I Met Yolande Cornelia Giovanni at Missouri Western State University on April 6, 2017
By: Kori Marshall
Nikki Giovanni is not very tall.
If I had to guess, I’d give her height somewhere between 5’2” and 5’3”. Yet, somehow, when she walks into a room, presumably any room, a hush falls over the crowd. Especially when she walks in a black, floor-length fur coat. She’s wearing red shoes, red shoes from Spain that she loves so much she’s publicly vowed to write a poem about them. When she entered into Potter Hall on the first sunny day in all of the spring of 2017, I felt her presence smack me in the face like a cast iron skillet had fallen from the sky.
As a blessed and thankful member of the Canvas staff this semester, I was fortunate enough to eat dinner with her. Of course, myself and my ten classmates, were shockingly quiet, quieter than our professor had seen us all semester long. We sat, rapt, with mouths stuffed full of salad and a delectable chocolate cake, watching Nikki, listening to her stories, obsessing and adoring the legend. I knew the power she had over me from the moment I stepped foot into the board room where dinner was being held, but I didn’t realize the power she commanded from everyone until she walked into Potter Hall before her reading until the entire building simultaneously held their breath as she came in through the doors.
She is 73-years-old and has lived through more social change than most history textbooks let on. She battled segregation, she lived through the shooting of Tupac, she sat next to Rosa Parks on a city bus: Oprah was not in the wrong to place Ms. Giovanni on her list of The 25 Living Legends. Sitting at dinner and in the dim auditorium, I can promise you that I have never listened to anything as intently as I listened to Nikki talk.
And talk she did.
We marketed the “In the Shadow of Nikki Giovanni” event as a poetry reading, but she didn’t read much. I suspect she doesn’t anymore because one of the first lines she said was, “I’m a poet. Nobody listens to me so I can say whatever the hell I want.” She cussed, she called our president a fool, she said a number of things about the male genitals that made me blush as I sat next to my mother in the audience. But sitting there, scribbling things down in a notebook and live tweeting everything I could as quickly as possible, I felt a special sense of unity that I hadn’t found here at Missouri Western before that night. There was something about Nikki, reading poems about Tennessee and cotton candy and talking about her grandmother and a piano and beer, which settled over all of our shoulders, light and comforting.
I didn’t talk with her one-on-one and I sat directly across from her at dinner but I was so star struck that it was hard to breathe, let alone engage in intelligent conversation with her or anyone, but I know that meeting and listening to Nikki Giovanni will be one of the most influential events in my career as an undergraduate… and quite possibly forever.
There were two or three standing ovations. She answered everyone’s question who stood and lined up to inquire about something (well, she started to… however, whether she truly answered the questions or not is still a little up in the air). There was something so incredibly special in that room, that night. Nikki talked about dying and sickness, about our country’s issues and our strengths, she talked about the lands of Missouri and Kansas, weaving these things together effortlessly as though they belonged together and linked. She encouraged us in the audience to be better people, to push for better, and to strive for unity.
I don’t know Nikki, not personally, but I know that she has faith in me and that if you happened to be in that auditorium, or any, or anywhere near her, she’d tell you that she has faith in you, too.
Here are some of my favorite Nikki lines from the evening:
- “You cannot go through life unless you are willing for love or money to make a fool out of you.”
- “What song are we singing and what are we doing to help carry it? We, the writers and the people in this room, have to stand for something.”
- “You have to write your story because it’s important to you. You have to be the first to be delighted in your art.”
- “You need to know that you are not alone. You weren’t hatched. There are people out there who want to see you succeed.”
Thank you to everyone who supported our event, who made it possible, and to those who care enough to sing the song and carry it, too.