gamut (2007-12)

Nikki Giovanni is speaking at the Tennessee Theatre Tuesday night. Such an announcement made 40 years ago might have prompted the governor to send the National Guard to take positions on Gay Street, in full riot gear. She was one of the most controversial voices of a controversial generation, a small woman with a big agenda to bring down the corrupt white establishment and ennoble the oppressed, even to the point of militancy. With the possible exception of some musicians, she may have been the last radical poet anyone paid much attention to.

However, she's here now with a new and different book of prose about African-American spirituals called On My Journey Now . She and her publisher Candlewick Press, in fact, chose to launch her national tour from the Tennessee, speaking on slavery and its legacy, with UT's Love United Gospel Choir backing her up.

Sponsoring the event is the UT Center for Children's and Young Adult Literature. "I'm excited to be going in there," she says of the big old theater. A lot of people are impressed by the Tennessee, including some performers. But the venue has a good deal more meaning to Giovanni than it does to most headliners.

The Tennessee was always the most elegant theater in the city where she spent much of her youth. It was hardly a quarter mile away from her grandmother's house on old Mulvaney Street when she spent so much time there in the 1940s and '50s. But she never set foot inside the theater until many years after she left town, until she returned as a nationally famous poet and academic of middle age. Like most movie theaters in the Jim Crow South, the Tennessee was, for decades, strictly whites only.

Giovanni tells a story about her family in the 1940s, when her older sister, Gary, was just learning to read. "One day we were walking down Gay Street, when it was really Gay Street , and my sister stopped to read the poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , a favorite that made the rounds for a few years after its 1939 release. She asked my father if we could go in. My father didn't know whether to say we can't go in there because we don't have enough money, or we can't go in there because we're black."

Giovanni leaves the story there. However, according to Giovanni's friend and biographer, Virginia Fowler, Jones Giovanni tried to get his family into the theater, but was refused. For him, a college graduate unable to find any but menial work here, it was Knoxville's last straw. He determined to move his family north, to Cincinnati.

By the time the Tennessee was integrated, as a result of demonstrations and civil disobedience in 1963, Nikki Giovanni was a student at historically black Fisk University in Nashville.

Nikki Giovanni saw her hometown's most famous theater for the first time more than 40 years after it turned her family away, and it took a personal invitation from Gov. Lamar Alexander to get her to return; he invited her to a Tennessee Homecoming gala there.

Looking around the theater and its amenities, she says she had a revelation about the segregationist mindset. "Of course they don't want you to be in here," she thought. "They don't want you to see it's not as shabby as any place else! Back then, white toilets were always clean; black toilets were always dirty."

But then she laughs. "With integration, of course, all toilets are dirty."

Today, Giovanni is quick to laugh; at 63, the creative-writing teacher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg has a gentle, sometimes whimsical affect. She boasts about Virginia Tech's unexpected No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. ("We can beat Illinois," she predicts, correctly, though the Hokies finally fell to Southern Illinois in the second round on Sunday.)

She may now be best known to a young generation as an author of children's books, like Rosa , her illustrated biography of Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks, the jazz story Genie In the Jar , and several collections of poetry for children, including The Sun Is So Quiet .

Not to mention a slim but vivid volume from 1994 called Knoxville, Tennessee , which children across the country know as a warm picture-book about a black girl enjoying the summer with her grandmother. The text, however, was originally a free-verse poem about her childhood home as she had known it, published in one of her first collections. Making a children's book of the modern poem was her editor's idea; "If you're a writer," she says, "the answer to everything is 'yes.'"

But there was a time, about 40 years ago, in fact when "Knoxville, Tennessee" was first published as a poem, when the name Nikki Giovanni could cut like a razor. It sent chills up the spines of honkies everywhere.

She was one of the uncompromising figures that made the '60s memorable. Her early books, Black Feeling, Black Talk , and Black Judgment , were barrages of African-American outrage in Beat-like free verse, poems with titles like "Black Separatism" "The Great Pax Whitie" and "Ugly Honkies." They expressed specific bitterness toward the white leadership and encouragement for militant groups like the Black Panthers. In her poems, she spoke of "the inevitability of revolution," and often seemed to encourage armed defiance with violent imagery.   Though some of her poems seemed to question Martin Luther King's nonviolent tactics, she was bitter about his death, which prompted a 1968 prose poem that opened, "What can I, a poor Black woman, do to destroy America?... There is one answer--I can kill."

Her poems were radical and often harsh, but struck a chord in their time, and were remarkably popular. Some have called her the most-read poet of her generation. When she spoke in big nightclubs in New York, she drew standing-room-only crowds of would-be revolutionaries.

By the end of the 1960s, though, when she was still in her mid-20s, she had completed her most famously scathing work. After she became a single mother--deliberately--her work softened and, to some minds, deepened. Her last book, On My Journey Now , published earlier this year, is a gentle, conversational examination of spirituals as a sort of soundtrack of the black American experience. But you can still hear some of the passion of the old Nikki in her words.

