BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nikki Giovanni, of all the honorary degrees you received in your life, which one meant the most to you?
NIKKI GIOVANNI, AUTHOR, "THE COLLECTED POETRY OF NIKKI GIOVANNI": They all did because degrees are credentials. I`m a black American, and credentializing is very, very important. And it always takes you back to your mother and your grandmother and your dad because they`re always so, like, pleased. And the first honorary degree I received was at Wilberforce University, and my father was still alive then. And so we drove up there and I received one with Leon Sullivan, Dr. Leon Sullivan, who started the OIC. And my father, who was never really sure what exactly I did for a living -- so he was very pleased to see me get a piece of paper that made sense.
My mother is much more of a dreamer. My mother -- I think all of my dreams come from Mommy because Mommy`s always imagining. She has a wonderful imagination. So in her mind, I wrote books, and that sort of made sense and she wasn`t worried was I actually hungry. My father worried about the practicalities. So for the longest, to tell you the truth, my dad would send me $100 a month. And I didn`t know why he was doing it. And I`d write him and thank him, you know -- we called him Gus. You know, Thanks for the $100. And I finally realize he thinks I don`t have enough money.
And so I finally got -- I was visiting -- because I lived in New York -- I was visiting them, and I had a royalty statement. And he would meddle. And so I just left it on the kitchen table, as if I had forgotten, and he, of course, read it. And he said, Is that what you get? And I said, Yes, you know, usually, maybe a little more or a little bit less. And he said, Then you don`t need my money.
LAMB: So he stopped sending it?
GIOVANNI: He stopped sending it.
LAMB: When was the first time you made money as a writer?
GIOVANNI: I think -- I`ve done well. I was at Columbia, in the MFA program. It`s a two-year program. I wrote a piece on it because Columbia owes me a degree. But I was in the program for a year and published the book, "Black Feeling, Black Talk." I borrowed some money from a woman who`s now dead, Barbara Crosby, who was my roommate. I borrowed from my grandmother and I borrowed from my mom. And I published the book.
And it was 500 books for $500. So you can`t make any money off of that. But if you go back to press, now it`s 500 books for $300, right? So you are getting into a better position. If you can go to 1,000 books, now it`s 1,000 books for $300. So now you can make money. Only assuming that you don`t have any habits, that -- you know, you`re not buying clothes -- and I didn`t. I had a $600 car, this Volkswagen I had bought for $600, 1960 Volkswagen.
So within the parameters of living within that car and within myself -- because you can`t afford debt when you`re an artist -- I did all right. But I did enough to publish a book called "Black Judgement." And of course, "Black Judgement" -- all of this is going to be part of the collected. But my mother, speaking of Mommy, is a jazz fan. And so when "Black Judgement" came out, I wanted to do something special, something for my mother. And so I thought, Well, Birdland. I`m going to go to Birdland. I`ll have my book party at Birdland.
Birdland was being run by -- was owned by Lloyd Price – “Lawdy, lawdy, lawdy Miss Clawdy”-- and his partner, Harold Logan. Mr. Logan was a gangster. And I knew Mr. Logan from another gangster friend of mine.
So I went and asked Mr. Logan if I could have the club. And he said, Well, what do I get? And I said, Well, if you give it to me on Sunday, you`ll get the drinks. I`m not trying to make money. I`m just trying to -- it`s my mom, it`s my new book, and this is what I want to do. And he was one of those nervous little guys, you know? And he said, I tell you what Giovanni. He said, You bring me 100 people, you can have the club, 99 people, you owe me $500. And so I was, like, OK. And Birdland, you know, is down. It was when it was on Broadway then. And it`s down. So I walked up, and I walked out and I thought, My God, Harold Logan will break my legs if I don`t.
So I started doing late-night radio, WWRL, inviting people to come down. And our theme was " `Black Judgement` is coming," which was terrific because everybody`s, like, What`s "Black Judgement?" It`s J-U-D-G-E-M-E-N-T. And Sunday, I had Morgan Freeman, who was my neighbor -- who cheats at cards, but that`s another discussion -- Clifton Davis, Barbara Ann Teer. And it was just wonderful because all of us were in New York chasing dreams -- Gregory Hines. And so they were reading for me. So I had a crowd.
And as the time came -- because we were starting at 4:00. And as the time, a crowd started to build, which was an amazement to me because I was just looking for 100 people. But we were going from, like, 42nd Street, and then we turned the corner. Well, you know, "The New York Times" is right there. And so "The Times" looked down and somebody, one of the editors or something, said, What`s going on on Broadway? And somebody said, "Black Judgement" is coming. And they didn`t know what that was, so they sent a reporter down.
The reporter finally got to me, and he said, I`m looking for Nikki Giovanni. And I said, yes? He said, Well, where is he? I said, I`m Nikki Giovanni. He said, No, I need to talk to him, because you know, they`re not -- and it`s, like, No, I`m Nikki Giovanni. So what is this? I said, It`s a book party. It`s a book party for my book, and I gave him the book. Well, I made the metro section. I made the cover of the metro section. And so from that point -- again, you`re not going to get rich with poetry. That`s just not one of the reasons you do it. But it puts bread on the table. It paid the rent. And it sent my kid to college, and law school, I might add, so...
LAMB: What year was that?
LAMB: The Birdland event.
GIOVANNI: Oh, that was in 1968.
LAMB: And where do you live now?
GIOVANNI: I live in Virginia. I teach at Virginia Tech. Go, Hokies. We had a sad ending to our football season, but we did well -- 8 and 4 is not bad. But we`re spoiled. But I teach at Virginia Tech. I`ve been there 16 years.
LAMB: What do you teach?
GIOVANNI: I teach creative writing in the fall, and I teach the intro course. And I teach the intro courses because I think people like me should get the students before they become jaded and think that they`re good writers. You know what I mean? And so I try to get them to think just maybe a little different. In the spring, though -- and this is what`s very close to my heart -- I get to teach whatever I want. And this spring, I`m teaching the Negro spiritual as the American metaphor. And it`s such a wonderful, wonderful course because we look at slavery and we look at the Africans who were captured to be enslaved in different ways. And it`s just kind of an enlightenment. I have 90 youngsters in that course, so I`m -- who would think 90 kids would sign up for the Negro spiritual?
