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Poet Nikki Giovanni talks space travel, hip-hop and ‘Selma’

Nikki Giovanni, Virginia Tech English professor, leads the crowd in a cheer after closing remarks at a convocation to honor the victims of a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Tuesday, April 17, 2007. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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Nikki Giovanni — famed and acclaimed poet — doesn’t buy the old adage that great art comes from great suffering.

“I think great art comes from great joy,” she said. She pointed to “Selma,” a film about the 1965 march for civil rights from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, headed by Martin Luther King Jr., as an example.

“We look at a great movie like ‘Selma,’ and that’s an incredible amount of suffering (being depicted),” she said, “but the joy that (producer and actor) Oprah Winfrey must have felt to put that on screen, you know what I’m saying? There’s an inner joy that says ‘I can share this. I can let people be aware of this.’”

Giovanni said during a recent conversation with Flatland that there are some people you visit with and “you just keep your mouth shut.” She named Rosa Parks and author Toni Morrison. Giovanni herself could be added to this list.

Audience members at UMKC’s sold-out Martin Luther King Jr. lecture next Monday will get to hear the poet speak on poetry and race relations, and, if they’re lucky, her views on space travel.

Giovanni said she would love to travel to space, but she’s been told by NASA that it may not be an option. Giovanni is a lung cancer survivor, and she’s now missing a lung and several ribs. Because of her missing ribs and lung, she couldn’t safely re-enter the gravity of Earth.

“(NASA) said, ‘Your organs will move around, and your liver will end up in your lung, and it will kill you,” she said.

Giovanni, however, doesn’t care.

“I’m 71 years old. Maybe by the time I’m 80, just send me up,” she said. “How much longer was I going to live any damn way?

“I think somebody like me needs to go and meet whatever lifeforms are there because I think that I’m a really good representative of what we should be on Earth,” she said. “I’m a lot of fun; I like champagne; I tell jokes. I think we need to send somebody like me into space because we keep sending people that are so serious they wouldn’t know a life form if they saw it.”

Giovanni went on to compare her potential final journey to the Middle Passage — the journey of enslaved Africans from Africa to America in the hulls of ships.

“That’s exactly what the Africans did, wasn’t it?,” she said. “They were put in ships, they were sent across an ocean, and they knew they could never go home, so they had to make a home where they were, and so they brought a song with them.”

Speaking with Giovanni is often like this, with lighthearted joking turning into serious metaphor. She is a woman of multitudes, which is apparent from just a 30-minute conversation.

She has a tattoo that says “Thug Life” in honor of murdered hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur. She refers to rapper/actors Common and Queen Latifah as some of her favorite people, but she admits that she doesn’t know them that well. She considered Rosa Parks a friend. She laughed at the idea of a post-racial society, but thinks a post-racist society is attainable.

She said this can be accomplished through small actions of love and acceptance: greeting those around you at the grocery store or sitting in the first open seat at the dentist, regardless of the color of the person in the neighboring seat.

“Just sit the hell down,” Giovanni said.

“I think we have to practice making ourselves be better people,” she said. “You just have to keep trying. I smile at people at Kroger, and they must think I’m crazy…. You just smile at them and say, ‘How you doing? Hey.’ It doesn’t hurt you to speak. Maybe some of those people used to belong to the (Klu Klux) Klan, I don’t know. I’m living here in Virginia. I don’t know these people. My point is, I’m going to be polite.”

Giovanni said that the only way to encourage a post-racist society is to lead by example.

“At the grocery store, we have a lot of people in those electric wheelchairs,” she said. “You reach up and get the tomato sauce for them. Black or white. If you do what you’re supposed to do, then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ It’s no big deal.

“We don’t need everyone,” she said. “We just need most people.”

Giovanni said she believes music can be a unifying factor across races.

“Black people like the Beatles, and all white people like Motown,” she said.

She said that hip-hop is to America now what jazz was in the 1920s: beat-centered music that brings people together.

“Hip-hop is the salt in the stew. Hip-hop is jazz,” she said. “Jazz became who we are, and it has stayed with us. Jazz is not gone, it will not go. Neither will hip-hop. It becomes part of our daily life. It’s so much a part of us that we don’t know that it’s a part of us.”

She said artists — rappers, filmmakers, poets — aren’t responsible for leading movements, they’re responsible for telling the truth.

“I don’t lead movements. I’m just a poet,” she said. “There’s an old (saying), ‘I am a camera.’ I think that my job is to take a picture, and the people that see that picture will do with it what is useful to them.”

She said readers don’t have to agree with her or follow her “message,” they can just listen.

“I’m not running for office like that. You’re not voting for me,” she said. “I just try to tell the truth and try to share what I think. Some things I know, but mostly I think.”

Nikki Giovanni will be at UMKC Pierson Auditorium at 6 p.m. Jan. 26. The event is sold out.

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