Poet Nikki Giovanni shares her wisdom about Biden, cowardly racism, and why love is a pineapple

The acclaimed activist and educator returned to "Salon Talks" to discuss the presidency & the writing process

By D. Watkins
November 19, 2020 10:29PM (UTC)
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Poet Nikki Giovanni speaks during the 12th Annual Afropunk Brooklyn Festival at Commodore Barry Park on August 27, 2016 in Brooklyn, New York. (Mireya Acierto/WireImage/Getty Images)

How many people held up half-empty champagne glasses before midnight on December 31, 2019 to declare, "2020 is going to be my year!" – only to be hit with a financial crisis caused by an incompetent president who proudly ignored a virus that has turned into a pandemic causing over 250,000 American deaths and counting? Oh, and as always, there was some racism sprinkled on top that brought global protests after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Like many, I spent a lot of this time in quarantine confused, looking for answers, wondering what is the next step, not just for me, but for our country. And then I realized that all of the answers I needed were with the elders, as they have survived the struggles we are currently facing and more. Living icon and award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni explained overcoming struggle to me recently on "Salon Talks," while introducing her 21st poetry collection, "Make Me Rain."

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"Make Me Rain," Giovanni tells me, was inspired by Marvin Gaye and his1971 album "What's Going On," which was about the Vietnam War. "'I'm just getting back because you knew I would,'" Giovanni said. "War is hell. He was taking it up. He dealt with the drugs. He dealt with the religion and how we have to find it. It's a brilliant album." The book is full of gems about Giovanni's Black heritage, powerful stories, and most importantly the lessons we need in these dark times. 

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Giovanni here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about her legendary sit-down with James Baldwin and why it continues to resurface online, how she is handling the COVID-19 lockdown as an Appalachian, and why she knows we will be alright after the Trump administration leaves. And check out the end, where she reads a poem from the collection.

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The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The amazing Nikki Giovanni, you are one of my biggest inspirations. 2020 has been a pretty wild year. How have you been surviving COVID?

Well, I've been writing and I'm lucky to be a writer. My good friend Ashley Bryan, who's 95, who is a painter as you know, he's an illustrator, fell out of bed a couple of weeks ago and broke his wrist. I've been talking to him because . . . he says, "Darling, I can't paint," and I said, "But you can think about painting." So, I'm doing fine, just keeping up with friends right now because I'm an old lady and they're an old lady and they're old men. You want to just keep track of everybody to see if they're as okay as they can be. I think the difference, to be honest, is that I've always lived in the mountains. I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and I'm here now in Blacksburg.

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Appalachians are used to being alone. I think it's these city people that are having a really, really crazy time because they're used to being close to each other, they're used to walking down the street and seeing people.

In my garden, my okra did not do well, I have to admit that. But my tomatoes came up. They were green and the groundhogs and I fought about the tomatoes. They mostly won. I would run out and I finally realized, when I make fried green tomatoes, so I just started running out and getting them a little bit ahead of the groundhog. That's the kind of thing that country people do, if I can put it that way. I've been comfortable with doing that. I've got a couple of neighbors. One is 9, and one is 6. I have a fish pond, and they come over and watch me. Or sometimes, the 9-year-old is big enough now to feed the fish. So, she will feed the fish. Things work out, I think, pretty well. There's no point in fighting the COVID because it will win.

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Absolutely.

What you have to do is embrace it and find a way to get along, essentially to get along with it. I was very disappointed when Donald Trump caught the COVID, that he didn't die, but you can't have everything. You can't have everything. A lot of people did die and I just was disappointed that he wasn't one of them.

Let's talk about that. We have a racist president, who has been very evil to this country and has put a whole lot of creative people in a bad place because of poor policy and the way he handled COVID. We're having this conversation before the election. What do you think is going to happen?

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Oh, it's Biden. [Singing] I'm bidin' my time because that's the kind of gal I'm. When Southerners are fishing and Northerners are wishing, I'm bidin' my time.

And Harris, too. Vote! I've been running around singing, if you call that singing.

The last time we spoke, you told me about your love for cooking and how for artists, cooking plays a role when it comes to ideas and creation. Has COVID forced you into creating brand-new recipes or coming up with anything special?

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I really have been doing what a lot of my friends have been doing, which is cooking our grandmother's recipes. I'm still working on it. I'm sure I said that to you last time. I'm still working on how to fix biscuits. My grandmother made the best biscuits in the world and she could roll them out, and then she would take a can. She drank beer, but not a lot, but she had cans, and she would take a can and cut them out. That's how she made her biscuits. I can't roll mine out. Mine get stuck. I don't know what I do, but I can't. I just can't make biscuits. I miss grandmother. When I talk to my friends about this, they say, "Oh yeah, my grandmother could make . . . " So, we're all getting together. I guess one day, we'll have to have a grandmother meal and everybody brings what their grandmother cooked best.

