American poet Nikki Giovanni retires from Virginia Tech at 79 – BOTWC

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Nikki Giovanni changed Virginia Tech forever!

Nikki Giovanniborn Yolanda Cornelia Giovanni, announced her retirement from Virginia Tech after more than three decades, VT News reports. The unapologetic activist joined the faculty of Virginia Tech in 1987 as part of their Commonwealth Visiting Professorship program, an initiative that aimed to bring more diverse artists and scholars to the university. Giovanni was recruited to the professorship by Ginney Fowler, the longtime English professor at Virginia Tech who approached her at a conference. The beloved American poet accepted the offer and then moved to Virginia with her mother and son.

Giovanni credits his upbringing with sparking his passion for writing. The Knoxville native spent her sick days exploring her mom’s library — and she had plenty! She was often absent from school for health reasons, which allowed her to fall in love with reading. “Mom had a wonderful library. Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Hershey, but she also read trashy books that she kept in her closet. I remember a nun who once told me that Black Boy by Richard Wright was a bad book. I knew better, but I appreciate her letting me know just because you’re an adult and a nun you don’t necessarily know what’s a good book from a bad book. Guess that’s a long way of saying I’m a dreamer,” Giovanni wrote in his biography. She would propel those dreams into a passion for poetry, a job Giovanni admits she stumbled upon.

“My dream was not to publish or even to be a writer. My dream was to discover something no one else had thought of. I guess that’s why I’m a poet. We put things together in a way that no one else does,” she explained.

Giovanni became a proud Fiskite in 1960. Enrolling at Fisk University while still in high school, she became editor of the school’s literary magazine and joined the Writer’s Workshop. She graduated with honors and a degree in history in 1967. Active in the Black Arts Movement and radicalized by the assassination of Malcolm X, she befriended another writer, James Baldwin. In 1970, Nikki Giovanni gave birth to Niktom Limited, his publishing house. While no one else wanted to publish what Giovanni calls the “militant poetry” of a black girl, she published her work herself. Her resilience made her voice heard in the world, making Giovanni a household name and earning her the nickname “Princess of Dark Poetry”.

At Virginia Tech, she not only brought all her star power, but also everything she was, kicking off her tenure as a professor with a fish fry on campus.

“She was telling me about the fact that students and teachers needed to come together more. I thought ‘She’s lost her mind. Who’s going to come and eat fries on the Drillfield?’… It was the first time I realized that she could really change things, ”recalls Fowler. Some of Virginia Tech’s best and brightest were in attendance. It was the beginning of Giovanni’s 35-year mark on campus, a mark that will remain cemented in perpetuity.

“In all honesty, I’m getting older,” Giovanni told reporters.

And while she may be getting too old for the demands that come with being a full-time teacher, Giovanni is never too old to continue flooding the world with her wisdom and gifts. Her latest children’s book, Library, slated for release this fall at a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The author has continued to publish resonant literature over the years; her next title will center her experience as a child visiting a segregated library near her home. Her poetry often addresses social issues, particularly around topics of race and gender. Over the years, Giovanni has received numerous accolades for his work, including 11 published children’s books, 30 honorary degrees, seven NAACP Image Awards, a Grammy nomination, and a lifetime achievement as an esteemed finalist for the National Book Award.

As a professor at Virginia Tech, she used her past experiences to connect with students, regularly telling her stories as a way to inspire them to find their own adventures in life. New York Times Best-selling author and Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander recounted his own experience in Giovanni’s advanced poetry class when he was a sophomore at V-Tech. As Alexander felt like he would step into your usual writing class, he was confronted with endless stories about life and current events. At first he couldn’t understand but eventually everything clicked for him.

“[Giovanni once told me] “Kwame, I can teach you to write, but I can’t teach you to be interesting. When I look back, I learned everything. That’s where I got the tools to be able to write,” Alexander said.

Former NFL quarterback Will Furrer recalls a similar experience, saying Giovanni taught him how to find his voice, a skill that proved invaluable once he transitioned from being a athlete in the fintech world.

“Our duty was to develop our own voice and learn to tell our story so that we could do something other than sport,” Furrer explained.

The proud alumnus also spoke of Giovanni’s endless inspiration, regularly telling students stories about his famous friends and even hosting an event to honor Giovanni’s longtime friend and literary icon, Toni Morrison. Attendees at the event included legendary writers Maya Angelou and Rita Dove.

“She was a new and different voice on campus. She brought different people, actors and influencers to campus so that the people of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech could experience diverse viewpoints,” Furrer said.

This voice also extended to some of the toughest times on campus. In 2007, after the April 16 tragedy, then named one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history, Giovanni lent his voice in service of hope, sharing a poem to mark the moment that would unite and strengthen the faculty and student of V-Tech. body during otherwise dismal times. Giovanni’s words also acted as a balm during the height of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when she delivered the commencement address for the Class of 2020.

“Nikki Giovanni has been an important and deeply valued presence on our campus, giving voice to the spirit of Virginia Tech and helping us celebrate, mourn, learn, heal, and be better. His words will continue to inspire us and touch readers around the world. While we will miss her regular presence on campus, she will always be a beloved member of our college community,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands.

Named University Professor Emeritus in 1999, many students have remarked on Giovanni’s retirement, saying Virginia Tech simply wouldn’t be the same without her.

“She was part of the appeal of Virginia Tech for me. I got to be in community with this living legend,” said alumnus Honora Ankong.

Some faculty members even said they accepted their positions at the University because of Giovanni’s affiliation.

“You don’t find such recognizable poets across the generations anymore. Her work on poetry, diversity and social justice has made her name a household word and a role model for budding poets, young women and people of color, and others,” said Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, Professor and Chair of the English Department.

A student, Christal Presley, described her own experience with Giovanni. Presly never took his course but contacted the legend to ask for comments on the manuscript for his children’s book. Giovanni happily obliged, noting to call her “Nikki” instead of “Ms. Giovanni” and encouraged her to call him anytime. She would later go on to write an endorsement for another of Christal Presley’s books. , a 2012 memoir she wrote about her father.

“She was the first writer to really tell me I was talented and who I genuinely thought about. I was nobody. I believed what she said about my writing, and that’s the one of the things that carried me through the years and through a bunch of rejections,” Presley said.

While we live in a time when many legends have evolved or are not accessible, Giovanni represents a magic of old, akin to folklore where giants walked among us. As Virginia Tech reporters have so eloquently written, his departure from campus actually represents “the end of a poetic era,” and an era that may never come again. While modern truth tellers like The 1619 Project’s, Nikole Hannah-Jones and How to be an anti-racist author, Ibram X. Kendi, have followed in the footsteps of their literary predecessors, it’s hard to compare that to the mystique and magnitude of having a presence like Giovanni’s on a college campus.

Still Giovanni is humble about his life and his contribution to the Hokies community; she said she hopes she has taught her students the power of questioning and critical questioning. It is her interaction with them that she says she will miss the most. “I hope I did a good job. I hope I did at least my fair share… I like talking to sharper minds and Tech has some good minds. I want my students not to accept what they hear, but to watch and say to themselves “what kind of sense does this have? and ‘What will be the end result?’ said Giovanni.

For former students like Alexander, she did that and more; The Black Poetry Princess seal of approval is something he says he is extremely grateful for.

“That’s what a real teacher does. They give you what you need, they inform and inspire you, they put you on that path, and they do those little things to give you a head start,” Alexander said.

Thank you for your service Mrs. Giovanni. Thanks to you, we can!

Beloved iconic poet Nikki Giovanni is retiring from Virginia Tech after 35 years as an English teacher. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.


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