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Nikki Giovanni: The Power of Love

Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:27 am

By Stone Werner

The most potent aspect of our lives is the human condition—how the emotions we feel conjured by conflict shape the lives we live. As humans, we naturally strive to share our experiences, good and bad, with others around us. A pivotal moment in United States history was the Civil Rights movement when African Americans shared their struggles with their loudest voice yet. Nikki Giovanni, a distinguished professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University born in 1943, is most known for raising awareness about the plight and rights of Black people during the civil rights movement among assassinations of figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She readily established herself as a prominent voice in African American literature. Giovanni’s writing is unmistakably unique. Aside from her remarkable impact during the Civil Rights movement, Giovanni writes about a wide variety of topics, including the power of love in one’s life and its ability to support oneself amidst turmoil. Love is an integral part of the human condition: how our experiences shape our feelings and how our feelings shape our experiences. Three works of hers that underline this focus on love are “Love is,” “A Poem of Friendship,” and “Knoxville Tennessee.”

Giovanni consistently emphasizes the relationships that shape our lives in positive ways. “Love is” reflects about what it means to love another person. Giovanni uses the feeling of love, one that every human being knows, to enlighten the impact our feelings have on our lives. Giovanni stresses the importance of love in one’s life, no matter one’s age. The poem starts with symbolism. Love is symbolized as the action of “tucking you in and kissing you ‘Good night’”(1-3). Again, the act of tucking someone in and giving a kiss is known by virtually everyone, furthering the poem’s impact on everyone’s human condition. During the Civil Rights movement, one of the most polarizing times in America, Giovanni used love to bridge the gap between all people. Love is inherently a positive feeling, further stressing the positive message that Giovanni’s poetry implicitly communicates. “You” as a subject emphasizes the intimate relationship between two people instead of generalizing what a relationship can mean for anyone. Despite what Giovanni does to make the message applicable to everyone, the very same line also contributes to how personal the message can feel. Again, loving “you,” a specific person, is something everybody can relate to and progresses the personal impact the work creates. As Kristin Krull states in “Global Contributions of African American Writers: Using Poetry to Facilitate Connections Between Historical Periods and Students’ Personal Experiences,” the “frame of reference” through which somebody lives has a monumental impact in their life experiences. Giovanni’s positive poetry that effortlessly brings people together shifts the reader’s frame of reference to a more favorable position, therefore impacting the reader’s life whether they know it or not. Moreover, details like “Some people forget … /Some people don’t remember … /Few recognize … ” implicitly shift the frame of reference by moving the primary thought of the line to a new place where “some” people may not understand(1-10). Giovanni carefully dances the line between excluding “some” people in order to bring the “few” closer together and excluding too many people that would detract from the love-driven message of the piece. The use of the second person, the symbolism of love that is remarkably relatable, and the positive frame of reference all work to counteract what may be misconstrued as excluding a group of people and allow the work to make a positive impact with ease. Giovanni separates the last two lines, similar to a complimentary close at the end of a [love] letter. “Love is/You and me”(14-15) mirrors the closing: “Love is” would be solely “Love,” and the line beneath it is the place of the signature of the author, in this case, “You and me.” This love letter structure frames the reader to be both the sender and recipient of the sentiment. It further strengthens the love between one and their lover and concludes the poem in a calm, sentimental mood.