My grandma made the best fried crabs. And I don't even think, if she came down from heaven and then talked me through the process, I couldn't get them as good as she used to make them.

Oh yeah, no, you miss that, being with them and doing what they did. You do, you miss it. And so in talking to friends my age, we're always talking about what we remembered and what makes us happy. I think that's important.

Tell us about your new book "Make Me Rain."

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"Make Me Rain" is a shout-out to Marvin Gaye and a shout-out to "What's Going On." I think that's a brilliant album. This is the best book I can do, but "What's Going On" is a brilliant album. But if you recall, it's dark because Marvin was upset about a lot of things. And ultimately he was murdered, as you know, by his father.

A friend of mine says to me, "You're never unhappy." And I said, "Well, yeah. I'm unhappy sometimes, but it is rare." For the cover we ended up with a light blue, because that's more me, and I'm looking up, whereas Marvin is kind of looking down and unhappy. I am looking up because I think that there's always tomorrow.

When you listen to that album now, does it feel different than when you listened to that album when it first came out?

It's still war, as I say. I thought it was incredibly brilliant then. And also because this "What's Going On" was about the Vietnam War—"I'm just getting back because you knew I would." War is hell. He was taking it up. He dealt with the drugs. He dealt with the religion and how we have to find it. It's a brilliant album. Stevie Wonder has an incredible song, too. He did it with the Jackson Five because it's the only thing the Jackson Five did together.

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When and if we open up Broadway again, I would love to see "Ain't Too Proud To Beg." I have tickets to that. When you think about the music that came out of Detroit, it's incredible. It was just incredible, what they had to say. Stevie has a new album out and I haven't heard that, but listening to his older albums, listening to what he had to say about war and what he had to say about how we got along. And of course he had one of the nicest people on earth, Dizzy Gillespie, and Diz was a part of that album.

Stevie had something to say about war and how it was wrong, and it was really interesting. I'm sorry that the Jackson Five didn't stay the Jackson Five and continued to make statements. The Jackson Five had something to say, and we lost something because Michael ended up dead, of course, trying to be something he could not possibly be. That's too bad because he was really good. He has sold more, if that matters, records than anybody. But there's more to life than selling records. It's too bad that he couldn't find happiness because he didn't. I think it's fair, and I didn't know him, I just think it's fair to say he was not happy. He was always looking for something else, for the next step. I don't think he was satisfied.

Isn't it amazing that 10, 20, 30, 40 years can go by and we're still fighting war? We're still talking about war and we still have to figure out ways to survive and create through war. What is the answer?

I wish I knew. Right now, we know that the answer is getting rid of Trump and his Nazis and his racists. That'll be the beginning. And even though you could say, well, Biden is just another white guy and he might be, but at least he can put a sentence together. At least he has some kind of idea that we're all Americans, and that's one thing that has to be learned: We in this country are all Americans.

I'm always laughing, but if I were president, okay, the one thing that I would do is I would go to the United Nations and I'd have a big, long talk with them. I'd say that what we have to do now is start to refer to ourselves as earthlings because we live on this planet. As we are growing in this planet, as we are learning each other and as we are spending time in space and we are, we have to be prepared to explain who we are.

If you or I ran into a Martian – I don't know what a Martian would look like – and the Martian said to either one of us, "Well, who are you?" I couldn't say I'm a Tennessean, because they wouldn't know what I'm talking about. I couldn't even say I'm an American because they were like, "What's that?" What I have to say is, "I'm an earthling. I'm from the third planet from yellow sun." I think it's time that we all got used to the idea that we share this earth and we are a part of this earth. I'm not being softhearted or I'm not trying to be anything. I'm just saying, it's time that we got over this land and this religion and "This is the way I want you to act. If you don't act that way, I'm going to kill you. I'm going to fight you. I want your oil or I want your whatever it is you have." It's time that we stop that.

A Martian would probably have a different name for earth. So if we're identifying as an earthling, they might call it something else. They might not even call it the third planet from the sun because it's based on their perspective and how they look at it. That would be a fun conversation. So, is this your 21st book of poetry?

I think so.

How has your creative process evolved over the years?