LAMB: What`s Virginia Tech like? How big is it? Where is it?
GIOVANNI: Oh, we`re the biggest institution -- biggest academic institution in Virginia. Of course, most people know our counterpart, UVA, and we`re very proud of UVA. And a lot of people, of course, know William and Mary, and we`re very proud of that. But we are the largest. We`re 25,000 students, about 8,000 faculty.
We started off -- we are the land grant school, we and Virginia State, our sister institution in Petersburg. We started off to help the farmers to do the technical work, but we`re now pretty well balanced between the polytechnic, if I may, aspects and the cultural aspects. We, of course, are desperately in need of a new theater and some things like that because we haven`t taken the steps -- we`re putting the faculty in place, but we haven`t quite taken the steps to embrace our cultural responsibilities. But we are moving in that direction. The English department is getting an MFA program, and we`re very, very happy about that.
LAMB: The night this runs, you`re going to be otherwise occupied.
LAMB: The Grammys.
LAMB: What are you doing at the Grammys?
GIOVANNI: Everything! I don`t know if you`ve ever been out to the Grammys, but they send you -- I`m nominated in "Spoken Word." And they send you this nice letter, and I`m sure it`s for big stars. It`s not for people like me because they say, What will you be willing to attend, you know? But for people like me, it`s, like, Hey, I checked everything. I`m going to the pre, the post, the after, because this is not my first Grammy, this is my only Grammy. And I`m up against Hillary Clinton, who is the No. 1 woman in the country. I`m up against Al Franken. I`m up against Don Cheadle. So I`m not going to win, and I just thought it would be just lovely to enjoy it.
I mean, look at it David, I`ve got a 4-in-5 chance of losing and a 1-in-5 chance of winning, right? And I`m just not as well known and stuff as the people I`m running against. But I`m excited to go and I`m just, like -- I`m bouncy. And people now -- because Blacksburg is a small town. Blacksburg is Virginia Tech. And the first time it was announced, I didn`t know it. I didn`t realize that it had been on morning television. So I went into the Post Office, right, and Catherine is there -- well, my postmistress. And Catherine says, Oh, congratulations. And I`m, like, On what? And she said, You`re up for a Grammy. And I said, Oh, how did you know? She said, It was on television this morning. And now I`m in Kroger`s, you know, and people are, like, Hey, bring that Grammy home to Blacksburg.
And so it`s been a lot of fun in the community because I`ve gotten -- the guy who cuts my hair is named Clinton. And Clinton ….clips, so it`s, like, You`re going to win because we gave you a great hairdo, you know? And so it`s been -- it`s been a lot of fun. My mom is having a Grammy party. And so she`s got, like, 20 people coming over. Of course, what I keep telling her is that, You`re never going to see me because, one, I`m not going to win, but two, even if I would, the spoken word is like an earlier today. I mean, at least -- you know, I don`t get to go on stage with Erica Badu and thank my mother, something like that. It`ll just be, Earlier today, these were awarded, you know? And she said, I`m having a Grammy party anyway, which is what she`s doing. She`s making my sister cook.
LAMB: I listened to your CD, and I wrote some notes about things I wanted to ask you more about. And one of the first things I wrote down was the story you told of Emmett Till. Why did you tell that story on that CD? What was the motivation?
GIOVANNI: That`s my poem for Rosa Parks, who I totally adore. I mean, I`ve always adored Ms. Parks, and I`m very honored to be the first recipient of the Rosa L. Parks Women of Courage Award. I told that story because the Rosa Parks experience comes directly out of the tragedy of Emmett Till. And Emmett Till came directly out of the Wright decision, the 9-0 decision of the Warren Court that separate is inherently unequal. This was Mississippi`s response, was to beat a 14-year-old boy to death. It`s a longer time than we actually are having together here, but you know, one of his eyes was missing and one was hanging just on his cheek, just by the ….There was a hole in his skull. I mean, it was a terrible, terrible case.
LAMB: What year?
GIOVANNI: 1955. It was August. The trial was in September. And as the defense of Bryant and Milam, who did indeed murder the young man, said, I`m sure that -- to the jury, which was an all-white, all-male jury at that time, as you know -- I`m sure that every drop of Anglo-Saxon blood in your bodies will let you free these men, which they did. They then they sold their story to William Bradford Huie at "Look" or "Life" -- I forget which one -- for, like, $4,000. But they did it.
Rosa Parks, as did the rest of the country -- because I remember seeing the pictures of Emmett. His mother opened the casket, and it was one of the really important things that happened. She just died last January. She opened the casket and said, I want the world to see what they did to my boy, because it was not her shame. People said that to her, you know? Mrs. -- she`s Mrs. Mobley. Mrs. Mobley, you know, weren`t you ashamed of the way that Emmett looked? And it was never her shame. It was the shame of the people who did it.
But Rosa Parks, of course, that following December -- and I`m sure I did not -- I`ve never asked Mrs. Parks. I know her, but I`ve never asked. But I`m sure when the whole thing happened that she said, you know, Lord, give me strength, if it comes to me. And of course, James Brady put her -- wanted to put her off the bus, and she said no. And you have to remember, Ms. Parks was sitting on the aisle, that there was someone else on the window. She got up and let him out, and I have no quarrel with him. I have no quarrel. But she got up and let him out and sat back down. That was December the 1st. People want to say, Oh, Rosa Parks’ feet were tired. Her feet were tired on November, you know, 30, too. And I`m sure her feet continued to be tired. But it wasn`t about tired feet. It was about her soul.
LAMB: Go back to the Emmett Till story. What`s the story about the railroad? Is that a true story?
GIOVANNI: Yes, I think that`s a true story.
LAMB: How did that work? I mean, getting the -- by the way, where was the casket open for people to see?
GIOVANNI: Oh, I`m sorry. I`m always assuming that people know these things. Emmett`s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, and the sheriff said to his mother, who had immediately gone to Mississippi, We don`t know who this is. We don`t even know if he`s black. But of course, they knew he was black because the sheriff sent the body to Century Funeral Home, which is over in Greenville...
