with laughter.

“She was blunt, honest – she had her own opinion, and did not care, she said what she wanted,” first-year student Toya Bradley said.

Giovanni bounced seemingly randomly from topic to topic, speaking about her classes at Virginia Tech, then about her son and then onto issues of Medicare and Social Security.

“Medicine is not a commodity, medicine is not a hula hoop, it is not a movie, it is not a new CD, it is a necessity,” Giovanni said.

Giovanni spoke about racism. “I don’t understand how white Americans can hate black Americans,” Giovanni said. “How could you hate the people that cleared the forests, picked the cotton for you and cooked the rice and showed you what to do with a chicken.I still don’t like that [Kentucky] Colonel.

“I don’t understand how anyone can hate black Americans, we’re so lovely,” Giovanni said with a smile. She then referred to her class, the Negro Spiritual as the American Metaphor “We found a way to sing a song, and with that song we got through,” she said.

During the speech, Giovanni read from two of her poems. The first was entitled, “What we miss: a tribute,” though Giovanni recalls it as more of a eulogy. She had been asked to write it for the 30th anniversary of “Essence” magazine about women who had died in the year 2000.

The second was “Ego Trip,” perhaps Giovanni’s most acclaimed poem as well as a crowd favorite. It draws a parallel between black women and nature and earth.

“That poem was so inspiring I went to school the next day a whole new person,” Umi Woolfolk told Giovanni of his first reading as a child. Woolfolk, a student at Drexel, traveled from Philadelphia to hear Giovanni speak.

“We usually try to hear her whenever she is in the area,” Cheri Carter said. Carter, a graduate student at the University of Delaware, made the trip up to see Giovanni with her father, John Carter, of Philadelphia.

“She tells it like it is and she doesn’t care,” Carter added. “The things she says I don’t think are offensive because she is in your face and it makes you think about things.”

Anton Witherspoon had organized a trip up for students from St. Joseph’s University to come to the readings. Witherspoon is the assistant director of diversity at St. Joseph’s. When their reservations for a school bus fell through, Witherspoon drove the students in his own car. He felt it was important for students to hear the woman who inspired him back when he was an undergraduate in the 1970s. The lecture brought back memories for him.

“Nikki Giovanni represented a woman to me that I never imagined, she said things I never imagined; I never imagined the image of the black woman she mentioned, and her imagery was so powerful to me that it gave me a new respect for who my grandmother and mother were,” Witherspoon said.

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Matt Coughlin

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