Nikki Giovanni is 74 now, a generation removed from the height of her poetic power. But she remains fiery and talented and has a lot on her mind.
The author of countless poems that center on love and civil rights, Giovanni wants a new president. Just as important to her, she said, is that the Black community exercises its right to vote.
She spoke about a lot Sunday during an event honoring scholar and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois at Clark Atlanta University. But it all came down to voting, which is not surprising considering her background.
Giovanni is an icon because she penned powerful, self-affirming poems during the 1960s civil rights movement. Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni Jr., she is most famous for her first book, “Feeling Black, Black Talk,” and her most noted poem is “Nikki-Rosa,” a thoughtful remembrance of growing up in a loving African American home near Cincinnati.
She expanded her voice to speak out on injustices, earning the 2008 Black Enterprise Legacy Award and countless other honors along the way. She calls herself “an old lady,” but her commitment to Black people and equal rights persists.
“I don’t care who you vote for,” Giovanni said. “Just vote, because there’s not a person on that [debate] stage who hasn’t lied or done something. They all did something … against us.
“But we must make sure they can’t silence us,” she said. “We must not go [vote] because we don’t like someone. Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. … She knew she could be killed. But they didn’t murder her. But they did pull her off the bus and beat her and beat her and beat her. They tried to scare her.
“I made a promise to myself that if I am even sort of alive, I will vote.” Giovanni said. “Fannie Lou Hamer took a hell of a beating so I could vote, and so I will … and everyone else should, too.”
She read from her just-written poem that she said she may call “2020” or “Vote”:
It’s not a hug, or a toy at Christmas
It’s not a colored egg at Easter
Or a bunny hopping across the meadow
It’s a vote, saying you are a citizen
Though sometimes it is traveling and sometimes a no.
It can be male of female
It can be right or left
I can disagree
But I am a citizen
I should be able to vote from prison
I should be able to vote from the battlefield
I should be able to vote when I get my driver’s license
I should be able to vote when can I purchase a gun
When I’m in the hospital
Or the old folk’s home
Or if I need a ride to the polling place
I am a citizen
I must be able to vote.
Folks were lynched
Folks were shot.
Folks communities were gerrymander
Folks who believed in the Constitution were lied to
Burned out, bought and sold because
They agreed that all men and women were created equal.
Folks vote to make us free
It’s not cookies or cake
But it is icing that is so sweet
Good for us, my country tis of thee.