GIOVANNI: Mississippi. This is all Mississippi. He was -- it was money. He was abducted for money. Actually, Mose lived just a little bit, I would say, like, two miles into the plantation, right? The body was -- they were taken -- he was taken to Milam`s barn, which is in Sunflower County, and beaten and thrown into the Tallahatchie with barbed wire around -- as the autopsy said, what was left of his neck.
LAMB: Why did they beat him?
GIOVANNI: They said he wolf-whistled at the wife of Bryant, at Carolyn Bryant. I don`t know why. I mean, why isn`t -- it`s never something -- there`s no reason to beat anybody like that, let alone a 14-year-old boy who was only 14 because he`d just turned 14 in July, right? And so what the sheriff wanted was the body buried in Mississippi because they wanted to say, We don`t know who this is. Emmett`s father is Louis Till, and he was Emmett Louis Till. But Louis had actually been hanged, as we found out later, in Germany. Eisenhower only killed two people. As general, he signed two death warrants, Sergeant -- Private Slovik and Louis Till, right? And these were, like, examples.
But the ring came back to Mamie, and Mamie had given it to Emmett. And he could wear it on his finger. And so the ring was on his finger. But of course, I`m a mother and I know that it didn`t take any -- it didn`t take a ring to show that this was her boy. She knew. She knew her son.
If the sheriff had been able to bury the body in Mississippi, we would not have had a case because they would have said, Well -- as the sheriff did indeed say to the national news -- you know, I was not there. I was a child. I was born in `43. This is `54. But the sheriff did say, you know, Oh, that boy is in Detroit laughing at us because he was trying to say this was a hoax by the NAACP. It was no hoax. This was the -- so he wanted the body buried.
Mamie wanted the body in Detroit. The Pullman porters wanted to do what she wanted. And so Century Funeral Home -- and you can go -- you can see it right now. I mean, I was there three years ago. Century Funeral Home is about 1,000 yards from the railroad tracks. And so when the northbound train came through, they stopped and they got the body. And they put the body on. Now, they had a lock on the body, and Mississippi had locked to say Do not open. So when they got to Chicago, Mamie was there and she said, Open it. And the -- she received it -- there was a funeral home and I really -- I`m sorry to forget the name -- who received -- they said, Well, it says -- it has an official seal, and it`s bad enough that they got it here, but we`re not going to open. She said, yes, it`s -- yes. If you can`t open it, I can. This was my boy. And so she opened it, and she looked at the body because -- it`s unimaginable to me, just unimaginable.
But they asked her, Would you like for us to fix him up? And she said, No. You know, they did put a suit on him. You`ve seen the -- well, I don`t know if you`ve seen the pictures. They put a jacket on, a tie. But you know, he was bloated. I mean, it was terrible. And she opened it in Chicago. They lived in Chicago. And of course, up until the March on Washington, that was the biggest Civil Rights movement because some 400,000 people saw that body. She left him lying in state, and people were fainting. Mahalia Jackson sang at the funeral.
It was a galvanizing event because my generation, which -- as I say, I was born in `43 and this was `54, so Emmett was not that much older. He`s just a little bit older than we are. And my generation became the Civil Rights generation in large part because whether we were conscious of it or not, having seen what happened to him, we knew it could happen to us.
And I`m a Tennessean by birth, so there`s no way that you could say to yourself, Oh, this was a Mack Parker or this was some other -- you know, this was some rape -- you know how everything is rape, rape, rape. There`s no way. He`s a 14-year-old boy. And we knew if they would do this to Emmett, they would do it to us. So Mississippi had to change. But in order to change Mississippi, the United States -- and you`re going to get a direct -- again, from Rosa Parks, you`re going to get the sit-ins because you get North Carolina A&T students, the four young men, February the 1st, 1960, right? You`re going to get, of course, the response of the South blowing up the four little girls in Birmingham.
But we didn`t stop. And we moved from there -- you know, you`re back into Mississippi in `64, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, which, again, galvanized the nation. So this is not a chronology of the Civil Rights movement. I`m just saying Emmett Till is clearly one of the really important -- because Emmett Till was the response to Brown. I dare say without the Brown decision, had the same things occurred, Bryant and Milam would not have felt compelled to make an example of this child.
LAMB: Other things -- and these are random notes I want to get your response to. Armstrong Williams, "a pitiful dumb bunny."
GIOVANNI: Yes! Yes, that`s a good description of Armstrong.
LAMB: And you talk about Shelby Steele and you -- "lawn jockey for the right," Clarence Thomas.
GIOVANNI: Uh-huh. Yes.
LAMB: Why such strong words?
GIOVANNI: Was that strong? I thought it was just an apt description.
LAMB: Expand on that.
GIOVANNI: I dislike the right. And I dislike the little Negroes who run the right. And if Clarence Thomas isn`t a lawn jockey for the right, then what is he? If he`s not holding the horses on the Supreme Court, then what is he doing? Because he is certainly not being a jurist who`s reading the Constitution, for God`s sake. Clarence is an embarrassment. And if he had been white, he wouldn`t be on the Court. And we know that because he was barely qualified. And George Bush needs to answer for Clarence Thomas -- the other George -- because -- first of all, I don`t even believe Supreme Court judges should be as young as we`re letting them be. It needs to be the end of the career, not the beginning. But we put him on the Court because we were -- we knew that he would do what he did when this George Bush wanted to be president and couldn`t get the votes.
You know, it`s a shame. "Emerge" magazine, which was a great magazine and a great loss that it`s gone, put him on the cover as a lawn jockey. I thought it was lovely. I framed it.
LAMB: What is it that he does or says that irritates you?
GIOVANNI: Are you kidding? Have you read any of his opinions?
LAMB: But what is -- I mean, you tell me.
GIOVANNI: I don`t even know if I -- Clarence was a minority voice on the decision -- I think it was a Louisiana decision -- where the sheriff was holding the guy and beating him -- 4th Amendment, you know? And Clarence was, like, Well, you know, I don`t know that this was unusual. It is cruel and unusual when the guards hold you and beat you, you know?
We live in -- I mean, I`m so -- oh, gosh, because I don`t want to sound rabid or something because they make me crazy. But I`m so glad that the Warren Court had a 9-0 decision because, clearly, America could not stay in the apartheid situation and go forward. This was very clear. It`s also very clear that we need more concern about ordinary, everyday Americans.