Well, I'm interested in a lot of things. My generation, of course, and I'm very fortunate, I think that I am a part of a great generation. I don't think that I'm any different. I just think I'm a part of that generation. And our generation, my generation had the responsibility to get rid of segregation because that was just easy. You get rid of that, we know. I have a sign from the old L&N Railroad station, which you probably don't know, but they used to be an L&N, Louisville and Nashville Railroad. And it said, "Restaurant, restroom, colored, white." I was able to pick it up. I bought it because I do a lot of antiquing and I was able purchase that. See, that's gone. That's gone and I think we did a good job. Your generation, of course, has come up and is continuing to come up with no segregation.

You live in a non-segregated world. My generation should take responsibility, I suppose. We didn't know how to teach you that because there is no segregation, that doesn't mean that there's no racism. We got rid of the segregation, but we can't get rid of the racism. I'm doing music today and I don't know why, but let's call this song exactly what it is and what it is, is racism, is cowardly. And it's time that we dealt with that. They want to say, "We're superior. White people are superior." Well, if you're superior, then why do you have to run around in the middle of the night with your hood over your head to kill somebody? Why do you have death? That's cowardly. And so we finally got it into their heads that we're not, the Black Panthers did a lot, that we're not afraid.

Now, all of a sudden, they're running around still in groups. They do it in gangs and they're still running around with their automobile in Charlottesville, running people down, or they're going to churches where people welcome them and they pull out a gun and shoot seven of them. They put a bomb in a 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. They beat together. I mean, look at George Floyd. They stand there and murder him in broad daylight. That still is cowardly. We can't get over it, most of the people. Not most. The people who have been murdered by those gangs, the white gangs, they are shot in the back. They are shot in the middle of the night. They're shot in their bed and that's cowardly.

I do feel like your generation gave us the tools to fight this battle, and that's why I feel like we're going to come out on the right side. At times, it's really ugly, like when we see what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and the long list of people that have been on the wrong side of brutality, evil, hate and racism. But I do think as an artist, your generation laid the foundation to give us the tools to think and fight and read and write our way through these things.

You know what has been resurfacing on the internet a lot?

What?

Your 1971 conversation with James Baldwin. You talk to him about the expectations on Black men and women and the idea of a man bringing the best of himself home. "If you can lie to white people all day at work and give them your best, why can't you lie to me? I want the best of you too," you say. Do people often ask you about that conversation?

A lot. I get a lot. I don't know why. I'm sorry Jimmy's gone. I was surprised when people started asking me about it because I haven't seen it in forever. It turned into a book and stuff but I haven't read it. I thought that was a good point and what I liked most, as I remember it, was Jimmy's face.

He'd never thought about it that way. He had never thought, "Oh, maybe she's got a point. Maybe I shouldn't go out in the day and smile at people who hate me and come back home because I'm so upset. And hit my child or hit my wife or not tell my mother, who was living with me also, that this was a good meal, that I really liked this pot roast," whatever it is. Why are you lying to people who paid you and not giving the best, the love that we're trying to give to you? So then women, because we are in a different spot and we can go back – sincerely, we can go back to slavery and you don't have men hitting women in slavery. We're not going to get that until we come into what is called freedom. So, you know something's wrong with that. Something's wrong with that.

I think it's so powerful. I saw the interview many years ago when I was young, so I got a chance to learn from it early. Even now, I let people know my love and my energy and what I care about. I save that for my wife and my daughter. I'm not going out into the world and exhausting myself so I can just come home and be a bump on the log. I'm going to come home and I want to give them all of the experiences that I've had. I want to hear what they've been doing all day or what they have created or talked about or read about or learned about. I think we got to put more love home instead of just going out and just feeding the world that's never going to feed us back, other than monetary gains. So definitely, thank you for that.

Thank you. I just think people hadn't thought about it that way, that my responsibility here is to love the people who love me, not to waste my love on people who will always hate me. Or as I say to my writing classes, you always have to think of your audience. And your first audience is you because you're the first person who reads your poem. You're the first person who sees the painting that you're doing. If you wanted to be an actor, you're the first person who's trying out for that role, you're looking in a mirror and seeing how to work. Remember, you are your first audience, so the first person you have to please is you. It's got to make you happy, and then you don't mind sharing it with somebody else that you love. You're not afraid to say, "Well, can you listen to this, honey?"

Because what she's going to say is she thinks it's wonderful, whether she doesn't or not, because that's her job. You know what's good, so it's no point in fooling around with any of that. And any, speaking out only as a woman, any woman is going to always say that if you love the man, you've got to tell him, "Oh, that's great," because he knows what he's done that's good. And he knows what he's done that isn't. So he's not really asking you for that. He just wants you to listen. But we feel the same way. If I go and put makeup on my face and I say, "Well, how do you look?" "Oh, I really like that blue in your eyes or what you put on your eyebrows," because I've looked at myself before you did. I know how it looks.

