19 July 2019

The Living Truth: The Life and Work of Nikki Giovanni

"The Living Truth"
One Week with Legendary Poet, Author, Educator & Activist
N   I   K   K   I      G   I   O   V  A   N   N    I 
by Latorial D. Faison

w/Poet Nikki Giovanni
I believe that if you keep on living, some amazing things can happen. In June, I had the opportunity to spend seven amazing days with over fifty poetry-loving human beings in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.  We had no idea what was ahead. All we knew is that we were there to bask in the glow of a literary icon and poet extraordinaire. As fellows, we spent an entire week at the Furious Flower Poetry Center's 2019 Living Legacy Seminars celebrating the life and work of poet, author, activist, and educator, Nikki Giovanni. We are now officially known as "The Giovanni Class."


w/Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, Founding Director
of the JMU Furious Flower Poetry Center
Furious Flower Poetry Center, the nation's first academic center devoted to African American poetry, was founded in 1994 on the campus of James Madison University by Dr. Joanne Gabbin, English professor, poet, and author. On June 16th, a weeklong schedule of events unfolded complete with poetry seminars and professional development opportunities around Nikki Giovanni. The 2019 Living Legacy theme was “The Living Truth: The Life and Work of Nikki Giovanni.” Graduate students, poets, writers, educators, and visiting scholars from all over the U. S. pilgrimaged to the Shenandoah Valley for this once in a lifetime chance to study an icon.


Dr. Daryl Cumber Dance, 
Dr. Maryemma Graham & Dr. Trudier Harris 
of The Wintergreen Writers Collective
Scholars at this year's seminars included Dr. Howard Rambsy, II of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Dr. Margo Crawford of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Emily Lordi of University of Massachusetts and Vanderbilt University, Dr. Tyechia Thompson and Dr. Virginia Fowler, both of VA TECH, Dr. Joanne Gabbin and Prof. Lauren Alleyne, both of James Madison University, and several women from the Wintergreen Writers Collective who are top scholars on African American literature and poetry.

"Truth is on its way..." 
2019 Furious Flower Fellows Late Night Discussion

We had the extraordinary opportunity to work together daily learning more about each other, the passionate work we do, and Giovanni’s contributions to American literature, the African American literary canon, the Black Arts Movement, the Civil Rights Era, social justice and contemporary studies.
A 2019 Fellow & Dr. Howard Rambsy



Daily the fellows analyzed, synthesized, and contextualized Nikki Giovanni's poetry and discussed their generational, contemporary relevance and historical framework. Groups presented lesson plans on incorporating Giovanni’s life and work in the classroom. Everyday was a moment of truth where we considered the underlying themes throughout Giovanni's work based on both life experiences and movements. 


                    "Be quiet in this medium 
                          to both receive it and give it." 
                                                                 -Dr. Joanne Gabbin 

 JMU Professor & Poet Lauren Alleyne 
Interviews Nikki Giovanni
We knew that to have occupied the same space as Giovanni for a week and to have heard her speak and read her poetry, to be blessed with the sobering honesty of her prolific voice, that was the single most rewarding experience we could bring from this mountaintop to students, poetry lovers, literary enthusiasts, to family and friends everywhere, and to our own selves. It was our moment of truth, and we knew exactly where we were, what to do with it, and how very canonizing and transformative it would be; we would never be the same.


"I turned myself into myself." 
-Nikki Giovanni
2019 Furious Flower Fellows Meet, Greet & Get Acquainted
-Nikki Giovanni
Giovanni shares with 2019 Fellows
It was a pleasure to watch  someone I grew into adulthood reading and admiring, one of my favorite poets of all time, the Nikki Giovanni, enter the room early in the week to standing ovation, to see her smile light up a room in which I sat, to hear her brilliant insight, to experience her genius on writing and life. Her trajectory from Knoxville to Cleveland, through the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Arts Movement, and beyond, has been an experience that she has captured in a treasury of poems, books, essays, interviews, recordings, and letters. Giovanni, who is thirty years my senior, turned seventy-six this year. She has lived and worked alongside some of the greatest African American women writers and artists of all time including Mari Evans, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Lucille Clifton, and others. 
                                      "The imperial we" 
w/Nikki Giovanni, Dr. Ginny Fowler
& Dr. Joanne Gabbin
      
When Giovanni spoke her truth, many of us were delivered into another place, into another time, one of utter revelation. We were born, in so many ways, over and over again. If ever an artist transcended race, gender, and generational divides, it was Nikki Giovanni. While many sat in awe of her words and presence, almost every one of us, in response to her uninhibited verbalizations somehow expressed amenFor over 50 years, Giovanni has given us words that educate, sustain, encourage, and uplift. Her work is inspiring to all of those in search of truth fighting the good fight and holding on to hope for the future.