I`m very dismayed about the whole Bush administration because how rich do you have to be? How rich do you have to be before you feel rich enough to not have to suck up all the resources? And we have people -- we can`t get health care taken care of because he`s giving tax cuts, which is not working. Jobs are just flying out the window, just flying out the window. All over America, jobs are going. And they want to -- Oh, it`s NAFTA. But you know, we live in a global economy. I don`t have any problem with jobs finding their way around the world. I do have a problem with rich people not having to pay taxes. I do have a problem with a list of billionaires because I don`t have any problem with people that have $100 million, or something like that, because to me, that makes sense. You know what I`m saying? You got $100 million, then you feel a little better. You get your Bentley or whatever it is that you want. But when we start to get up into that billionaire level, all we`re doing is buying and selling people, and it`s not a good -- it`s not a good idea.
We live in a nation that at one point -- and John Kennedy -- and that`s where I go back to -- and Lyndon Johnson, where we talked about putting a floor on poverty. And it made sense to me. We need a floor on poverty. But I know, as does everybody else, if you think about it, if you want to put a floor on poverty, you`re going to have to put a roof or a ceiling, as it were, on wealth because wealth cannot just keep going on and on and on unless you`re taking something away from these people.
And we need a Marshall Plan for America. We need to rebuild our cities. We need to reinvent and restructure and help our public schools. Our public school teachers need more money. God in heaven knows all of us need and should want nurses to be paid more because when you`re ill, it`s the nurses taking care of you. Doctors are brilliant and surgeons are important -- I`m a cancer survivor, at this point. And I had a great surgeon, Creighton Wright at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. But it`s the nurses. It`s the nurses, you know?
And how can we ask people to nurse us back to health at a minimum wage? How can we ask people to empty our bedpans, and we`re not even paying them enough? And then people come from other countries, which we consider alien, for God sake -- and in order to be alien, you`d be outside, actually, of the solar system, at this point, because we know enough about the solar system and about life to recognize we`re all dealing with these same building blocks there. What is this alien?
But people come and they come to America and they work to help us make a better country, right? And we don`t even want them to have a driver`s license? I mean, it`s unbelievable to me that Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a bodybuilder, who had an opportunity because he`s Mr. Universe to come to America to become a millionaire and now become governor of California, and he`s not going to help -- he`s not going to reach out to the El Salvadorians? He`s not reaching out to the Mexicans? He`s not reaching out to the people who only wanted the same opportunity that he had?
What kind of world are we living in that people`s minds are that big? And so yes, I don`t like them.
LAMB: Can you be black and be conservative?
GIOVANNI: You can be what you want to be. I`ve never had that quarrel. I just don`t like it. I`m not trying to tell you what to do. I`m just saying I don`t like it. And I think, you know, Armstrong is stupid. You`ve talked to Armstrong, I`m sure. He`s a limited man.
LAMB: You mentioned cancer. When did you get it?
GIOVANNI: It was my 50th birthday present, actually. I got it when I was 50 years old. Fifties are hard. And so it`s been nine years, so I`m very fortunate. I don`t know when I got it because we don`t know enough about cancer to know when. It manifested itself just about on my 51st birthday because I was -- I couldn`t breathe. I just would, you know, walk up steps -- Blacksburg is in -- we`re on hills, and I would be walking up to it, and I just couldn`t breathe. I`d walk up to the class, and I couldn`t breathe.
And I went to my doctor, and he was, like, Oh, you know, you have high blood pressure because my blood pressure was way up. And I was, like -- I don`t think so. So he put me on a blood pressure pill, and my blood pressure stayed up. And the funny thing is, my hand -- I had a problem, just like that, with my finger. It would just come down. And it hurt. And so it kept driving me back. And I went back to -- my doctor`s Kenneth Jones. I went back to Kenneth and said, There`s something wrong with my hand. And he was, like, Nothing`s wrong with your hand. So we went and went.
And, like, the second, third week now, I`m still having the hand problem and I can`t breathe. And he said, I need to X-ray your chest. And I said, Why? He said, Because maybe you have an enlarged heart. I said, I have a big heart, Kenneth. It`s not enlarged. But took the X-ray, and of course, you know how tones change. And he calls me Nik. And he`s, like, Nik, maybe you should come and look at this. I said, Kenneth, I don`t want to come. He said, Now, you don`t know what it is. I said, Kenneth, I hear your voice. Whatever it is, I don`t want to see it. I need a surgeon. He said, It might not be operable. I said, Kenneth, it has to come out. It has to come out, if I have to take cuticle scissors and cut it out. Whatever it is, it has to come out. I don`t know if I`ll survive it, but it has to come out because cancer is not a good neighbor.
And so we set up an appointment for me in Roanoke, but of course, you need a second opinion. And I always say if anybody`s looking that`s got any cancer experience, you cannot get your second opinion from the same place you get your first opinion or you will get the same opinion because they all know each other.
So my attorney, Gloria Haffer, is in Cincinnati. And so I had called Gloria. The minute that this came up, I called Gloria because I didn`t want my son to lose his mother and his ability to -- you know, whatever moneys I might be generating in death, as I have in life. And so we were talking about that, and she said, Well, come to Cincinnati for your second opinion.
And it was snowy. It was a bad day. And my friend, Ginny Fowler, said, I`ll drive you. And so we drove to Cincinnati. And Creighton Wright – it’s very -- Creighton Wright, said, Oh, wow -- because he`s crazy. I know this about surgeons. They`re all crazy. And Creighton said, Wow, look at this! And I was, like, What is wrong with this man? He said, This is a wonderful -- he said, Look at this tumor. He said, I never get good tumors. He said, I`m here all the time, I never get good things to operate on.
He had me cracking up. I said, Creighton, you know, you can`t talk like this. He said, yes, yes. Look at this. He said, I hope you`ll let me operate. I said, Well, I have an appointment in Roanoke, and to be honest, Creighton, you`re the head of surgery. I`d have to wait, you know, a week or so for you -- you know, to get on your schedule. And he said, Well, how about 10:00 o`clock in the morning? Is that quick enough for you? I was, like, Creighton, you can`t -- he said, 10:00 o`clock in the morning. Said, It`d be a pleasure. He said, I never get good operations.
