If you're in the market for a hero, we've got someone for you. Nikki Giovanni: celebrated poet, activist for civil rights and equality, Virginia Tech professor, strong voice for the black community, and yes, recording artist. She's got a smooth voice, 25 honorary degrees, and a "Thug Life" tattoo on her forearm. And if you make it all the way through high school or college without reading her most anthologized poem "Nikki Rosa," something has gone terribly, horribly wrong.
But even a giant of contemporary poetry had to start somewhere, and we get to see one such moment in "A Poem for My Librarian, Mrs. Long," published in Giovanni's 2007 collection Acolytes. Giovanni spent happy summers with her grandparents in Knoxville, Tennessee as a child (she also attended high school there), which included formative experiences like listening to jazz in the evenings, visiting good-smelling book shops in the middle of town, and satisfying her intellectual curiosity by visiting the neighborhood library.
Giovanni wants us to understand that all of the good stuff in her life—the poetry, activism, popularity, and praise—happened because there were people who made a difference in her life. Mrs. Long is not just a civil servant doing her job; she's a woman reaching out to another (young) woman at a crucial moment. She gives Giovanni a precious gift: the resources to explore the beautiful world of ideas.
More importantly, Mrs. Long gives her the space to do so without interference from the hostility of racial intolerance. Along with Giovanni's grandmother, people like Mrs. Long made life beautiful for her. And that's a great place to begin a life of poetry.
This poem may strike you as a pleasant memory and nothing more. But don't forget who's speaking here. This is Nikki Giovanni, the poet who gave a voice to the African-American experience at time of great social upheaval—the late '60s and '70s—and who continues to do so to this day.
While the poem praises Mrs. Long and shows how Giovanni had a happy childhood, it also highlights how much effort it took for ordinary things to happen. By choosing an everyday task (borrowing books) and setting (a public library), the poet illustrates how race complicates the most innocent activities of her childhood.
The kind of silent courage shown by Mrs. Long demonstrates that small actions make a lasting impact—even if it is only on the life of one small girl. (It's a bonus that the small girl grew up to be a mighty poet.)
This little poem is important, too, because it is a memory. It's set in a time and place that became crucial for the development of race relations in America. It also shows how life was made beautiful and promising for one young girl with an eager mind. Despite the hatred imagined at the mid-point of the poem, Giovanni leaves us with a revolutionary idea: that the kindness and empathy of one person can open the door to a life of wonder and life-giving transformation for others. And that, Shmoopers, gives you a powerful reason to care about this poem.
A Poet's Life
Here you will find solid biographical information, a bibliography, and many resources to help you with research. There is also a tab on the page that lets you explore more of Giovanni's poems.
Here's a wonderfully detailed timeline of Nikki Giovanni's early life. Pretty much everything you need to know is right here.
Giovanni performs her most anthologized poem. You can truly hear the effect of her free verse and its imitation of natural speech here.
I Think I've Got the Blues
Giovanni performs her work "Talk to me poem" for Def Poetry.
We Are Virginia Tech
Nikki Giovanni delivers closing remarks (a poem) to students and faculty mourning the loss of 32 students and the wounding of 17 in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where she is a distinguished professor of English.
Check out this video footage of an early 1960s civil rights march through downtown Knoxville (Market Square and Gay Streets, the general area near the library and bookstore mentioned in the poem). Could our poet have witnessed or participated in this? Possibly so.
Ego Tripping, Praise Be
Giovanni performs her most famous poem "Ego Tripping" with the backing of the New York City Choir on the 1971 album Truth is On its Way.
The Very Best Of...
Here's Giovanni's "2nd Rapp," set to "This Little Light of Mine"—a beautiful, rousing rendition of both works.
The Poet Herself
Here she is, looking as direct and joyful as ever.
Here is an image of the Lawson McGhee Library in Knoxville circa the mid-1940s, about 15 years before Giovanni would have met Mrs. Long.
Here's the cover art for the collection Acolytes, in which the poem to Mrs. Long appears.
Civil Rights in Nashville
The image in this article, of a sit-in at a Nashville lunch counter, was part of an exhibition on civil rights in the Lawson McGhee Library (the one in the poem). The short article highlights Nashville (about 180 miles from Knoxville) as the first city in the south to desegregate public institutions.
Nikki Giovanni is hosted by Omari Hardwick in this BET Genius Talks episode, which he opens with the most unabashed poem of praise for his mentor. Get the tissues out.
This is an excellent interview with Nikki Giovanni in which she talks about the importance of beer, her "Thug Life" tattoo, and the tragedy at Virginia Tech.
This is a good story about the dismantling and restoration of the JFG Coffee sign, which Giovanni mentions in line 4 of this poem.
Finding the Poem
You can find the poem of praise for Mrs. Long reprinted here, in Giovanni's work Acolytes.
You Know, For Kids
Giovanni edits and contributes to this nifty collection of poems (with accompanying CD!) for kids. But don't be fooled—adults will love this too.
Dr. Giovanni doesn't slight prose—and you might be surprised how the book gets its title.
Dr. G appeared on the long-running show as a guest.
Number One with a Bullet
The poet appears as herself in this 2008 documentary about violence in hip hop culture.