"Love requires balance and trust."
-Nikki Giovanni
Author of Bicycles: Love Poems

Reading at Furious Flower 2019
From across the nation, fellows of the Giovanni Class ranged in age, ethnicity, race, and religion yet found common ground in Giovanni, her life's work, and her truth. We gathered for an open mic poetry reading Thursday evening and signed up to read our own poetry or poems by someone else. Professor and author, Damaris Hill, read from her latest book, A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing. I read my poem "Mama was a Negro Spiritual," a finalist for Furious Flower's 1st annual Poetry Prize and winner of the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Prize for 2018.



The Wintergreen Writers Collective, a group of women writers and artists organized by Dr. Joanne Gabbin when Giovanni came to teach at Virginia Tech, also graced us with their presence at the 2019 Seminars. Gabbin, who has become close friends with Nikki Giovanni over the years, realized that Giovanni could benefit from a community of sisters who were artists and writers; this sisterhood has helped to give Giovanni staying power. She came to VA Tech in 1985 and never left.

Giovanni & Some of the Wintergreen Women
Many of the Wintergreen Women have produced amazing work in academia and the arts; a few of them are responsible for a major portion of research and scholarship that exists today on the literary work of African American women. A group of ladies from the Wintergreen Writers Collective joined us to pay tribute to their friend and sister, Nikki Giovanni.


Giovanni at Friday Night's JMU Reading
Giovanni was as candid yet down-to-earth as she has ever been and filled with hope in what seems to be difficult days for the nation. She encouraged writers to "write what you know" and young writers to "read more," to remember the history that got us here. Poems read throughout the week included "Nikki Rosa," "Ego Tripping," "Rosa Parks, " "Cal Johnson Park," "We are VA TECH," "Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day," and others. The Giovanni Class enthusiastically relived the legend's poetics and could be overheard saying throughout the week, "I was born in the Congo," "I turned myself into myself" or some other Giovanni line that had come to mean absolutely everything. Giovanni spoke of family and the influence family had on her life. She also shared how other writers had poured into her and inspired her along the way with their work and words of wisdom. When asked how she feels about the legacy she has built and will leave behind, Giovanni reflects on her late grandparents and her Knoxville upbringing. According to Nikki Giovanni, If she has lived her life in a way that makes her grandmother and her ancestors proud, she says, "I did my job." 


"Once you get the white man out of your book,
                                   the whole world opens up." 
                                                          -Toni Morrison

Val Gray-Ward
Midweek, The Giovanni Class was given a special treat; we attended a presentation featuring the famed actress, producer, cultural activist, artist, internationally known theater personality, Wintergreen Woman, and very good friend of Giovanni's, Mrs. Val Gray-Ward. The legendary Gray-Ward, who is now in her 80's, is creating a historic quilt made of pieces from people and places she has known to include Gwendolyn Brooks and many other well known icons and legends in African American history. Upon completion, her famous quilt will be placed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D. C. We had an awesome time meeting Gray-Ward and learning of her life's work. Fellows talked to Gray-Ward about everything under the sun, and she shared so many memories of the people represented in her famous quilt, including Nikki Giovanni. Gray-Ward mesmerized us all with her amazing recitation of "The Creation" by another literary giant, the great James Weldon Johnson who gave us "Lift Every Voice and Sing."


"You are the author of it, but
                                  it no longer belongs to you."
-Toni Morrison

2019 Fellows Toast to Nikki Giovanni at the 150 Franklin Street Art Gallery
After Val Gray-Ward's presentation of her beautiful and historic quilt, the 2019 fellows along with Giovanni and Gray-Ward visited and toured the 150 Franklin Street Art Gallery in Harrisonburg to see the eccentric Collection of Alexander and Joanne Gabbin.
2019 Fellows in Discussion
Throughout the week, fellows worked on ideas for teaching Giovanni and Black poetry in the classroom. The week culminated in group presentations, a sharing of those lesson plans that we intended to carry back home to share with the masses, to honor Giovanni, to continue to teach the value and importance of Black poetry, Black literature, Giovanni's living truth. She is a legend, and her poetry helped catapult us into today, as she was one of the most prolific writers of her time during such an important time in our history. It was a surreal experience. We laughed, many of us cried, felt at home, or as though we were in the presence of the elders (because we were), and we straight had . . . church. Talk about a monumentally moving experience and coming together in the name of womanhood and writing, Black poetry, Black thought, and hundreds of years of American struggle to exist, to find ourselves, to define ourselves through so much history, tragedy, movement, and revolution. This week was a song we had to sing together.

"Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me, and before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free."

I grew up singing in a small Baptist church known as Bryant Baptist Church in Southampton County, Virginia, and I credit my late grandmother, Shirley Lee Turner Williams (1932-2008) for that experience, for the spiritual beauty, richness, education, and necessity of the "Black Church" experience. It is a part of who I am and ever will be. Giovanni's work is anointed with themes from the traditional Black Church experience, namely spirituals. Drs. Gabbin, Crawford, Rambsy, Lordi, Fowler, and even Giovanni, herself, made mention of how the poetry exists musically, how it was built with the bricks of the Southern Black church as well as any Harlem Renaissance jazz spot.  Negro spirituals never leave you, and because they never left me, I helped usher The Giovanni Class, in . . . 

"After singing Amazing Grace"
At the request of Dr. Joanne Gabbin and her roll call for "choir members," we sang and spiritually connected in ways that, I am sure, none of us had imagined. We went to the place where our ancestors stood while singing Negro spirituals like "Walk with Me Lord," "This Little Light of Mine," and "Oh Freedom." I had not imagined having church at Furious Flower, but I am so glad we did. This week was more than academic training and professional development; it was a spiritual encounter. We even sang Nikki's favorite hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," and after Dr. Emily Lordi's presentation on Giovanni's poetry and the connection to Aretha Franklin's music, I lead our cohort choir into Dr. King's favorite hymn, the one he'd call Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear, "Amazing Grace." I said to Nikki, "I can't sing it like Aretha, but I will do my best."

"Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."

w/Jessea Gabbin daughter
One evening just before our open poetry reading, The Giovanni Class surprised Dr. Gabbin and honored her with flowers and gifts for her hard work, inspiration, and dedication to Furious Flower at JMU. My role in the surprise tribute was singing one of Dr. Gabbin's favorite gospel songs, "I Won't Complain." There's something about the Black experience that is highly spiritual and transcendent. It will unify if you let it. African Americans are rich in history (oral and written), creativity, innovation, brilliance, and culture; we have created an aesthetic that lives on in contemporary art forms for centuries. One week at JMU, meeting new friends in the name of poetry, and hanging out with the living legend herself was the highlight of our summer. 


from Giovanni's "Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)"
I was born in the Congo
I was born in the Congo
I walked to the fertile crescent
     and built the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough 
     that a star that only glows 
     every one hundred years falls  
     into the center giving divine 
     perfect light
I am bad



"A poem is a prayer." 
Throughout the week, The Giovanni Class had space, time, and opportunity to devote to reading, analyzing, and discussing poems like "Ego Tripping" and many other iconic poems by Giovanni. We were eager to share how her poems made us feel, where they led us, how they changed us, and how they propelled us out of and into various places in our positionality and minds. Some testified of the profound effects a Giovanni poem had on them when they first read it.

Since its inception, the Furious Flower Poetry Center has been committed to "ensuring the visibility, inclusion, and critical consideration of Black poets in American letters, as well as in the whole range of educational curricula." Furious Flower, given its name from lines in a poem by Pulitzer Prize winner and former US Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, "The Second Sermon on the Warpland" (1968), aims "to cultivate an appreciation for poetry among students of all levels . . . to support and promote Black poets at all stages of their careers and to preserve the history of Black poets for future generations."


w/Dr. Emily Lordy
Poetry is an experience, a truth telling that transcends time, galvanizes people, and solidifies how we view and define ourselves. It continues to heal, teach, and reach mankind in ways unimagined. The 2019 seminar was to be a tribute and honor to Giovanni, but she honored us every time she showed up, stood up, spoke up, and poured into our spirits.




Furious Flower 2019 - The Giovanni Class
One thing is for sure. Furious Flower 2019 fellows, The Giovanni Class, left this year's Living Legacy seminars empowered, inspired, and energized to continue the great work and legacy of "The Living Truth" known as Black Poet, Nikki Giovanni. I certainly did. We read poems together. We wrote centos for Nikki together. We created memories and bonds that will last a lifetime. We connected with a kindred spirit, a living legend, that we will never forget. May we all strive to continue the literary and cultural legacy of Black poetry and Black thought. That's my intent. After all, I'm a "G."


"My favorite spot is no longer there,
just the memory."
-from Nikki Giovanni's "Cal Johnson Park"



#FuriousFlower #JMU #LivingLegacy19 #NikkiGiovanni #BlackPoetry #LatorialFaison

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