So what he had done was to make me laugh, right? And it`s, like, 10:00 o`clock in the morning, I`ll be there. He said, See you then. And I did. I was there at 10:00. He didn`t actually get to me until 1:00 o`clock. But I was very fortunate to have a great, great surgeon.
But I was very, very sick because they took the lung out and he took a rib out to get in, as I found out later. And fortunately for me, he took another -- he said it didn`t look right, so he took another out. I said, Creighton -- when he was telling me about this, I said, You could have taken the spine because the spine is just an idea. I can get along with the spine, I can`t get along without my life.
But he did. I was in the hospital for a month. And the nurses -- I actually cried. When I -- you know, they put you in a wheelchair. When I finally left the hospital, it was going into March, and I went in February the 8th. And they were pushing me, and I just started crying. Everybody said, What`s the matter? I said, I don`t want to leave, because everybody had taken such good care of me and I felt safe. My son came up and he slept on the floor in my room. And Ginny was there. You know, somebody was always with me. And I just felt, well, I don`t know, in the hands of God. I mean, to me, it`s a miracle because lung cancer is so -- it`s deadly usually. And so I`m very fortunate to be here.
LAMB: Nine years later, are you cancer-free?
GIOVANNI: If you had asked me...
LAMB: At the moment?
GIOVANNI: Well, yes. As far as I know. And again, I answer as I do, not to be difficult, but if you had asked me the week before I was diagnosed, I would have said I`m cancer-free. So what I want to do, and it`s what -- I`m writing a book that I`m actually late on because the book turned out to be a lot more painful than I thought. It`s not that I`m avoiding the pain, it`s just that I also am not facing it, to be honest.
But what I`m trying to learn to do, and what I hope I`m doing, is living with the cancer. Because I don`t think you can eradicate. I think that there are things -- you see what I`m saying -- and what I want to do is make a good neighbor of the cancer, because it doesn`t pay either one of us. It`s bad for me if it kills me, and it`s not going to do it any good, assuming that cancer is a living thing, which it actually is. It`s not a dead thing. It`s a living thing.
And so, we operated to send a message to say, I don`t think you are being very nice to me. And if I let you have your way, you will kill both of us. This way, both of us have a chance. And so I`m just trying to -- I cannot change the language of cancer by myself. I know that. But in America, we fight everything. And I know that you cannot fight everything. Some things you learn to live with. You try to overcome them and you try to control them, but you don`t try to eradicate them, because you can`t. You have to learn to live with it. So your question to me is, am I living with my cancer? And my answer is, yes, and fortunately, right now my cancer is living with me.
LAMB: You`ve got a lot of words in this collected collection of poetry. There is also some narrative that you write. How do you describe your poetry? How does it fit in -- is there a certain class of poetry that you write?
GIOVANNI: Well, I...
LAMB: I mean some poetry -- what I`m getting at -- some poetry rhymes and others don`t.
LAMB: Explain the difference. What do you call it?
GIOVANNI: I`m not a very good rhymer. And every now and then I will end up doing something like, a poem like "What It Is," you know, ultimately you get to – “If it`s gum, we can chew it, I hope it`s love so we can do it.” And I had a -- I love that -- just I like little silly poems, you know.
But for the most part, I`m a lyricist, but I`m a storyteller. And I think as I`ve gone into my career, I mean -- this is like a 30-year career, a little bit more, as we`ve gone into it, I think I`ve relaxed more with the storytelling.
I`m an eastern Tennessean. And, of course, our most famous eastern Tennessean storyteller is Dolly Parton, and Dolly, of course, tells all these wonderful stories through these songs, right? Everybody would know James Agee, because, he, again is a storyteller. But that`s going to be my tradition. I`m a storyteller and I use poetry, but I`ve felt free to use everything that poetry offers. I mean, Gwendolyn Brooks was a great sonnet, right? And I knew - I love Ms. Brooks` work. And I had -- you know, we were both born on June 7.
And so, once I became a writer, you know, and I got to know Gwen, it was very, very nice. But I`m not going to write sonnets because -- I`m not going ever, and I know that. I mean, I`m not humble, but I`m never going to be as good as Gwendolyn Brooks was. On the other hand, she is not going to write as good a blank verse as I do. So I`m very, you know, comfortable with that.
But I didn`t want to try to fit into -- poetry is an essence, when we want to compliment anything, when we want to -- there was a Super Bowl last week, you know, Sunday. And we want to compliment, what`s her name, Brady, in New England, he`s poetry in motion, right? We drink a wonderful Muzani, you know, a lovely red wine, and it`s poetry in a bottle, right? You make a crowned roast of pork and you slice into it, and it`s poetry, right?
So poetry is this floor upon which we all dance. And so I didn`t want to restrict myself to somebody else`s notion of what I should do. I just thought I should try to do my contribution. I needed to add my tile to that floor. And so it`s kind of like the Nikki tile is all over the place, but it does add to the floor, and the floor is, I think, the stronger for me having danced upon it.
LAMB: Before I get to your poem, born in Knoxville, raised in Cincinnati, went to Fisk University in Nashville?
LAMB: Did you vote for Barry Goldwater?
GIOVANNI: Yes, I did. In `64.
GIOVANNI: Because I had questions about Lyndon Johnson. I didn`t want to vote for Lyndon Johnson, because I was unhappy that Jack Kennedy was killed in Texas and everybody sort of overlooked that.
LAMB: This poem is called "Ugly Honkies or the Election Game and How to Win it." What year did you write this?
GIOVANNI: I think that would be the election, so it`d be `68.
LAMB: "Ever noticed how it`s only the ugly honkies who hate, like Hitler was an ugly dude, same with Lyndon, Ike, Nixon, HHH, Wallace, Maddox and all the governors of Mississippi and you don`t ever see a good-looking cop. Perhaps this only relates to the physical nature of the beast, at best interesting for a beast and never beautiful by that black standard, if Dracula came to town now, he’d look like Daley booing Senator Ribicoff. No pretty man himself, but at least out of the beast category. Yet all you had to do was describe Julian Bond as the handsome black legislator, which is, of course, redundant, life put Muskie, Huskie and Humphrey on the cover” -- I can go on. I`m sure I butchered the reading of it. Thank you. Do you read these when you go public?