If anyone's life is ever stereotypical, Nikki Giovanni's has not been. In one of her early poems, "Nikki-Rosa," she seems aware of her reputation, but also annoyed at the assumptions readers made about her own background. At the end of it, she forecasts that white writers will misunderstand the root of her anger: "they'll / probably talk about my hard childhood / and never understand that / all the while I was quite happy." (Remarkably, the nostalgic poem that appeared as the text of the 1990s children's book, Knoxville, Tennessee , first appeared as free verse in the mostly scathingly political collection, Black Judgment .)

The black radical with the Italian name was always a paradox to begin with, and her biography is fittingly uncategorizable. She did grow up partly in the South, where blacks were taught to learn their "place," but her grandmother, Louvenia Watson, was a prominent black community activist, a physically and mentally large woman who was known to spar with powerful whites, including Cas Walker. Mrs. Watson was a liberal Democrat who supported Adlai Stevenson's campaigns for the presidency. According to family tradition, her outspokenness, which threatened to get her in trouble in Georgia, was what brought her north to Knoxville.

But Nikki's granddad, John Brown Watson, was a personally conservative Latin scholar and Eisenhower Republican, a holdover from the days when most blacks still supported the party of Lincoln. "It was fun to listen to them," Giovanni says. From early on, Nikki was her own person.

Her mother was, by the way, a regional tennis champ; she met her father, Jones Giovanni, on Knoxville College's campus. She suspects her mother, under the spell of her Latin-scholar father, was attracted to Giovanni in part because of his exotic name. (He was born on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and his lineage is obscure, but she has said she assumes they're descended from slaves owned by an Italian slaveowner.) Born here in June, 1943, Giovanni was little when her parents moved to Cincinnati. But they never wholly moved. Her grandmother seemed to exert a gravitational pull. Despite her father's dissatisfactions with segregation in Knoxville, Nikki and her sister returned frequently to spend summers here.

"Knoxville, in many respects, was a haven," she says. "My parents used to fight a lot. I needed to get away."  

At 14, she more or less moved back here, attending old Austin High, a forerunner of Austin-East. She and her grandmother attended Mt. Zion Baptist , which, in pre-urban-renewal days, occupied a large brick chapel on Patton Street, closer to downtown than today's Mt. Zion, which is on Dandridge Avenue.

It was there that she learned many of the spirituals she discusses in On My Journey Now . The first hymn she quotes in her new book is, "On My Journey Now, Mt. Zion."

Of her grandmother, she says, "The older she got, the more charming she became. She was an activist at 25--but at 50, it's wisdom ."

Her grandmother had diverse interests, active in a literary club and a garden club--Mrs. Watson was known for her rose garden on Mulvaney, the street more recently renamed Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Drive. But she campaigned for civil rights, and against the Jim-Crow poll tax, which effectively kept blacks from voting in many areas. "Not just in town, she was in the NAACP. She went to Myles Horton's school." That was the Highlander Folk School then in Monteagle, where Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks learned tactics of nonviolent resistance. (Located in Knoxville during the '60s, the school still survives near New Market, but is no longer as confrontationally political as it was during the Civil Rights era.)

"Tennessee didn't have some of the sort of problems the deep Southern states had," Giovanni says. "And Knoxville didn't have the sort of problems that Memphis had--or has. We could ride the bus any place. I think it's the Appalachian roots for not having that level of segregation."

Segregation certainly existed in Knoxville, and the Watsons and Giovannis lived in a black neighborhood. But Nikki's memories of life on the eastern fringes of downtown are rich and warm. "We'd walk down to Clark's Drugstore to get ice cream, listen to the jukebox. One play for a nickel, six plays for a quarter. We'd pool our money. It's where I first heard Nina Simone," the influential jazz singer and civil-rights activist.

She'd play tennis at Cal Johnson Park. Her grandmother lived right across the street. "In the backyards, there were no fences. It was lovely. Rev. Abram kept ducks. Mrs. Abram would bring us duck eggs.

"Cal Johnson Park had swings. Grandmother would let me go swing until noon. Grandmother would sit up on the porch and watch. There was no sense of danger at all. I'd say, 'Can you see me, Grandmother?'"

"I remember the Gem," the big black theater just down the hill. "The popcorn was good. I don't know why, blacks in a black theater, we didn't serve sweet potatoes. They're quieter than popcorn."

That site has been central to much of her prose and poetry, like the much-anthologized essay, "400 Mulvaney Street." Named for her grandmother's address, it's one of her most specific autobiographical pieces. However, the whole neighborhood was nearly obliterated by urban renewal. It's now the general area of Townview Terrace, apartment complexes. The Park part of Cal Johnson Park isn't nearly the park it used to be, but now does host the Cal Johnson Recreational Center.

The Gem Theater and the old Mt. Zion church are now theoretical points along the asphalt expanse known as James White Parkway. "It's the same everywhere, no matter where you are, Detroit, Roanoke, Chicago, Minneapolis. They go to where the blacks live, and say, 'We must build a road through there. Use that piece of land.'"

