Nikki Giovanni, born Yolanda Cornelia Giovanni, announced her retirement from Virginia Tech after more than three decades, VT news reports. The unapologetic activist joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1987 as part of their Commonwealth Visiting Professor 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 Virginia Tech English professor who approached her during a conference. The beloved, American poet accepted the offer then moved to Virginia with her mother and son.
Giovanni credits her upbringing for sparking her passion for writing. The Knoxville native spent her sick days exploring her mother’s library – and she had a lot of them! She was often absent from school for health reasons, which allowed her to fall in love with reading. “Mommy had a wonderful library. Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Hershey but she also read trashy books that she kept in the back of her closet.
I remember a nun once saying to me that Black Boy by Richard Wright was a bad book. I knew better, but I thank her for letting me know just because you are grown and a nun you don’t necessarily know what is a good from a bad book. I guess this is a long way of saying I’m a dreamer,” Giovanni wrote in her 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 to even 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 ways no one else does,” she explained.
Giovanni became a proud Fiskite in 1960. Enrolling in Fisk University while still in high school, she became the editor for the school’s literary magazine and joined the Writer’s Workshop. She graduated with honors and a B.A in history in 1967.
Active in the Black Arts Movement and radicalized by the assassination of Malcolm X, she gained a friendship with fellow writer, James Baldwin. In 1970, Nikki Giovanni gave birth to Niktom Limited, her publishing company. When no one else would publish what Giovanni calls “militant poetry” from a Black girl, she published her work herself.
Her resilience got her voice out into the world, making Giovanni a household name and earning her the nickname “Princess of Black Poetry.”
At Virginia Tech, she not only brought all of her star power, but also all of who she was, kicking off her tenure as a professor with an on-campus fish fry.
“She was talking to me about the fact that students and faculty needed to get together more. I thought ‘She has lost her mind. Who’s going to come to a fish fry on the Drillfield?’…That was the first time I realized that she could really change things,” recalled Fowler. Some of the best and brightest at Virginia Tech were in attendance. It was the beginning of Giovanni’s 35-year footprint on the campus, a footprint that will remain cemented in perpetuity.
“In all fairness, I’m getting old,” Giovanni told reporters.
And while she may be getting too old for the demand that comes with being a full-time professor, Giovanni is never too old to continue showering the world with her wisdom and gifts. Her newest children’s book, A Library, is set to release this fall during a ceremony at Washington, D.C.’s Library of Congress.
The author has continued to put out resonant literature over the years; her upcoming title will center her experience as a child visiting a segregated library near her home. Her poetry often addresses social issues, specifically around topics of race and gender.
Over the years, Giovanni has garnered a number of accolades for her work, including 11 published children’s books, 30 honorary degrees, seven NAACP Image Awards, one Grammy nomination, and a lifetime accomplishment as an esteemed finalist for the National Book Award.
As a Virginia Tech professor, she used her past experiences to connect with students, regularly recounting her stories as a way to inspire them to find their own adventures in life. New York Times bestselling 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.
While Alexander was under the impression he’d be walking into your regular run-of-the-mill writing class, he was met with endless stories about life and current events. At first, he couldn’t understand but, eventually, it all clicked for him.
“[Giovanni once told me] ‘Kwame, I can teach you how to write, but I can’t teach you how to be interesting.’ When I look back, I learned everything. That’s where I got the tools to be able to write,” said Alexander.
Former NFL quarterback, Will Furrer, remembers a similar experience, saying that Giovanni taught him how to find his voice, a skill that proved invaluable once he transitioned from being an athlete to the world of financial technology.
“Our duty was to develop our own voice and learn how to tell our story so that we could do something other than sports,” explained Furrer.
The proud alumnus also recounted Giovanni’s endless inspiration, regularly telling students stories about her celebrity friends and even organizing an event in honor of Giovanni’s longtime friend and literary icon, Toni Morrison. Attendees of the event included legendary writers Maya Angelou and Rita Dove.
“She has been a new and different voice on campus. She brought different people, actors, and influencers to campus so that people in Blacksburg and Virginia Tech could experience diverse points of view,” said Furrer.
That voice also extended itself to some of the more challenging times on campus. In 2007, after the April 16th tragedy, then named one of the deadliest mass shootings in United States history, Giovanni lent her voice in service of hope, sharing a poem to mark the moment that would unite and strengthen the V-Tech faculty and student body during otherwise dismal times. Giovanni’s words also acted as a balm during the height of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when she gave the commencement speech for 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. Her 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 university community,” said Virginia Tech President, Tim Sands.
Named a University Distinguished Professor in 1999, many students remarked about Giovanni’s retirement, saying that Virginia Tech just won’t be the same without her.
“She was part of the allure of Virginia Tech for me. I was able to be in community with this living legend,” said former student, 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 anymore across the generations. Her work in poetry, diversity, and social justice have made her name a household word and made her a model for aspiring poets, young women, and people of color, as well as others,” said Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, professor and chair of the Department of English.
One student, Christal Presley, described her own experience with Giovanni. Presly never took her class but reached out to the legend asking her for feedback on her children’s book manuscript. Giovanni happily obliged, noting to call her “Nikki” instead of “Ms. Giovanni” and encouraged her to call her at any time. Later, she would go on to write an endorsement for another one of Christal Presley’s books, a 2012 memoir she wrote about her father.
“She was the first writer who ever really told me I had talent and who I felt sincerely believed that. I was a nobody. I believed what she said about my writing, and that’s one of the things that has carried me through the years and through a bunch of rejections,” said Presley.
While we live in an era where many legends have either transitioned or are not accessible, Giovanni represents a magic from far ago, similar to a folklore where giants walked among us. As Virginia Tech reporters so eloquently wrote, her departure from the campus does in fact represent “the end of a poetic era,” and one that may never be duplicated. While modern-day truth-tellers like The 1619 Project’s, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and How to Be an Antiracist author, Ibram X. Kendi, have followed in the footsteps of their literary predecessors, it is hard to compare that to the mystique and sheer magnitude of having a presence like Giovanni’s on a college campus.
Still Giovanni is humble about her life and her contribution to the Hokies community; she said she hopes she has taught her students the power of interrogation and critical questioning. It is her interaction with them that she says she will miss the most. “I hope that I’ve done a good job. I hope that I’ve done at least my fair share… I do enjoy talking to sharper minds, and Tech has good minds. I want my students to not accept what they are hearing, but to look and say ‘what kind of sense does this make?’ and ‘what is going to be the end result?’,” said Giovanni.
For former students like Alexander, she has done that and so much more; the Princess of Black Poetry’s stamp of approval is something that he says he is extremely grateful for.
“This is what a real teacher does. They give you what you need, they inform and inspire you, they put you on this path, and they do these little things to give you a leg up,” said Alexander.
Thank you for your service Ms. Giovanni. Because of you, we can!