It’s been nearly a decade since poet Nikki Giovanni last spoke to a Kansas City audience.
Then, and in a recent telephone interview, Giovanni’s words gushed forth with the same passion she poured into her poetry in the late 1960s and ’70s — poetry that helped chronicle what it meant to be black in America.
The 71-year-old social justice advocate and Virginia Tech distinguished professor talked about race, space travel and how she loves teaching and hated the movie “12 Years a Slave.” The idea that Solomon Northup, a free and self-educated black man, would go off with white strangers in those days went beyond the realm of believability for Giovanni.
She loved “Selma.”
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She talked about the late Maya Angelou — her friend — and her frustration with President Barack Obama.
“He was supposed to march with the people,” Giovanni said, talking about what she expected Obama to do after the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. “That boy’s death started every vigilante … thinking, ‘I can do whatever I want to do. I can shoot down an unarmed man,’” Giovanni said.
“My friend Maya, she always liked Barack, would say I was being too hard on him. … I say: Make a statement.”
That’s what the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion expects from Giovanni when she comes to the campus Monday for “An Evening of Poetry, Love and Enlightenment” as part of the university’s annual tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tenn., but grew up in Lincoln Heights, an all-black suburb of Cincinnati. She’s written some 30 books for both adults and children.
“Nikki Giovanni is one of the most respected and most prolific poets of our time,” said UMKC Vice Chancellor Susan Wilson, whose office is bringing Giovanni to campus. “She has been a fighter for civil rights and equality since the ’60s and continues to carry that torch. I think Nikki Giovanni speaks to youth today as powerfully as she spoke to them in the ’70s.”
In her 2013 poem “We Too,” Giovanni wrote about picketing a department store when she was 20:
Mommy didn’t want
Me to go
Neither did my father and I wondered
Would it matter
50 years later I know
We, too, were
There is still racism, Giovanni said, “but it is not at the forefront.”
Still, she said, race had its role in the recent killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson and in Staten Island, N.Y. It makes her sad and angry. “I think Martin (Luther King) would have cried,” she said.
Her overall feeling about racial division is “the good people will prevail.” By that she meant “all the good people,” color not considered.
Prevail, she said, if not on Earth, on Mars.
“We are going to Mars,” Giovanni said, referring to her poem by that name and reflecting on a recent meeting she had with NASA officials, who are planning a Mars voyage in the 2030s.
We are going to Mars … the poems starts.
One day looking for prejudice to slip,
One day looking for hatred to tumble down the waste side,
One day maybe the whole community will no longer be vested in who sleeps with whom.
Maybe one day the Jewish community will be at rest, the Christian community will be content, the Muslim community will be at peace
And all the rest of us will get great meals at holy days and learn new songs and sing in harmony.
We are going to Mars because it gives us a reason to change.
“Mars is going to be a two- to three-year journey, all things being equal,” Giovanni said.
She drew a parallel between that journey and the Middle Passage that brought slaves across the Atlantic.
“Black Americans are the people who started as Africans, were put into ships and went through a middle passage … and came out as Americans,” she said. “Black people were forced to come here, had to re-create themselves and they did so with a song. Which is so lovely. … Don’t you love spirituals? Black Americans have never had any other choice but to believe in America.”
As for what she thinks King would say about America today, Giovanni said, “Martin would say, ‘We can do better.’”
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Poet Nikki Giovanni will present “An Evening of Poetry, Love and Enlightenment” at 6 p.m. Monday in the UMKC Pierson Auditorium, Atterbury Student Success Center, 5000 Holmes St. All seats in the auditorium have been claimed, but some seats are available in an overflow room. To register contact Danielle Martinez at firstname.lastname@example.org.