She says the black community suffered under urban renewal, but one demographic more than others: "You lose the old people," she says. "And whatever the value of the house, you don't get that. And you lose the community. Life is never about a place to live, it's the people you know and who know you." Urban renewal forced her grandmother to move to farther East Knoxville; her house and rose garden was landscaped away. In "400 Mulvaney Street," which originally appeared in her book, Gemini, she blames the move on her brokenhearted grandmother's death in 1969.

At Mrs. Watson's funeral at Mt. Zion, they had one surprise. "Biggest flower spray was the family's," she says. "The second biggest was Cas Walker's." The longtime city councilman knew how to make friends of old opponents.

A proposal to re-rename all or part of Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Drive "Mulvaney Street"--partly inspired by Giovanni's work set there--probably won't happen, according to Mayor Bill Haslam. However, he says the city will soon install a historical plaque at the site of her early home.

Her new book, an impressionistic reflection on the context of the spirituals she's heard all her life, expresses her fascination with what she sees as the subtexts for well-known spirituals. Giving it a starred review, Booklist calls it "personal and passionate." School Library Journal remarks, "Giovanni is a poet, and the book has cadence; in tone, it almost reads like the transcript of a speech or a sermon..."

Asked if there's any particular spiritual that has special meaning to her, she says, "Any given day, my favorite's going to change." She remembers the inspiration of the Fisk Jubilee singers, an a cappella group that frequently performed when she attended that historically black Nashville college. "I remember 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.' And 'Ain't got time to die'--it's so sassy, such a woman's song--it says, Get outta my way ."

She's particularly intrigued with an old slave song, "Everybody talking 'bout heaven ain't going there." Whites sometimes interpreted slaves' enjoyment of singing as proof of their contentment, but Giovanni says she pictures slaves singing in the balcony of the white masters' church, singing "Everybody talking 'bout heaven ain't going there" specifically about the white slaveholders and their complacent preachers.

Giovanni says the history of slavery has been told most often from the point of view of the slaveholder; she sees spirituals as a rare way of getting at the slaves' perspective. Few slaves were able to write, and few whites took much of an interest in trying to see things from their point of view. But slaves did compose spirituals, and Giovanni is interested in what clues to their experience she can find in them.

"We'll be working with a choir, so people can hear it. I'm interested to know what it might engender in people--find out what else might the story have done."

"In 2007, nobody's gonna say slavery was a good idea. I just want to know if I had been enslaved, how would I handle this. How did you remain sane at the Middle Passage? When you were introduced to the plantation? They had to have find dignity, and they did it when they made the decision to live." Certainly not all blacks were content with their lot. "Everybody didn't ride the Underground Railway," she says, "but over 100,000 did. And if there hadn't been fugitives, there wouldn't have been a Fugitive Slave Law."

She is perhaps doing through spirituals what another former Knoxvillian, Alex Haley, tried to do through genealogy and narrative, through his wildly popular book, Roots . Giovanni was a close friend of Haley, who spent most of his last decade in Knoxville and Norris. "When he remarried, I told him [she affects a mock-whining tone], 'Alex , I was gonna be the next one.'"

She admires his big bronze statue , which stands in Haley Heritage Square, near the current location of her old Mt. Olive Baptist Church. "It's beautiful, isn't it," she says. "I told them, if it's ever missing, check my back yard."

She's not one to dwell on her own past, or to belabor her evolution over the last 40 years.

"Yesterday's radical is today's prophet," she says. "If you don't drop dead first!" Several of her old black-radical allies of the '60s, the ones she references in her early poems, have not survived. (One who did survive is Angela Davis, the former militant who once appeared on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, and the subject of some of Giovanni's early poetry, will appear at UT's University Center on April 9.)

Giovanni suggests the tactics of the '60s may not be as urgently necessary as they seemed then. "Then it was radical to be antiwar. I think for the most part people today realize war is a bad idea."

Still, she's not afraid of controversial ideas, and her words still have a strong element of a social conscience. She's still known to cause a stir.

"Next is universal health care," she says. "And not a school district in America that wouldn't do well to have a breakfast program. We give kids Ritalin to keep them still. How about a bowl of grits in the morning, then at recess give them a bowl of pinto beans? Of course, it wouldn't keep the drug companies in business. But I'm not sure they need to stay in business."

She's an admirer of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, and brings him up even in her book about spirituals. Rap, she says, "started out to tell the truth, and then it slid into exaggeration. So we went from a legitimate story to braggadocio, which has now run out, because now it's crazy, because now everybody is a player and everybody is in bed with three women, and it's like, 'Oh, come on, now. Where is Tupac when we really need him?'" She adds, "whatever else Tupac was, he was honest, and we don't have anybody artistically as honest right now."

In the book, she compares the best of hip-hop to spirituals, as "a way to stay sane."

"But I'm not a sociologist," she laughs. "I'm just a poet."

Who: Nikki Giovanni talking about her new book, On My Journey Now . Where: Tennessee Theatre When: Tuesday, March 27, 7p.m. How much: Free