GIOVANNI: No, I don`t. If somebody asks me to, yes, I would. This `68, my -- I`m prolific but not quick, is what I want to say. So there`s a lot of work, and you have to make decisions. I will always read a poem like "Nikki Rosa," because it speaks for a generation, I`ll always read "Ego-Tripping", and you know, they came up there too. But "Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea," I`m looking at that. Because my research, which I`m so thrilled about -- I`m able now to take a research leave in six, because I want to -- I`m following the footsteps of Darwin, because no poet has ever looked at Darwin.
We, I think, erroneously turned Charles Darwin over to the sociologists and to the politicians, and the economy -- You know, a lot of people who didn`t, I think, treat him right, because survival of the fittest, it was translated, but it`s not what Darwin, I think, meant, not the way I studied it. And a lot of things are luck. And what I wanted to do, what I`m involved in doing is I want to go around the world by water. I didn`t want to fly, because he went by water. And I want to see some things for myself.
What I know. I know that we have not made proper use on Earth. This is an Earth thing, this is not an American thing or not an African thing or not an -- it`s an Earth thing. We haven`t made proper use of what the captured Africans learned and decisions that they made in coming through that period called Middle Passage. What they did from being captured in Africa and being brought to the United States and the Caribbean, what I know.
As we get prepared to go to Mars, and we`re going to Mars, and we have to go to Mars because Mars is our neighbor and Mars cannot come here, because Earth is crazy. And if Martians came here, we`d kill them. So we`re going to have to go. That same loneliness of being in an unknown spot with no known landmarks is what we`re going to encounter.
So in order for Earth to prepare itself for space travel -- I`m not knocking the shuttle. I like the shuttle. And I like Mir. I like all of that. But that`s not the challenge. The challenge now is how do we go beyond? How do we go where we do not know where we are and we have no expectation that we will be greeted any better than we would have greeted somebody? How do we conquer that fear? And the only people that can answer that are those people that came through Middle Passage.
So I`m suggesting -- and I do believe that I can show -- that Earth cannot go forward into the 21st century, which we must, until we come back and access what these people knew. It`s fantastic. So, you asked me did I read a poem that I wrote in 1968? I love it. I love this book, because I didn`t realize it, when I was doing it so much, but I was fearless. I just said it, and I`m a poet and nobody reads me anyway.
But where we are now, and this is what I`m excited about, because I`m always going forward, I too am going forward, because I think I`m a prime candidate to go into space, because I`m not -- I am fearless. I have fears. I have a fear of flying, in fact, but I know that what I`m going to is more important than staying where I feel safe. Once I cried leaving the hospital, but once I left the hospital, I had to go forward. Do you see what I`m saying? And if somebody had said to me, Nikki, stay in the hospital forever, I probably would have had enough good sense to turn it down, because then it would have been a prison. Do you see what I`m saying?
So I`m excited about where my work is going, and I continue because I do sincerely think I`m a courageous person. I always hated bullies, and I never liked people that thought they could make you do things. I just never did like that. I don`t know why. I just never did. And so you stand up because you have to stand up. But I`m a thinker. And so I have to think forward; I have to learn from my work.
LAMB: Here`s a poem, "Sometimes." It`s a very short poem. Do you remember what year you did that one?
GIOVANNI: I think it`s in "My House" or it may be in "Recreation."
LAMB: But what year?
GIOVANNI: That would make it like `69, `70, something like that.
LAMB: It’s very short. "Sometimes when I wake up in the morning and see all the faces, I just can`t breathe." It`s a simple poem. Where did you write something like that?
GIOVANNI: I don’t know, I was probably on book tour.
LAMB: Did you just write it when you were traveling?
GIOVANNI: I don’t usually write when I`m traveling. But I think that -- and again, I -- you know -- I thought you were going to do -- you said "Sometimes" -- because I`m not good in titles. I thought it was going to be the poem that said, you know, “I pick my nose because I do, because I`m nervous.” And it`s a way that I know when I`m nervous. It`s kind of -- I don`t know if you do things like this, but it`s gotten to the point that I now will recognize that I`m nervous because I`m picking my nose. You know, usually you’re nervous and then you pick - you know how people - and I do. Because I will be on a plane and the plane is in, and I`m picking my nose and it`s like, oh, you`re scared. You know, get over it. So, it`s just a way of talking.
But I like people. But you do get these pressures at times. And it`s been interesting, because I`ve had a big career because I did an album, when there were still albums, in 1973 or 1974, "Truth is on Its Way." And it was a gold album, and it won a NATRA Award, and that was really nice. Actually, we -- my record company petitioned the Grammys, and they said that there was no category for spoken word with music.
And then I did an album called "Like a Ripple on a Pond" two years later. And Atlantic was my record company, and they petitioned Grammy, and Grammy said there`s no category. And so, it`s really funny that I`m now nominated -- because I`m nominated in spoken word, but no music, but spoken word with music is now called rap. And so, you know, it`s one of those -- and again, it`s why I`m thrilled, because I sincerely thought that my moment for anything like this had passed. And so when I got the call, I was very, very, very surprised.
LAMB: On the CD, "I Remember You" -- I wrote some notes down, you talk about your tattoo.
LAMB: And Tupac.
GIOVANNI: Yeah. He`s a great kid. I mean that was...
LAMB: Did you know him?
GIOVANNI: No, no. I didn`t know Tupac and I didn`t -- and do not know his mother, Afeni. I have met his aunt now, because I was down in Atlanta, but I support and did support the -- I do support, not that they needed it, the whole hip-hop experience, because it`s a true voice, and as a lover of the spirituals, and I grew up in the Baptist church with my grandmother, I`ve always loved the spirituals and that`s what I`m teaching now.
There`s a direct line -- I mean, you can go from Outkast all the way back to "Go Down, Moses," that there`s a direct line between the honesty of the hip-hop generation and the honesty of the spirituals, and indeed, the simplicity. To me -- and I do this without arguing with anybody, because I have no quarrel, but to me Tupac was the epitome, and as I said in the poem, he was the tallest tree, and so having him cut down, everybody thought they could control it, you know. Sort of like watching Chuck Willis and then get killed, the next thing you know you got Elvis Presley, and then somebody wants to say Elvis is the king of whatever he is, but he isn`t, he was singing black music. And that`s a fact. So Eminem, you know, does not have a right to dis black women when he`s making a living in a black art form and you get sick of that. And -- I`m sorry.
