“I love a good cry” – Poet Nikki Giovanni
Twelve years ago, I sat in a classroom at Virginia Tech and watched poet and educator Nikki Giovanni inspire a group of black male students, all college football players who had dreams of ascending to the NFL.
Giovanni was teaching the young men humility, patience, how to broaden their options in life – and especially how to cope with disappointment if they didn’t make it to the big leagues.
What I didn’t know then was that Giovanni was dealing with her own painful past – and she was just learning how to cry.
As a child watching her father punch her mother, Giovanni said she never wept once.
“I watched my parent’s marriage and I had to make up my mind and what I decided was it that it wasn’t any of my business,” Giovanni said in a recent interview.
“So I had to step back from it and fortunately I had an incredible grandmother and so I went to live with my grandmother but one thing I was never able to do was cry,” she said.
“I finally learned crying was proper when my mother died about twelve years ago,” Giovanni, 74, said. “It helped at the church but then there was so much to do with the burial and all the other arrangements. I learned to respect tears but I didn’t have time for them until I began writing this book. There was so much in my heart, I had to write it.”
Giovanni’s new book, “A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter,” is a personal collection of poems and essays that focuses on her extraordinary life –111 pages of teachable moments.
“I also wrote about things that made me happy and things that made me laugh,” Giovanni said. “So I wrote a poem about Big Maybelle, the blues singer.”
Mabel Louise Smith, known to her fans as “Big Maybelle,” was a popular blues singer. Her 1956 hit single “Candy,” received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.
“I remember a guy named Nate who was a numbers runner and he would take me to nightclubs,” Giovanni said. “I was 15, he would take me to nightclubs in Newport, Kentucky, and I got to see people like Big Maybelle and she was incredible. I loved the blues.”
Giovanni’s poetry is so powerful that Oprah Winfrey once named Giovanni one of America’s 25 “Living Legends.” Giovanni has written three books listed as New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestsellers; she was a Grammy Award nominee and a finalist for the National Book Award.
A graduate of Fisk University and a Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech, Giovanni still enjoys being in the classroom – and she loves humor.
“I realized that after I had a seizure, my doctor and I have been arguing ever since,” Giovanni said. “He said I have high blood pressure, he told me I eat too much salt. I told my doctor my problem isn’t salt, it’s that I never learned to cry – and to let it out.”
“So I told my doctor he needs to invent a symptom called ‘The Nikki’ – so when patients come to him with high blood pressure he can tell them ‘You have the Nikki!’ ”
]Giovanni’s legendary humor is infectious, and, in fact, she was giggling like a youngster even as she said goodbye, ending our 40-minute phone call.
I was laughing, too.
What do you think?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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