Renowned Poet Nikki Giovanni Visits Campus for the Black Cultural Center’s 50th Anniversary

As part of the Black Cultural Center’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, Nikki Giovanni came to campus on October 7 to give her talk, “Grit, Grace, and Glow: Celebrating Black Excellence.” Along with recitations of her famous poems, “Ego-Tripping,” “A Bench,” and “Tennessean by Birth,” Giovanni weaved in political commentary and stories of her experiences as a Black woman from Appalachia.  

Giovanni is an acclaimed poet who has won the NAACP Image Award three times, the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award, the Langston Hughes Medal for Outstanding Poetry, and has been nominated for an Emmy. She is known for her strong voice and work on race and gender. She visited Swarthmore before in 1980 for the BCC’s ten-year anniversary. 

Kick starting the event, Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton welcomed Giovanni by listing an extensive catalog of her achievements and describing her career as a “pilot, steering her craft … she jumps and we’re unsure where she will land with metaphor or rhyme …” 

After the introduction, Giovanni immediately projected a sense of comfort and ease into the crowd. “Sometimes you sit there and you think ‘damn … I’m good,’” she said casually, sparking the first, but definitely not the last, wave of laughter in Pearson-Hall Theater. 

Interlaced with readings of her poems, “Ego Tripping,” “Tennessean by Birth,” and “A Bench,” Giovanni touched upon a myriad of topics, ranging from Donald Trump to cancer to Jesus to education. With this mix of personal stories, poetry, and political commentary, she constantly kept the crowd gasping and laughing. At one point, she shared her views on the current impeachment situation. She suggested that politicians these days care too much about political affiliations rather than the country and its constitution. “No one fights for the constitution anymore. Instead, they fight for their own power,” she said. 

She also spoke about her life growing up in Tennessee. Through her poem, “Tennessean by Birth,” and various stories, she expressed her pride as a Black woman in Appalachia. “It’s a good idea to be Black,” she said with a smile. 

Students appreciated that she not only shared her poems, but also her wisdom throughout the evening. 

“I loved the talk, especially because it was just very unfiltered. I appreciate when people are unfiltered, and she was so comfortable to share who she. She’s always been like this and she doesn’t change for anyone no matter the circumstances,” said TJ Thomas ’21.

Haron Kalii ’23 also loved the poetry reading and commentary, adding that Giovanni painted a clear picture of life in America.

“She relates her being Tennessean to a different bunch of aspects of her life. And being someone who is not from or familiar with America, you know, she makes me at least have a feel of what being Tennessean is. As with her comments on politics, it was quite intuitive and funny.”  said Kalli.

Giovanni, who is a professor at Virginia Tech, also prompted the college students in the audience to remember why they are in school and what to focus on during their time in college.

 “If you are in college don’t worry about grades. You are here to communicate with us [professors],” she said. 

She noted she thinks college students these days are too stressed on scores, grades, and debt.

 Giovanni also gave her audience writing advice and urged them to write their own truth and their own messages, not what they thought other people wanted to hear.

“Write because you have truth to share. Stop trying to write the next bestseller. No one knows the current bestseller right now so it must not be important,” she noted. 

After the talk, there was a brief Q&A session, in which she continued to drop her own jokes and a few words of wisdom. She shared her experiences interviewing the late author James Baldwin in the television program, SOUL!, her Prada shoes that a student complimented, and a final comment encouraging her listeners to stand up and lead. She called on students to say unapologetically to the world “This is what I want to say.” 

Larrissa Tolentino ’23 said that she appreciated how the Q&A session gave students a chance to learn more about Giovanni.

 “[The Q&A session] was really enjoyable. It really showed how quirky of a person she is. Despite how accomplished she is, she was just down to earth and really humble. It was refreshing,” said Tolentino.  

After the session, Giovanni stayed for a book signing before attending a reception at the Swarthmore Inn. The reception was open to all members of the Swarthmore community.

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