LAMB: No. I did ...
GIOVANNI: But Tupac, I mean -- I have "Thug Life" on my arm.
LAMB: When did you do that?
GIOVANNI: Three days after he was dead, because I was depressed. My mother came over -- my mother lives down the street from me, and mom came to the house, and I was depressed, and it was one of those things that I know I`m depressed because I don`t do anything. I wasn`t -- you know, mommy had noticed that there was a listlessness, and so she came by the house, she said what`s the matter. I said, you know, it`s really sad because Tupac was two years younger than my son, so he was everybody`s son. We knew who this young man was. I remember Tupac from Digital Underground. It wasn`t personal, it was watching another art -- artist. And in many respects, you could say that if I had had a literary son, it would have been Tupac.
You know, so you watch this kid, charismatic, smart. I mean, he brought a lot of joy. I mean, he just lit up the screen. I remember in "Juice," when he turns that corner, it`s just wonderful. And to see him go down like that, it was just -- it was very, very sad, and I was trying to find a way to mourn with the generation. I`m 60 years old, and I just wanted to reach out to his generation, because a lot of my generation didn`t want to listen to hip-hop, didn`t understand what they were saying, and then wanted to dis this kid who meant so much to all of us, even though a lot of people didn`t know it.
And I tried to think of what to do, and it was like finally -- it was - you`re not dreaming, you just kind of walking, and then it`s like, a tattoo, because that whole generation is tattooed. I mean, they all -- you know, it`s the Dennis Rodman experience, they all had these tattoos. And Tupac had a tattoo on his abdomen.
Now, quite naturally, no 60-year-old woman should have a tattoo on her abdomen. First of all, if I had sported it, everybody would go aah, you know. And I wanted it public, and so I tried to think of where -- you know, I thought about my hand and I thought about running it down my face, but I knew that would drive my mother crazy. And so I finally ended up on my -- putting it on my left arm, so that I could sport it, but I wanted to share with the generation a loss, because Tupac was this generation`s Emmett Till.
LAMB: What does “the thug life” mean?
GIOVANNI: That`s what he said, he said he was with the thugs, that that`s where he -- that`s where he stood. That he wasn`t going to say I`m rich and famous and I`m turning my back on my people. He said I`m from -- he has a CD, "For My Niggaz," and that`s what he embraced, and I`ve always said and I hope that I - until the day I die, and I hope it`s a long life, I`d always rather be, though, with the man and the woman in the tree than the crowd looking up at him, I`d always rather be with the people running down the street than the mob chasing them.
LAMB: Do you show the tattoo to your students?
GIOVANNI: Oh, yeah. Because, you know -- one, I`ve had it so long, you know, it`s been six years. I forget -- so when I have on short sleeves -- I wear long sleeves today, I don`t know if -- and I have cuffs, but, sure, because it`s right there, you see.
LAMB: We see, yeah. We`ll get a shot of that.
GIOVANNI: And ...
LAMB: Hold it up again. Just - we didn`t get a very good shot of it.
GIOVANNI: Oh, I`m sorry, sure.
LAMB: They`ll get another shot.
GIOVANNI: It`s there. I just wanted to let them know that they`re not alone.
LAMB: Where did you have that done?
GIOVANNI: Alex`s Tattoo in Roanoke, and, actually, Alex is the son, the man who does it is not, he named it after his son. They`re award winning. It took longer to design "Thug Life" because he teased me. He was like, you know, why are you going to have thug life? He said, you don`t look like a thug. I said, oh, yeah, because if people are killing thugs, I want to be with the thugs. I don`t want to be with the people. It`s fine, I don`t like Clarence Thomas, and I don`t want to be with the people who are mowing dreams down. I want to be with the people who are fertilizing the ground.
LAMB: On that point, let me jump back years ago. You say you`re a woman of the `60s and don`t have a telephone or a clock in your bedroom.
GIOVANNI: I don`t.
LAMB: Why is that a person of the `60s?
GIOVANNI: Because if you had a telephone in your bedroom, the phone is going to ring at midnight. Every time I can remember the phone ringing at midnight, somebody -- my cousin was with the Kennedy campaign, Bobby. Every time I can remember the phone ringing at midnight, somebody has gotten killed. And so when I finally got in bed, as a `60s person, I needed the rest. I don`t have a clock, because it`s a rule in my house, actually -- don`t wake me up. If I have something to do, I`m going to get up. I got that from my dad. My father is from Alabama, so he`s one of those first light people, and if I have something to do -- I had something to do this morning, I`m going to get up. I don`t need anybody to call me. I`m going to get up in time to do it.
If I sleep through it, if I would have -- in coming here to be with you, David -- if I had slept through, right? I`m either sick or so in need of the rest I should get it, right? And so, it`s my responsibility as an adult, I`m to wake myself up, not a clock`s responsibility, and so I eliminated those two things because they`re intrusions into my rest.
LAMB: Another poem. “I Laughed When I Wrote It.”
GIOVANNI: "Don`t You Think It`s Funny."
LAMB: "Don`t You Think It`s Funny." What year?
GIOVANNI: Oh, Lord, that had to be in the middle `70s. I`m sorry.
LAMB: I`m not going to try it this time. I`m going to ask you to read this one.
GIOVANNI: Oh, this is fun -- you don`t want me to read this whole thing? Because these are getting longer and longer and longer.
LAMB: Just give us the flavor.
GIOVANNI: OK. And this is very true. "The FBI came by my house three weeks ago, one white agent, one black or I guess Negro would be more appropriate. With two three buttons suits on, one to a man, then ties, cuffs on the bottoms, belts at their waist. They said in unison, Ms. Giovanni, you are getting to be quite important; people do listen to what you have to say. I said nothing. We would like for you to give a different message. I said, gee, you guys are really shorter than Hoover. They said it would be a patriotic gesture if you would quit saying you love Rap Brown, and if you`d maybe give us some leads on what your friends are doing. I said F-you," which is true. They actually ...
LAMB: To their face?
GIOVANNI: Oh, yeah. They can`t arrest you for that. You know, you can`t say F-you to TSA, they made a rule. If you say that, they`ll arrest you.
