From Our Staff | February 17, 2005

[By Kathryn Fishman]

We are going to Mars for the same reason Marco Polo rocketed to China,
For the same reason Columbus trimmed his sails on a dream of spices,
For the very same reason Shackleton was enchanted with penguins,
For the reason we fall in love,
It is the only adventure.

—from “Going to Mars,” by Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni thinks we’ll make it to Mars. This self-proclaimed “space nut” is also an activist and a poet. Therefore it makes sense to me that she favors the whirling allure of elsewhere. Space travel gives both the scientist and the dreamer the chance to redefine possibility. Not only can they consider what is out there, they can also see Earth from new vantage points. When Carl Sagan looked back he marveled that, “every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. …on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” When Sputnik took off, Giovanni writes, we really became “earthlings.”

Last Saturday I had the chance to see Nikki Giovanni. She performed as a part of the University of Missouri’s Martin Luther King Day commemoration. When the members of the committee spoke, they quoted from thirty years of Giovanni’s poetry and prose. They said it was a privilege to finally see this woman they had grown up admiring. And it was.

Before Giovanni’s performance, a young woman approached her and asked if she could have her picture taken with the poet. “I am such a huge fan. You don’t understand,” the young woman said in a rush, “I’m like freaking right now.”

There weren’t, however, many people from the university’s English department at the event. And when I mentioned Giovanni to some of the poets I know, their responses were, “Oh yeah, I’ve never really read her.” I think these people are missing out.

I admire Giovanni’s tenacity and boldness. Her poetry and prose is often an intentional affront to racism, classism, sexism, and ignorance. Going to Mars, writes Giovanni “gives us a reason to change.” No one would ever accuse Nikki Giovanni of being shy. Her demand is clear-ending racism. About this she is blatant which makes her a good activist but not necessarily a good writer. What makes her a good writer is her honesty, her care and her bright sense of humor. “If Mars came here it would be ugly. / Nations would ban together to hunt down and kill Martians. / And then the stupid, undeserving life forms that we are, we would also hunt down and kill what would be termed Martian sympathizers.”

Giovanni writes, “I like to tell the truth as I see it. I hope others do the same. That’s why literature is so important.” She goes on to say that you can’t rely on someone else to tell your story. In this way, writing is political, historical, social, and imperative. Her voice and her prose are smooth and bold and never fail to tell it like it is. At the performance I attended a nervous woman in a black suit read an eloquent introduction where she compared Giovanni to Dr. King. Amongst other comparisons she said, “…like King, Nikki Giovanni is for non-violence.”

“I don’t know,” said Giovanni when she took the stage, “if I would call myself non-violent. I mean violence isn’t a particularly good idea, everyone knows that, except maybe George Bush, but sometimes….”

A friend of mine missed Nikki Giovanni’s presentation. He’d been sick all week with respiratory problems. He wasn’t too sick to sit through a performance. The trouble was he’d seen Giovanni before and knew that she was “so damn funny” he thought he wouldn’t be able to stop coughing. Right off the bat I learned what he meant. Giovanni wore a red suit and a tie to her performance. She said well-dressed people behave better. She suggested that everyone be required to wear a tie to sporting events. Nikki Giovanni is a big sports fan. I didn’t know this before her performance. I now know it because she spent the first five minutes of her act doing what might have been a stand-up routine at any American night club.

There are perhaps only a handful of people who can flow effortlessly from the funniest propositions to the ugliest injustices. At her performance, Nikki Giovanni said she wanted to bring King up to date. If he were alive today, Giovanni thought Rev. Martin Luther King would have braids. She thought he would probably have a tattoo. “Everyone has a tattoo these days,” she said. “I do. Mine says thug life.” Nikki Giovanni rolled up her sleeve and showed us her tattoo. A teenage boy in the orchestra almost fell out of his seat. Giovanni said her tattoo was in memory of Tupac Shakur. Giovanni told us she’d like to hear someone rap Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Giovanni writes, “The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans.” In her “Mars” poem, Giovanni suggests that those journeying by rocket for a year to the red planet ought to prepare themselves with the stories of slave ships. These stories could teach the astronauts how to endure. Even those of us not set on the fourth planet from the sun would do well to learn from the history of Black Americans.

I have enjoyed Nikki Giovanni’s poetry for many years. I can’t remember when I first came across her. I imagine it was my grandmother who introduced me to her. My grandmother passed away last year, so we can’t ask her. But it would make sense. Giovanni is my grandmother’s kind of poet. My grandmother was a New Yorker, a tough Jewish woman who spoke a few languages and spent her life fighting for civil rights and telling Yiddish jokes. I’m fairly certain Giovanni struck a chord with my grandmother; regardless, she did with me. My degree is in sociology, not English. When people ask me what I want to do with my life I tell them I want to write. Most people don’t get it. I think Nikki Giovanni gets it. She gets why I thought an education in social inequalities would make me a better poet than an education in 17th century literature.

I owe Giovanni another small debt for high-jacking her love poems into Valentines and other cards for Chris, my fiancé. “How do you write a poem / about someone so close / that when you say ahhhhh / they say chuuuuu / and does the paper make it / any more real / that without them. / Life would be not / impossible but certainly / more difficult.” There aren’t any topics Giovanni is afraid to handle, from social justice to sex, from having a baby to protesting racism. When a writer is finally willing to discuss life honestly he or she is able to write his or her best lines. Giovanni is honest.

Both Giovanni and her sister have battled with cancer. At her performance last week, Giovanni told us her sister was still undergoing chemo treatments. She said her sister was self-conscious about losing her hair. She thought she looked ugly. “You don’t look ugly,” Giovanni said, “you look like me.” Soon after, Nikki Giovanni shaved her own head to make her sister feel better. “I have a nice head,” Giovanni told the audience. “You never know what kind of head you have until you shave it. I was kind of nervous about that, but as it turns out I have a pretty good head.” Her fans agree.

And as you climb down the ladder from your spaceship to the Martian surface, look to
your left and there you will see a smiling community quilting a black-eyed pea, watching
you descend.

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