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Why The ‘Poet Of The Black Revolution’ Thinks ‘We Did Not Get A Leader’ In Obama

Photo credit: Nikki Giovanni

Poet Nikki Giovanni appears in this undated photo.

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Nikki Giovanni, one of America's most revered poets, has been documenting the struggle of African-Americans since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, earning her the title "poet of the black revolution."

Her poems and spoken word performances have traced the progress and challenges facing black Americans. In recent years, many of her poems have turned more personal.

Giovanni spoke to Midday Edition about poetry and politics.

What do you think poetry does better than anything else?

Giovanni: I think poetry soothes us better than anything else. Poetry is what we read when we get married, and poetry is what we read when we are being buried. Poetry is what we read when we fall in love, and we write really mean poems when we are angry at people. Poetry does everything.

Are you the kind of writer who writes every day?

Giovanni: No, and I don’t even recommend it. What you do is read every day, you learn something every day. I’m a big comic strip fan. On the days I don’t get my newspaper I’m always upset because I have to know what “Zits” is doing. But you don’t write every day because nobody has something to say every day. But you do need to read every day because there ought to be something coming in.

So you write when you’re inspired?

Giovanni: Not necessarily inspired because I think that’s becoming a bad word. I write when I think I have something to say or something that needs to be said or I am reacting to something.

You’re a distinguished professor at Virginia Tech. You’re in an environment with lots of young, hopeful writers. What does that do for your own work?

Giovanni: I think it’s nice. This semester I have a great class. I think I’m going to miss teaching when I do retire, and I’m getting to the age that I do need to start thinking about that. I enjoy being around kids. I enjoy the routine of coming to see them, and I’m teaching one class in the evening now. We’ve had bad weather here. But on the days that it’s a good day, it’s a pleasure to go and talk to them for three hours.

You spent your youth writing and fighting for civil rights for black Americans. How do you think that struggle is different now than it was back then?

Giovanni: Well, we don’t have a race struggle in the old sense of "colored only" or "white only." But we do have a real question of who gets to control whose body. And that is actually the same thing going back to slavery. Who actually controls your body? And I think it’s a major, major question. I must say, and I don’t know if you can keep this or not, but I was delighted that Scalia has passed because he had such a concept that he should be the one to control somebody’s body — that he didn’t like abortion so I shouldn’t get one. It’s none of his business what I do with my body. It’s none of his business whether I’m straight or gay. It’s none of his business if my friends are black or white. It’s none of your business. I have a right to my life.

So freedom now is more personal?

Giovanni: I think it is, don’t you?

When President Barack Obama was elected, so many people were saying that it was the end of the racial divide in America or at least it was the dawning of a new day for America. And now recent polls say most Americans, including a large majority of African-Americans, think race relations are worse now than when Barack Obama became president. How do you think that happened? And doesn’t that show that there’s something to do beyond the personal?

Giovanni: Well, perhaps. I just wrote a line that said — it’s a longer poem so I’m not going to recite it to you — but the line said, "We hang our heads at the timidity of Barack Obama," and I think we elected Barack Obama to lead and he has not done that. I think that Barack wanted to be president, but he didn’t want to step out and say, "This is what we need to do." And he didn’t take us any place and so we drifted back, do you think? And I think that it’s a shame because now, I saw him the other day, now he’s beginning to say maybe I should stand up. But now he’s leaving office. He should have been doing these things the first year in office. You have to stand for something. I think we elected him to lead and I think that we did not get a leader.

You just said some pretty provocative things about Antonin Scalia and Barack Obama, so I have this question for you: How political would you say you are these days?

Giovanni: I‘m not political. I’m just a little old lady trying to look at the world.

You definitely keep up though?

Giovanni: Well, anybody that reads "Zits" every day probably reads the front page, too.

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