Nikki Giovanni has been at the forefront of history for half a century.
At age 75, she knows it’s time for younger generations to lead the way in civil rights and social justice.
“My generation opened these doors and I think we did a great job,” Giovanni said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But we have to let the younger generation figure out how they want to go forward.”
Giovanni has won seven NAACP Image Awards, was the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award and was named one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 Living Legends in 2005.
An original member of the 1960s Black Arts Movement, the poet and writer teaches at Virginia Tech.
On Tuesday, she was wearing a Nike hoodie in recognition of national hoodie day. It was the anniversary of the killing of Trayvon Martin. The unarmed teenager was shot by a neighborhood vigilante in Florida in 2012.
The Nike angle is to support NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the playing of the national anthem at football games to protest the oppression of people of color in the United States.
“I went over to Dick’s sporting goods,” Giovanni said, after Nike began an ad campaign in 2018 featuring Kaepernick. “I bought a Nike everything.”
On Thursday, Giovanni will deliver the annual Pierce Lecture at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
Giovanni can speak as enthusiastically about an upcoming trip to the Arctic Circle with her granddaughter as she can about the plans to picket her neighbor who flies the confederate flag.
“It’s time for me to have a big sign that says, ‘Loser’,” she said of her neighbor. “That’s what they are. They’re all losers.”
Still, she’s pragmatic. She’s waiting for the weather to warm up.
“I’ll start my fire, go down and picket my neighbor, and then come home and grill a steak,” she said.
Giovanni teaches children’s literature at Virginia Tech.
“It’s important we get the children started off with good literature,” she said.
Stories begin even before birth, she said, with mothers speaking to their babies in the womb.
“Now that you are born, we want you to hear stories that make you brave or help you go forward,” she said. She emphasizes stories that have a positive message for children.
“Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” would be an example of bad literature, Giovanni said.
“It teaches you to be a bully,” she said. “Or that other stupid book, ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog,’ teaches you if you love something, it will eat you out of house and home.”
She had her class read Countee Cullen’s 1920s era poem, “Incident,” in which the black narrator recalls being called a racist epithet by a white boy in Baltimore.
“The class wrote (an assignment) looking at it from the white boy’s point of view,” she said. “Who is this character and why does he do what he does?”
“All of this has to do with how we look at ourselves.”
For Giovanni, the Kaepernick drama, which saw many fans burning his jersey as well as Nike products, was an echo of what her friend, boxer Muhammad Ali, went through.
The former Cassius Clay antagonized the white establishment by changing his name to Ali, converting to Islam and refusing to be drafted.
“If Muhammad was here, he’d be very proud of Colin,” Giovanni said.
Giovanni doesn’t think there is a modern inheritor of leadership for the civil rights movement. Instead, it’s a movement by the people, for the people, she said.
“The people are speaking,” she said. “I don’t think we need a leader.”
Giovanni said young people are organized and clear as to what they expect of society at large.
“I’m so proud of the students at Parkland,” she said, referring to the 2018 shooting at the Florida high school that took the lives of 17 students and staff.
Giovanni herself is no stranger to school shootings. Her institution, Virginia Tech, was the site of the nation’s worst school shooting in 2007 in which 32 people were killed. Giovanni had the shooter in one of her classes, had complained to university officials about his prior behavior and read a poem at the school’s memorial service for the victims.
The poem ended with the refrain, “We will prevail.”
“I have great faith that the people are doing what they should do and they are doing in the way that it should be done,” Giovanni said on Tuesday.
As an elder, Giovanni said it’s her role to vote, contribute to causes and stand up for what she believes in.
“I’m interested in change, and I’m interested in the future,” she said. “I appreciate the past, but you can’t let the past control you. We have to keep going forward.”
Leading from a place of fear is not her definition of moving upward.
“I’m an American. I’m not afraid of anything. And I’m sick of people — because they are afraid — trying to make other people afraid.”
She leaves no doubt who she is referring to.
“I have no reason to be afraid of people coming across our border,” she said. “Why would you spend billions of dollars on a wall when we have people who need shoes and clean water?
“We have school teachers and libraries who could use a raise.”
She cited President Donald Trump’s five Vietnam War-era draft deferments as proof of his fear.
“If you have a coward, you’re going to have somebody who is going to be afraid,” she said.
While she would like Trump to leave office before his term is up, she supports Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.
Virginia has been roiled in recent weeks following revelations that Northam donned black face in a yearbook photo while he was in medical school.
“We all do things that are stupid,” she said. “And it was stupid, there’s no question.”
She doesn’t want him to resign.
“I don’t care so much what you did as a young man as I do once you grow up,” Giovanni said. “I think he’s been a good governor, he’s been a good soldier, he’s been a good doctor.”
Poet Nikki Giovanni
What: Annual Pierce Lecture
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Schneebeck Concert Hall, University of Puget Sound. Lecture followed by a reception and book signing in Wyatt Hall.
Tickets: Free for students. $20 for general public. Available at the Wheelock Student Center Information Center, online at ups.universitytickets.com/, and by calling 253-879-3419.