The poet and author Nikki Giovanni is best known for her essays and poetry on Black history and civil rights issues. Over the last 10 years, she's also become renowned for her children's books. These include 2005's Rosa, on the late Rosa Parks.
Giovanni, a Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech, was recently in Chicago as part of a book tour to launch the publication of her two latest children's books, Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat and Lincoln and Douglass. She spoke at Women and Children First to a packed audience of approximately 125. Although the Oct. 18 event was billed as a 'family event' and began at 4:30 p.m. to accommodate children's schedules, only a dozen or so of the attendees were actually children.
The author spoke first about Hip Hop Speaks to Children, in a rapid-fire style, while slipping in an occasional comment about the current election season, much to the delight of her adult audience. Giovanni spoke about why she felt the need to write a children's book about Hip Hop. Criticizing 'cultural critics' like Bill Cosby, she said that the blanket condemnation of the music genre as dangerous and violent was unwarranted: 'Somebody needs to show these kids [ the musicians ] respect. Somebody my age needs to speak up.'
The book is designed as an anthology of poetry, featuring the work of gay icons Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as other entertainers such as Queen Latifah; it comes with a CD of performances. Giovanni said her intent was to show children Hip Hop's history as an established music tradition with roots going back to the 'vernacular' and oral traditions of rhythm and communication, including the seemingly remote traditions of Italian opera and the more readily seen influences of traditional sermons in Black churches. Giovanni appeared particularly concerned about letting children and youth know that there were distinctions in the genre itself: 'If we show [ children ] the breadth and reach of Hip Hop, we give them the tools to see which kind is legitimate and which is not.'
Speaking about Lincoln and Douglass, Giovanni said her attempt in this book was to provide an illustrated story about the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Photo of Giovanni by Yasmin Nair