30th Anniversary MLK Day Speaker: Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni

Listening for the Grace Notes

Every year, CAMD creates a running list of speakers─suggested by the team and community members─who we believe can speak to some of the most pressing matters of our time and ground it in historical context. We’ve intentionally centered the voices of trans and cisgender women of color, and Black women in particular, because the prevailing narrative around civil rights often forgets the womyn of the movement.

Nikki Giovanni is a national treasure whose poetry and voice has oft times been a mirror for our nation and a balm for our souls. That was made abundantly clear during her talk. She has a way of telling stories, painting a picture, weaving words together that make you laugh but also challenges your assumptions, asks you to stop and think, and then act. She asked all of us to think carefully about our place in the community. How are we showing up for each other? What role are we playing towards creating a more just community? She reminded us that it can be overwhelming if you fashion your leadership based on King, because the reality is we all won’t be King…and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean we don’t have purpose or an important role to play.  King writes in one of his more famous speeches that the ‘drum major instinct’ can be dangerous because it sometimes lies within one’s ego and oft time takes on a form of exclusivity that corrupts the message. We don’t all need to be the face of the movement and if you feel like you have to be the face, you need to interrogate why.

the funeral of martin luther king jr.
His headstone said
free at last, free at last
but death is a slave’s freedom
we seek the freedom of free men
and the construction of a world
where martin luther king could have lived and
preached non-violence
-nikki giovanni

She also challenged our understanding of historical milestones that we tend to retell with a revisionist slant, especially with regard to institutions like schools. Did all schools integrate because of a moral and benevolent reason? We know that not to be true. Some of the first people to integrate schools are still alive and grappling with the trauma they faced as a result. She gave us one example of schools playing into tired tropes about “inter racial mingling” and the athletic ability of Black men but that’s only one example. If we obscure the truth then we don’t ever address the root of the problem. And King warned us to not to confuse what is symptomatic of versus the root cause of a deeper issue. Ms. Giovanni challenged us to excavate those roots.

Nikki is smiling, sitting on the couch, surrounded by students with whom she shared her infinite wisdom.

Ms. Giovanni also talked about her purpose in relation to her health. Her willingness to share how she thought about her body in relation to death and her experiences with cancer really spoke to us about a different kind of body autonomy. She’s decided to move through the world fulfilling her purpose and has made peace with the fact that at whatever time “she ascends with the angels” she will be ok with that. There were so many wonderful nuggets and moments, you just had to listen for the grace notes. 

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