Nikki Giovanni traced Dr. Martin Luther King’s rise in the civil rights movement during her Jan. 21 talk at Baker Hall.
In a departure from a somber, reflective speech honoring the life and work of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., prolific poet Nikki Giovanni regaled her Lehigh audience with an entertaining, expansive talk Wednesday evening in Baker Hall.
The diminutive professor of writing and literature at Virginia Tech covered a lot of territory in her hour-long address to a crowd of roughly 400, as she bounced from subjects as diverse as the history of slavery, the unrealistic lifestyles of 1950s sitcom families, and her fondness for the current quiz show “Deal or No Deal.”
Her stream of consciousness talk continued with sometimes-harsh, but humorous observations about other pillars of the civil rights movement, including King himself.
Giovanni traced King’s rise in the civil rights movement, from his extraordinary debut during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to his death in 1968 from an assassin’s bullet. Throughout, she praised his courage, charisma and eloquence, which was perfectly showcased in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which she called ”one of the great documents in U.S. history.”
If King were alive today, Giovanni theorized he’d support rap music, would have a tattoo that said something like “vote” or “freedom now,” and “he’d definitely have braids. People think he’d have dreads, but Martin was much too anal-retentive for dreads. He would definitely have braids.”
Mindful of the timing of her talk, Giovanni opened by offering her impressions of the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which she’d watched the day before from an airport in Atlanta.
“I’m very happy for the country, and I’m very happy for Barack. I think Michelle will be a great First Lady,” she said.
Giovanni, a long-standing supporter of the Black Panther movement, lamented the fact that founder Huey Newton was not alive to see an African-American ascend to the presidency.
“Huey was the man whose dream was realized,” she said. “It was Huey who organized and got people involved. The Panthers were good people, you know? They started breakfast programs, they put out newspapers to inform the public.”
Her talk was frequently punctuated with readings of her poetry, including an ode to Newton titled “Free Huey,” another celebrating the courage of seamstress Rosa Parks—whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white patron sparked the Montgomery bus boycott—and a final poem that honored her heritage titled “I am a Tennessean.”
Giovanni’s appearance at Lehigh was one of a weeklong series of events at Lehigh to mark what would have been the 80th birthday of King, centered on the theme of “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”
Giovanni was introduced by Lehigh Provost Mohamed El-Aasser (and recently named Vice President for International Affairs), who listed Giovanni’s impressive roster of awards and honors, which include writing awards for her best-selling books and anthologies, the NAACP Image Award, Woman of the Year awards from Ebony
and Ladies Home Journal
magazines, the first Rosa Parks Courage award and 25 honorary degrees.
El-Aasser also praised Giovanni for her “passionate and healing address” that was delivered in the wake of the April 2007 shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech that claimed the lives of 32 people. At that time, Giovanni earned national attention for her early warnings about the disturbing writings of Virginia Tech killer, Seung-Hui Cho, whom Giovanni had in one of her writing classes.
Photo by Theo Anderson