Besides merely sending positive messages to the world in a time of turmoil, Giovanni insists that a deeper connection between two people is necessary to truly live a fulfilling life. “A Poem of Friendship” explores the dynamic between two lovers, and what makes the bond between them so uniquely strong. The warm tone about the special relationship addresses how a positive relationship in life can significantly improve the human condition. The tone contributes to putting the reader in a positive frame of reference from the very beginning of the piece before the reader gets to the true meaning. The repeated structure of the average person’s relationship with their lover, followed by the unique relationship between the speaker and their lover, highlights the minute differences that make a good relationship great. “We are not lovers because… but the love we have” underlines what exactly makes two lovers: the special thing the collectively have between them(1-5). Instead of what is traditionally thought of as a loving relationship, Giovanni stresses small details like the love lovers have for each other and the tears they save rather than the laughs they have. “We are not friends because… but the tears we save” flips the traditional thought of friendship around and focuses on how a friendship can diminish negative aspects in life in addition to introducing positive ones. Again, Giovanni uses an untraditional frame of reference to focus on the opposite side of the relationship dynamic, but still conveys the positive impact of friendship in life. This almost backward frame is a result of the backward times of great social upheaval during the Civil Rights movement. Another way in which Giovanni stresses the importance of a deep connection is with parallel syntactic structure. “We are not lovers”(1), “We are not friends”(6), “I don’t want to be near you”(11), and “I will never miss you”(15) share similar structure all while introducing the key aspects of the relationship Giovanni underlines. As Virginia C. Fowler writes in “‘And This Poem Recognizes That’: Embracing Contrarieties in the Poetry of Nikki Giovanni,” Giovanni’s poetry often acts as a “quilt” that takes into account multiple aspects about society as a whole, the community in which the reader may live, and reader as an individual to create a beautiful statement about the human condition. One piece of the “quilt” that Giovanni creates is the historical context. Another piece of the literary quilt is the intense connection implied between the speaker and their lover. The speaker and their lover can share thoughts with “words we never have to speak”(13-14). This almost telepathic communication is another contributing factor in what makes this relationship so special. Giovanni repeatedly emphasizes the small, yet powerful differences between a good and great relationship during a time of such radical social change to comfort people in the little things. In addition to conveying a positive message overall, Giovanni also shows readers how exactly they can change their lives for the better, or how they can recognize the love already present in their lives. Giovanni’s poetry was a comforting quilt in a time of unrest.

Finally, Giovanni contextualizes the power of love against the background of stereotypes that were festering in the mid to late twentieth century. “Knoxville Tennessee” conveys a sense of nostalgia and love for the happier and simpler times of the past. The speaker’s individual experience relates to the human condition as a whole because everyone can appreciate the nostalgia for the past. Just as the speaker does, virtually everyone has fond memories of their childhood, like the speaker eating fresh food and spending time with grandparents(19-20). However, “Knoxville Tennessee” simultaneously praises love and stresses stereotypes. The repetition of “and” at the beginning of a line highlights the stereotypical activities of a Black family: greens, corn, church, and gospel music(3-7). It starts with these stereotypes at the beginning of the poem, but by the end, Giovanni refutes these by emphasizing how much she enjoyed her childhood. Giovanni recalls feeling “warm/All the time” during summer(20-21). Warm feelings are happy feelings, such as feeling “warm and fuzzy” inside. The line break that precedes “All,” paired with the capital letter, emphasizes how overwhelming the warm feeling is. Summer always has and always will bring joy to Giovanni. The persistence of this feeling works to combat the negative feelings due to the radical social movements occurring at the time, consistently conveying positivity. Yet another method Giovanni uses to expand her audience, and therefore her positive influence, is simple, plain diction. Firstly, phrases such as “[greens] From daddy’s garden” make the poem relatable to younger audiences(4). Any expansion of Giovanni’s audience is beneficial, for the more people hear the message, the more effective the poem is. Next, decisions that the speaker faces such as “Barbeque”(9) or “homemade ice-cream”(11) place the reader into a simple world. Bringing readers into this world is another way Giovanni contrasts the positive life in poetry with the polarized life of the Civil Rights Movement.

Nikki Giovanni is a famous poet for what she did during the Civil Rights movement and beyond. However, she is not famous for how she did it. She expertly employs many devices to positively impact her audience. Everything from family life to street riots, Nikki Giovanni has written about almost every part of the human condition. She brings light into the lives of her readers in “Love is” and “A Poem of Friendship,” and she contextualizes the love against the stereotypes of the time with “Knoxville Tennessee.” Through her robust emotional literature, Giovanni is able to affect the experiences that shape our lives, our human condition.

Works Cited

Fowler, Virginia C. "‘And This Poem Recognizes That’: Embracing Contrarieties in the Poetry of Nikki Giovanni." Poetry Criticism, edited by Jonathan Vereecke, vol. 214, Gale, 2019. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420126517/LitRC?u=paci91811&sid=LitRC&xid=59d71ad3. Accessed 13 Nov. 2019. Originally published in Her Words, edited by Felicia Mitchell, U of Tennessee P, 2002, pp. 112-135.

Krull, Kristin. “Global Contributions of African American Writers: Using Poetry to Facilitate Connections Between Historical Periods and Students' Personal Experiences.” Black History Bulletin, vol. 72, no. 1, 2009, pp. 14–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24759563.