LAMB: They`ll just take you away.
GIOVANNI: But they didn`t have it then, and so you could just say, because it`s the FBI. And if you let those guys intimidate you -- what they said was, we want to come in your house -- I`m living on 94th Street. We want to come in and talk to you, and I said no. Because, I mean -- I know that. No. And they said, well, if we can`t talk to you in the house, we can talk to you here or we can arrest you. I said, whatever. You cannot come into my house. One, I have a white carpet and you`ll scuff it up, but, two, you cannot. And if you think that I`m embarrassed by you coming to talk to me in the hall and my neighbors hearing it, you`re mistaken.
So whatever you have to say to me, either arrest me or -- because anything else, then they come into your house -- now I never did drugs. I think drugs are a bad idea. But you let them come into your house, the next thing you know they`ll drop a marijuana cigarette, right, and then the next thing you know they`re arresting you for the cigarette that they planted. So they`re not coming into my -- they can do what they do, but not in my house, and never liked the FBI. I`ve met a couple of people who worked with the FBI that I found to be not odious -- you know, you just want to barf when you met them or something, but I didn`t like that.
And what they were looking for in this poem, by the way, is Angela Davis, and so they were combing New York, because they were looking for Angela, and it was like, you know, we understand, you know, Angela Davis, which I actually -- I only met Angela Davis at Toni Morrison`s birthday party recently, but I knew her sister Fania, but whatever would make them think that if I knew Angela, knew where she was, had anything to do with anything, that I would have mentioned it to them.
But I didn`t want them in my house, because then it`s a private conversation, then they get to say what they want to say. So I kept them in the hall so everybody could hear. Because we all did that, I mean the house did, the neighbors were peeping in. You`re OK? Oh, it`s just the FBI. Because otherwise, you take it seriously, and they make you look over your shoulder.
They trailed not just me, because I did know Rap Brown very well, but they trailed a bunch of people, but they trailed me, they were shadowing me because they thought I could lead them someplace, which actually, you know, I could not.
I knew I had lost my FBI protection -- I had a friend, an older lady, she`s dead now -- who lived at -- I was at 94th, she lived at 96th, and one day I went over to -- just to check on her, because I would drop in on her, and I went to check on her, and it was raining, and I broke every cardinal rule of what you do in New York City. It was a rainy day. I got in the elevator to go up to see Gigi (ph). I pressed the button -- she`s on the 17th floor. Somebody yelled, hold the elevator, and, of course, you never, ever do that, and I did, and the guy got on, and he had a gun, and he said give me your money. And I said take the wallet, because -- it just all went click. And I made a mistake. And he said I don`t want -- just take the -- I don`t want your wallet; I just want the money.
So I never had much money, but I gave him the money, and I had on a sable jacket, actually. And he said, I`ll take that mink. And I said, you can take the jacket but it`s not mink. You can look at it, you see this is not mink. In other words, I don`t even know where I got the -- I mean I should have given him the jacket, but he looked at it and it wasn`t -- and I didn`t want to holler at him, it`s sable, it`s a lot more. But when I got up to Gigi`s (ph) and called the police, you know, and said I just got robbed, and they were like, well, you know, people get robbed, and that was it. And I thought the FBI is not watching me, because I had been all over -- I had never been robbed, and all of a sudden, and it was like, oh, I`ve lost my protection.
LAMB: Are you at the peak of your success?
GIOVANNI: Oh, I don`t know. I`m pretty high. I don`t know about peak.
LAMB: I mean you have got CDs and the Grammy nomination, books. Speaking, how much of that do you do?
GIOVANNI: I do a lot, because I love it. I speak in churches. I speak in elementary schools. I`ll speak practically anyplace you ask me. You know, if I can get there -- in Virginia, because we`re a land grant school, a lot of my outreach, if you`re living in Virginia you and write me, I`m going to say yes, it`s a question of the calendar.
LAMB: So what is, and we are not - we don`t have a whole lot of time, what is the story that almost always works when you go out to speak? The story that people like the most that you tell?
GIOVANNI: Well, I stay pretty current, and so right now I`m really -- and I`m enjoying talking to middle school and high school students, and I`ve been doing a lot of that, because I really do want to change some minds on this one. And my poetry is didactic, I think is the term, it`s certainly eclectic, and certainly I have a point of view. But I`ve never have really wanted to change minds so much as I wanted to change how we look at Middle Passage.
We have got to utilize this wonderful gift that these captured Africans gave us. And it`s a gift of calmness, it`s a gift of decision to live, it`s a gift of looking forward, it`s the gift of forgiveness. We have to -- and I`m saying -- we have to change how we look. Because we can`t go forward until we learn this lesson. And so I keep talking to the kids, because they`re the ones going to college, and they -- there`s no reason that they should be embarrassed about slavery, other than slavery was not a good idea. I mean, we know that, but they cannot use their embarrassment to turn away from it.
We have to find a way to face this experience, and that`s what I`m talking about. And the kids are always surprised, because I`m talking mostly, as you can imagine, to black youngsters, and I`m amazed at how many of them have not engaged in space. I mean, we`re the people who built the pyramid, the grand pyramid of Giza, where the century star falls. We`re the people who charted the heavens. Why is it our youngsters are not stargazing, and we`ve got everybody looking at earth and everybody is looking at how do we get ahead here?
I`m not against getting ahead. Getting ahead is a good idea, but we have to dream, and we keep seeing -- and I look -- I mean, Sean O`Keefe, you know, should not be at NASA. Because, you know, a bean counter should never be in charge of a dream. Anytime you put the bean counters in charge of a dream, what you`re going to have is tragedy.
LAMB: I have one last question and we`re going to have to go. Your son, how old is he and where is he?
GIOVANNI: He`s 32, he`s losing his hair. He`s an attorney. He lives in Harlem, actually. He`s married and he lives in Harlem. And his dog is with my mother. I knew, I said, I told him I wasn’t going to keep the dog, but he left the dog when he went to law school. So the dog is still there.
LAMB: Here`s the cover of the book that contains the poems, called "The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni Jr."
GIOVANNI: I`m named after my mom.
LAMB: Thank you very much.
GIOVANNI: Thank you. This was fun. Thank you.
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