Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee to Yolande Cornelia, Sr. and Jones “Gus” Giovanni. She grew up in Lincoln Heights, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, and in 1960 began her studies at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, her grandfather’s alma mater. She graduated in 1967 with honors, receiving a B.A. in history. Afterwards she went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. In 1969 Giovanni began teaching at Livingston College of Rutgers University. She is an Honorary Member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
The civil rights and black power movements inspired her early poetry that was collected in Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967), Black Judgment (1968), and Re: Creation (1970). She has since written more than two dozen books including volumes of poetry, illustrated children’s books, and three collections of essays.
Giovanni gave birth to Thomas Watson Giovanni, her only child, on August 31, 1969, while visiting Cincinnati, Ohio for Labor Day Weekend. She later stated that she had a child out of wedlock at twenty-five because she “wanted to have a baby and she could afford to have a baby” and because of her conviction that marriage as an institution was inhospitable to women and would never play a role in her life. After her son’s birth, Giovanni rearranged her priorities around him and has stated that she would give her life for him. “I just can’t imagine living without him. But I can live without the revolution, without world socialism, women’s lib…I have a child. My responsibilities have changed.”
Both Giovanni’s mother and sister died of lung cancer and in 1995 Giovanni herself was diagnosed with the disease. She had surgery at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio and eventually had a lung removed. Giovanni gave up smoking after she was diagnosed, saying in 1996 that she now smokes in her dreams. She also denies that her cancer has made her a better person, adding that “[I]f it takes a near-death experience for you to appreciate your life, you’re wasting somebody’s time.” In 1999, Giovanni said she would like to negotiate a truce with her cancer, stating that she’d “like an agreement that we will live together for another 30 years.” In 2005 Giovanni contributed an introduction to the book Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors.
Giovanni’s writing has been heavily inspired by African American activists and artists. Her book, Love Poems (1997), was written in memory of Tupac Shakur and she has stated that she would “rather be with the thugs than the people who are complaining about them.”
She also tours nationwide and frequently speaks out against hate-motivated violence. At a 1999 Martin Luther King Day event, she recalled the 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard: “What’s the difference between dragging a black man behind a truck in Jasper, Texas, and beating a white boy to death in Wyoming because he’s gay?”[
Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) acknowledged notable black figures. Giovanni collected her essays in the 1988 volume Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles. Her most recent works include Acolytes and On My Journey Now.
In 2004 Giovanni was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards for her album “The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection.” She also featured on the track Ego Trip By Nikki Giovanni on Blackalicious‘ 2000 album Nia. In November 2008, a song cycle of her poems, Sounds That Shatter the Staleness in Lives by Adam Hill, was premiered as part of the Soundscapes Chamber Music Series in Taos, New Mexico.
She was commissioned by National Public Radio’s All Things Considered to create an inaugural poem for President Barack Obama. Giovanni read poetry at the Lincoln Memorial as a part of the bicentennial celebration of Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 2009.
Giovanni has been teaching writing and literature at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia since 1987, and is a Distinguished Professor of English. Giovanni taught the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho in a poetry class. She described him as “mean” and, when she approached the department chair to have Cho taken out of her class, said she was willing to resign rather than continue teaching him. She stated that, upon hearing of the shooting, she immediately suspected that Cho might be the shooter. On April 17, 2007, at the Virginia Tech Convocation commemorating the April 16 Virginia Tech massacre, Giovanni closed the ceremony with a chant poem, intoning:
|“||…We know we did nothing to deserve it. But neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS. Neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory. Neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water…We are Virginia Tech…We will prevail.”|
On August 21, 2007, The Tennessean reported that Giovanni is returning to her alma mater as a distinguished visiting professor at Fisk University. As well as teaching a writers’ workshop for about thirty students one day a week, Giovanni also wants to hold a workshop for the general public in order to reach out to the community.