My strange new respect for Nikki Giovanni

GiovanniAtTechDuring Virginia Tech's convocation to mourn 32 murder victims last week, Nikki Giovanni did more with just 258 words than anyone else achieved in the thousands of other words preceding hers (MSNBC video; MP3). It was an electric moment. Her speech came alive for me with the second paragraph: "We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning." Amid all the cliches that began almost immediately about "the healing process," it was bracing to hear someone say directly that, no, healing was a way off, and would need to remain so for a season.

Learning in subsequent reports that the legendary poet had previous and altogether unpleasant encounters with Seung-Hui Cho added more power to her words.

Giovanni appears to have discussed Cho with a number of reporters on the same day, so there was a mini-surge of reports last Wednesday about their battle of wills.

I think Allen G. Breed of The Associated Press did the finest job of weaving Giovanni's story into the broader narrative of how the English professors at Virginia Tech tried to handle their time bomb of a student:

Police asked Giovanni not to disclose the exact content or nature of Cho's poetry. But she said it was not violent like other writings that have been circulating.

It was more invasive.

"Violent is like, 'I'm going to do this,'" said Giovanni, a three-time NAACP Image Award winner who is sometimes called "the princess of black poetry." This was more like a personal violation, as if Cho were objectifying his subjects, "doing thing to your body parts."

"It's not like, 'I'll rip your heart out,'" she recalled. "It's that, 'Your bra is torn, and I'm looking at your flesh.'"

His work had no meter or structure or rhyme scheme. To Giovanni, it was simply "a tirade."

"There was no writing. I wasn't teaching him anything, and he didn't want to learn anything," she said. "And I finally realized either I was going to lose my class, or Mr. Cho had to leave."

From an interview with CNN there is this oddity -- a smart ass challenging the authority of a professor who has spent much of her life challenging authority:

Giovanni said at the start of each class there would be a "ritual" in which she would have to ask Cho to take off his sunglasses and cap.

She said what scared her, and prompted her to ask for campus security to keep a watch on her, was the poetry he wrote for the class.

"He was writing just weird things," she said. "It was terrible. It was not bad poetry, it was intimidating."

She said when she told him to stop writing such poems, he argued back.

"He said 'you can't make me' and I said 'yes, I can," she said.

But what I found striking of all was Giovanni's willingness use a word -- evil -- that we hear less than sick, bizarre, crazy or troubled whenever another mass murderer bursts into view:

"I know that there's a tendency to think that everybody can get counseling or can have a bowl of tomato soup and everything is going to be all right," she said. "But I think that evil exists, and I think that he was a mean person."

Giovanni encountered Cho only once after she removed him from class. She was walking down a campus path and noticed him coming toward her. They maintained eye contact until passing each other.

Giovanni, who had survived lung cancer, was determined she would not blink first.

"I was not going to look away as if I were afraid," she said. "To me he was a bully, and I had no fear of this child."

Photo by Eric Draper, The White House (via Wikimedia Commons)

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