Of all the adjectives we’d use to describe 2020, “good” wouldn’t exactly top the list. But as this most eventful year comes to a close, hosting literary icon and activist Nikki Giovanni on our new podcast, The Root Presents: It’s Lit! will undoubtedly be one of its high points. Ironically, to hear the legendary poet tell it, she found this year far better than we’re likely giving it credit for.
“Oh, I like 2020,” she told us, adding, “I think everybody’s been saying, you know, “2020 was awful.” But I think 2020 was really good. 2020 called us to stay in, and that was good...you talked to people you didn’t used to talk to...being home, everybody had an opportunity to write you; I’ve heard from people I haven’t heard from in years...on that level, it’s been wonderful.”
OK, we’ll bite—it is Nikki Giovanni, after all—and as she charmingly went on to explain: “So if, for example, the little virus came and said, you know, ‘Well Nikki, what do you think?’ I’d say, ‘Well, I’d rather you didn’t, you know, kiss me or bite me or whatever it is you do because it doesn’t always work. But I think that you’ve done a good job of making Earth come together and making us aware of the fact that we are one planet because the virus has gone all over...the virus has shown us we are all one Earth, and that which goes around, comes to all of us. So I think 2020 hasn’t been nearly as bad.”
It’s the kind of perspective that living through—and participating in—Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the Black Arts Movement and the myriad events of the now-21st century grants you. Now adding a new volume of poems and prose, Make Me Rain, to her extensive and acclaimed body of work (over 30 published works, to date), the living legend has plenty of perspective to share—who else can casually name Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou as friends and acquaintances?
In fact, even while visiting us to discuss her latest work, it’s the criminally overlooked poet Margaret Walker Giovanni shouts out as she names 1942's “For My People” as her favorite poem; one that feels eerily relevant for our current times. For, as Giovanni notes, paraphrasing a famous quote from one of her favorite musicians, Thelonious Monk: “Poetry doesn’t have any wrong words. It just has a word that hasn’t found its home.”
“For My People” [excerpted] by Margaret Walker
For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding, trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth; let a people loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control.
“We write to tell the truth,” Giovanni, also a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, advises her students—and us. “It’s our job, it’s what we do—to leave our footprint...We don’t write—we just don’t write so that we can have a movie. We don’t write so we can have a bestseller because nobody knows...you have to remember, as a writer, you’re writing for the truth, for the possibility,” she says, warning: “And if you don’t think about it that way, you’re going to push yourself into writing crap. And a lot of people do...
“What do I suggest? I suggest you write a good book.”
Hear more of the irrepressible Nikki Giovanni on Episode 13 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit: Poetically Justified With Nikki Giovanni, now available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. Also available is a transcript of this week’s episode.