Nikki Giovanni: Poet, Dreamer, and Hokie

Renowned poet, eight time NAACP award winner, University Distinguished Professor, and the list of achievements goes on, but much to Virginia Tech’s credit–Nikki Giovanni is a Hokie.

Although she didn’t attend Virginia Tech for her degree, she is part of the VT Stories featured faculty selection. Nikki is a vital member of the Virginia Tech family and an inspiration for all of Hokie Nation. She is a proud supporter of the arts and the humanities, a big football fan, and an effervescent professor. She holds the keys to over two dozen cities, has too many honorary degrees to count, and could be anywhere in the world. Still, she chose to make Virginia Tech her home.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee before eventually moving to Lincoln Heights in Cincinnati, Nikki returned to the south every summer to stay with her grandmother. Early life in the Giovanni home was heavily influenced by religion, education, and the shadow cast by her talented, older sister Gary. Both of her parents were college graduates and teachers. Still, Nikki marched to the beat of her own drum. This manifested itself early in her decision to read books and speak to teachers outside of normal coursework. Though it may not have been recognized early on, Gary would be the singer and dancer of the family, but Nikki would be the writer.

Those annual summers at her grandmother’s brought Nikki face to face with segregation, but she didn’t fully realize the situation at the time. Though she doesn’t recall understanding why she couldn’t go to the library herself for books she wanted as a child, Nikki’s awareness of segregation grew as she matured. Swimming, movies, and even circuses became events and places that caused discomfort. She came to realize the right and the need to protest.

“And of course you went to picket with them because it was the right thing to do… I mean, I wasn’t, truly I was not important. I was just another body in the line. But you realize that something has to change. And even as those things changed something would never be the same.”Nikki Giovanni

Nikki’s proclivity towards autonomous learning has continued throughout her life. Though she never graduated from high school, she was granted acceptance at Fisk University as an early entrant. Fisk was a large adjustment, and she and the school’s dean at the time didn’t see eye to eye. After spending a year away from Fisk figuring out what she wanted from life, Nikki returned invigorated and ready to complete her undergraduate degree in History.

“And I am a big, big, big fan of there are no mistakes, there are just learning opportunities. And I say that to my kids, and my kids don’t understand it right now. But no matter what happens, no matter what goes on, it’s not a mistake, it’s another way of learning.”Nikki Giovanni

She initially went from Fisk to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work. This, too, was a learning opportunity that led to a Dr. Shoemaker inspiring her to attend Columbia’s MFA program. From there, her poetry and writing career took off and has never slowed down.

Dr. Virginia Fowler, Director of Undergraduate Studies in English and the Literature and Language Program at Virginia Tech, happened to be at a conference where she heard Nikki speak. The two began corresponding about Virginia Tech, and this led to Nikki and most of her family moving to Blacksburg. With her family near and the welcoming Hokie community, Virginia Tech quickly became home.

Nikki became Virginia Tech’s first female University Distinguished Professor and quickly set to work inspiring her students to find their own voices and share their dreams. Although Virginia Tech was certainly not the most diverse campus, then or now, she has never allowed race to hold her back or affect her opinions of others.

Throughout her many years here, she has had the opportunity to teach a variety of courses and a multitude of students. One of her favorite classes has been her Harlem Renaissance course. In fact, an activity for this course led her to meeting one of her favorite Hokies– a man most know as Coach Frank Beamer.

Nikki supports many programs at Virginia Tech, but she is a most proud supporter and defender of the arts. Beyond sharing this passion with her own students, she has encouraged the arts in the university at large by procuring funding and establishing the Steger Poetry Prize.

“And as I sit here, one of the things that I enjoy, and it’s now the 12th year, is that Dr. Steger took me out to dinner one night, and I love Dr. Steger so much, and he said, you know, Nikki, if I gave you $1,000, could you give me a poetry prize? And I said sure, because the answer to almost everything is yes. “Nikki Giovanni

In her 30 years here, Nikki has been a constant advocate for writers. She has happily taught students in her 8 a.m. creative writing classes who she gets “from their dreams.” She brought her family here and made Hokie Nation a part of her. She has also been with Virginia Tech at its darkest hour. “We Are Virginia Tech,” a familiar chant to any Hokie, comes from Nikki’s impassioned reading at the 2007 commencement ceremony. Nikki, and all Hokies, take solace in knowing that the darkness of that day and that tragedy are the farthest things from what Virginia Tech is about.

“And God knows you didn’t want what happened here to define us, because that’s not who we are…we have to define—it’s what we were talking about earlier—whether it’s racism or anything else, you have to define yourself. You just…you have to. And if you don’t, you’ll let some fool define you.”Nikki Giovanni

At 73, Nikki is vivacious as ever, and she advises the joy of growing old to everyone. She has gone from the baby of her family, to the oldest relative. She loves music, cooking, and learning. Nikki is a renowned poet. Nikki is passionate about politics, writing, and her students.

Nikki Giovanni is a Hokie.

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About this Story

Date Recorded: March 14, 2017

Interviewer: Ren Harman

Date Posted: March 29, 2017

Editor: Jessica Craig

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