She appears to be a woman of contradictions: an English professor with a “thug life” tattoo. A poet who loves science and space. A petite woman with an oversized personality.
Nikki Giovanni exhibited all that and more when she came to Dillard University on Jan. 16 to donate her entire personal collection of books to the Will W. Alexander Library archives and receive an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from the university’s board of directors.
Clad in a lilac button-down shirt, pink tie, purple pants and red shoes, Giovanni spoke to students, faculty, staff and community members about her love for hip-hop culture, her battle against lung cancer and a speech she gave at NASA headquarters.
Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tenn., on June 7, 1963, and raised in Cincinnati. In 1968, she graduated with honors from Fisk University and published her first two books of poetry, “Black Feeling Black Talk” and “Black Judgment” that same year.
Giovanni’s talents have been rewarded over the past 30 years: Her autobiography “Gemini” was a finalist for the National Book Award, and she was given NAACP Image Awards for her books “Love Poems, Blues: For All the Changes” and “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea.” She was nominated for a Grammy award for her “Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection,” is an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and holds some 25 honorary degrees from colleges across the United States.
Now, Giovanni has an honorary degree from Dillard, joining past recipients such as Ray Charles and Bill Cosby, a man she criticized for focusing on the negative aspects of black culture in the media rather the positives.
Giovanni said she was “pleased to be at Dillard for a number of reasons,” citing her love for the city of New Orleans and the Dillard community as two, and she praised President Marvalene Hughes, the administration and even the students for their persistence in bringing Dillard back to its Gentilly home following Hurricane Katrina. Giovanni even recited a poem she dedicated to President Hughes titled, “A Daughter Comes Home.”
“It is not about the physicality, it’s about the spirit,” Giovanni said. “That is the spirit of Dillard University.”
Giovanni spoke positively about her experience surviving lung cancer, saying it allowed her to quit smoking: “It’s a good time to be alive; I recommend it.”
Though she kept the audience in laughs throughout most of her speech, Giovanni took a more serious turn when she began to speak about her visit to NASA headquarters, where she gave a talk about her plan to sent every 10th person in the world to space and why scientists should look at the struggle of blacks during the African slave trade to figure out how to get to Mars, saying blacks “built a community from the most horrendous conditions known to man.”
“We have to change the way we look at things,” she said. “We have to go to Mars because it can’t come here.”
She recited her poem that she wrote for the organization called “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)” to close out her speech.
Giovanni also took questions from the audience and spoke out against gun violence, saying she believes no one in the world should have a gun and gun violence must be “de-escalated.”
“We have learned most of our behavior, and that means we can unlearn it,” Giovanni said.
She pledged her support toPresident Barack Obama and her love of hip-hop culture before taking pictures and signing autographs for audience members.
Her newest book of love poems, “Bicycles,” was released on the day of her speech. It was inspired by the deaths of her mother, sister and dog Wendy and by the shootings at Virginia Tech University, where Giovanni has been a professor since 1987.
“It’s a book that makes me smile,” Giovanni said. “Love requires trust and balance and a bicycle requires trust and balance.”