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Friday, February 23, 2007

Nikki Giovanni speaks at UNCP

By Hannah Simpson

Poet, writer, professor, commentator and activist for African Americans, Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni introduced her children’s book “Rosa” in the Givens Performing Arts Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke on February 15. Giovanni was the third of five speakers in UNCP’s 2006-07 Distinguished Speaker Series.

Nikki Giovanni“Rosa” was written in honor of Giovanni’s long-time friend Rosa Parks and commemorates Parks’ contribution to the African American community. Giovanni has been an activist and poet for 30 years.

She described herself in her poem “Ego-Tripping:”

“I was born in the Congo;
I walked to the Fertile Crescent and built the sphinx…
I am so hip even my errors are correct.”

Giovanni lives without her left lung and several ribs due to cancer. Despite this, she actively engaged the audience in conversation during a question and answer session.

Giovanni said that much of the research for the book “Rosa” came from the mouth of Parks herself, with whom Giovanni had been friends for 24 years before her death.

“Being friends with Rosa Parks is like being friends with the queen of England,” said Giovanni. She said that as long as you know Rosa is the queen and you aren’t, everything will be fine.

The book illustrates the story of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man, while also giving insight into a bit of her private life in Montgomery, Ala.

Giovanni described Parks’ time as the “age of segregation.” Her book describes not only Parks’ story, but also the aftermath of her refusal to give her seat to a white man.
Giovanni said she tried to make clear the fact that Parks did not have a problem with those who were white. The supervisor that Parks worked under as a tailor was white, and they shared a good relationship, she said.
In the story, Giovanni relates that Parks’ supervisor let her leave work early to care for her sick mother.
The book describes Parks waiting at a bus stop, “fiddling for a dime” to pay for the transportation.
Giovanni said that Parks once called her concerning this part of the book.
 “You said I “fiddled” for a dime,” said Giovanni, recalling Parks’ words to her. “But, I’ve never fiddled in my life.”

The story continues to tell how Parks boarded the bus, seating herself in the middle, or “neutral” section. The bus was soon full, and when a white man boarded and asked for her to move from the seat, Parks refused.
“Rosa had recognized that her moment had come,” Giovanni said, standing onstage with the book open, the colorful pages outward towards the audience. “She said “no.’”

Nikki GiovanniThe bus driver, James Blake, was also quick to ask her to move. The police were summoned when she again refused.

Giovanni said that she was asked by reporters if she had anything to say concerning the death of Blake in 2002.

“No, he’s dead and I didn’t kill him…” she shrugged, trailing her words.

Giovanni said that Blake’s wife had replied, saying that Giovanni didn’t understand that Blake was a man of his time.

Giovanni’s reply as she described it was met with a surge of applause.

To be a man of your time means to keep me a slave and to make laws against me, said Giovanni. You don’t want to be a man of your time, she said.

“Thank God that Rosa Parks was not a woman of her time, but a woman of the future,” said Giovanni.

After Parks was arrested, Giovanni said that the NAACP, a group that Parks was active with, posted 30,000 flyers calling for the black population to boycott bus systems.
The famous Montgomery Bus Boycott began with Parks, and was continued through the inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr., said Giovanni.
Giovanni said that King had asked the black community if they should remain in protest of the bus systems until the law of segregation was changed.
King’s words were significant, said Giovanni, because it meant that something had been started.

Giovanni’s story also included information on the brutal murder of Emmett Till, an African American teenager lynched by two Caucasian men for whistling at one of their wives.

The men were acquitted of the crime only to admit to the murder at a later date.

Giovanni said that the murder happened several months before Parks’ defiance of the segregation law, and was relevant because it caused national awareness and helped set the black community for a revolution.

Giovanni said that she was pleased to see Parks coffin to be “laid in state” in order to be viewed by the public.

Giovanni said that Parks was the only one to lie in state that didn’t have the power to kill, “just the power of belief.”
At the end of her speech, Giovanni was still for a moment, before gathering her papers and, with a smile to the audience, gave an abrupt “bye-bye!” that left the audience chuckling.

Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and attended Fisk University, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. Currently, she is a professor at Virginia Tech.

“Rosa” won the Coretta Scott King Award and the Caldecott Honor. Giovanni has been honored with a life membership of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She was the first recipient of the Rosa L. Parks Award, for academics, as well as countless others, and was named one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends.” An audio cd of her work, “Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection” was Grammy nominated.

Giovanni has authored over 25 books.

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