And so you're here to say, "It's going to be all right." I was talking recently, one of the things that I really like about the '20s and there's a lot going on with the '20s, you could study it forever. I like the fact that Edward VIII resigned his kingdom to come and be a part of the '20s. We keep saying, "Oh, he just wanted to marry Wallis Simpson." But she could have been his mistress. It didn't matter. He wanted to be, which is why he came to America, he came to New York, he wanted to be a part of the Black Renaissance. That's a part that the historians are now having, they're having to deal with it. What I like about it, not Edward, but I'm saying this for Black men, because there was something called house parties. But you don't remember because it was segregation.

After working in the fields all day and she was working also, he could come in, and it's just one of my favorite songs, he could come in and he could say to her, "Put on your red dress, honey, because we're going out tonight." And it would make both of them. It would give something back to both of them. The whites have never understood why we're still saying and why we still care about each other and what it is that we have given to each other, so that there are songs because the blues are not sad. You get sick of people saying, "Oh, the blues." No. You don't know anything about the blues because the blues are telling our story and telling each other. Fats Domino, "I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill." It's there. We've been talking to each other. We are fabulous people, and I think that it's time that we started to talk to our audience, which is us.

You are so respected and celebrated from many different spaces. Knowing that you have so many Nikki Giovanni fans who just subscribe to everything you do, does thinking about that audience ever affect the way you create?

I don't think so. I just think I try to do my best. I lived with my grandmother. My parents had a troubled marriage and I had to finally leave. I went to live with my grandmother. It's so wonderful to watch my grandmother, and when I say my grandmother, but she was married to my grandfather. It was so wonderful to watch that love affair after all of those years, because I was 14. So my mother is in her 50s, whatever, 40, she was grown. They had three daughters.

I would wash the dishes in the old days. But after all of the girls, the three girls left home, they went to college and left home. Then grandmother would cook, but she said to grandpa, and his name was John Brown. She said, "I told John Brown, I don't mind cooking, but I'm not going to wash the dishes." So, that was that. John Brown knew he had to wash dishes. But when I came to live with them, now that's going to be my job.

But he sat with me. And so the kitchen is one place, and he's sitting there. I couldn't see him, but I could wash the dishes. He would, every now and then he'd say, "You know, Nikki? I only wanted to kiss your grandmother." And I don't care where she was in the house, she could hear him say that. She'd say, "John Brown, if I had let you kiss me, you would have never married me." I couldn't understand it. I didn't know that was a metaphor. What I learned about love is watching those two people.

And now they're old people, still playing with each other, still saying, I care, still. I don't know, we had separate bedrooms, probably hugging or snuggling, still wanting to make each other happy. Grandmother loved pineapple, which I, to this day, I just like pineapple. And grandpapa would go up to the market when pineapple came into season, he would come home and he couldn't wait to get the house. We lived up, the way it is. And so by the time he got to the steps, he would, her name was Louvenia, he'd say, "Louvenia, they had pineapple." You could hear in his voice, the love he had that, "I bought you pineapple." It was just something. I said, "Well, that, that's what love is." That's what love is.

Love is not a paycheck coming in. Love is "I got you pineapple." And she would just be, "Oh, thank you." It just made her so happy. They were in love after all of these years. I thought, that's what love is about.

On the topic of love, could you read a poem for us? Please.

I can. I wanted to read this particular poem because we forget that some of the people who were enslaved ran away. I'm living in Appalachia, the Appalachian Trail. You could see where the enslaved came up. But some of us stayed, and that's why I wanted to share this poem with you. People acted like, well, maybe they were scared to leave. I don't know what people think, but I know that they were not cowards. I know that they were not afraid. They stayed and they built the communities. They built the churches. They built the homes that we now live in. I thought somebody needs to say that these are great people.

We forget the strength of those who stayed behind. We sometimes don't recognize what it took to build a church, a school, a store to sell the yams we picked from the ground. The tomatoes we carefully watched turn red on the vines, to seek the okra pods, as well as to pick our own cotton. We took pride in our work and lovingly encouraged our daughters to dream. We sent them, our daughters, to school, then to college, and they stayed to help others. 100 years is not so long, when we plant love with patience, when we find that song that gives us the strength to go on.

And I just like that because people forget, it took a lot to stay, not just Mississippi, but North Carolina. It took a lot to stay and say, "No, I'm going to build something. This is mine, and I'm going to build something and something's going to come out of it."

That's so beautiful. The book is called "Make Me Rain," out now and available wherever books are sold and also as an audio book.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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