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An Angry Black Poet of the 1960's, Nikki Giovanni Cools Down with Success

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Nikki Giovanni sorted her mail and pulled out an envelope. Inside was the book contract she had been expecting, and her delight bubbled out in a mock soap opera voice, “Will success spoil Nikki?” The contract was for The Barefoot Unicorn, an essay on the children of Africa to be published next fall. It will be her 13th book in less than 10 years.

If success hasn’t spoiled Nikki already, it probably isn’t going to. She grew up in a college-educated family of social workers near Cincinnati. Her last name, Giovanni says, “just means that our slavemasters were Italian instead of English or French.” Her adoring parents always believed that she was a genius.

“Poetry evolved in my life. As a child I used to get sick a lot and write poetry out of a frustration with short stories. The poetry eventually worked much better than anything else I was doing.”

Last fall her most recent book of poems, The Women and the Men, caused one critic to write that “her world contains implicit dimensions of race, suffering, solace and social sharing—and now and again her imagination catches fire.”

Giovanni was one of the first black poets to capture a wide audience during the consciousness-raising of the ’60s. While her sales come nowhere near those of Rod McKuen, their poetry is often compared. One reviewer says that “for all her difference, [Giovanni] shares McKuen’s gift for simple statement.”

Nikki entered Fisk University at 16 and was promptly suspended for leaving campus, to visit her grandmother, without permission. For the next three years she traveled and became “sensitized.” When she finally went back to Fisk and graduated, it was with honors.

Now 33, Giovanni makes most of her income from the lecture circuit. She is especially popular on campuses, a cool performer who also does many local TV talk shows that help sell her books.

She and her 6-year-old son, Thomas, live in a three-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She once told an interviewer, “I had a baby at 25 because I wanted to have a baby and I could afford to have a baby. I did not get married because I didn’t want to get married and I could afford not to get married.” She has never publicly revealed who Thomas’ father is.

When Giovanni is not traveling, she is up at 6 a.m. to get Thomas ready for school a few blocks away. She housecleans or shops until midmorning and then may write all afternoon. “This depends on my deadlines,” she explains. After Thomas goes to bed she sometimes works until dawn. When she is out of town Thomas stays with a secretary.

Once a racial polemicist, Giovanni insists that she has abandoned the role. “I’m talked out,” she claims. “There is no longer that need, as there was in 1968, to explain. Everybody understands why kids want to go to decent schools.

“My poems are less insistent,” she continues. “They’re not so loud and abrasive. You gotta grow up. The world is not black and white.”