Space, love, and poetry: ‘The Nikki Giovanni Project’

by Ken Makin from The Christian Science Monitor, U.S.

A new documentary offers a nonlinear, lyrical look at the activism and life of a celebrated Black poet. What our commentator comes away with is a sense of love and awe.

154764Courtesy of Rada Studio/HBOPoet Nikki Giovanni in the documentary “Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” which began streaming on Max on Jan. 8.

It feels deficient to call Nikki Giovanni a poet laureate after viewing her documentary “Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project.” She is much more than her words, which span across the space of Blackness and the endless time it seems to take to secure our civil rights. And yet, the documentary is about not just transmission, but translation – specifically, the uniqueness of how Giovanni views life and the world around her.

The documentary, which is now streaming on Max, is simultaneously victorious and vulnerable. It offers slivers of Giovanni’s life, focusing on matriarchy, sisterhood, and sexuality. Her poetry is a stargate into the activism of the period, a timeline from past to present and beyond.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and raised in Cincinnati, Giovanni rose to fame as one of the pioneers in the Black Arts Movement (BAM), which drew heavily from both the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. BAM is a fitting nickname for the “big bang” that would birth the careers of icons such as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Gil Scott-Heron.

What brings those slivers together is Giovanni’s unique analysis – with an incisiveness that cuts beyond the bone and to one’s soul. The imagery of her reading “I Married My Mother,” a poem about abuse, trauma, and emotional release, on the radio station WHYY is stunning. The call letters contain an urgent intonation, an inquiry of a higher power:

I know crying
Is a skill
I automatically wipe
My eyes even though I know
Is a skill

The conversation on the radio delves into her childhood and her abusive father – and how it makes her analysis of Black men tenuous. That dialogue leads into an excerpt of a 1971 conversation between Giovanni and another luminary, Baldwin, which ran as a two-part episode on the television series “Soul!” Ellis Haizlip, who produced and hosted the show, introduced this particular discussion in a way that felt like a metaphor to space, and finding light in the darkness:

“One of the miracles of this universe that we deal with is the way it can use something as cold and gray and as impersonal as an electron. These electrons that fill your television screen to bring you an experience as warm and as rich and as human as the program you’re about to see.”

“I need love,” Giovanni exhorted, because begging was beneath her. Another portion of that interview with Baldwin went viral in 2022. It touched on the intimate relationship between Black men and Black women, and two of the greatest minds of their generation allowed us to see the depths of their joy and sadness.

That love manifests itself in various ways, such as the care and concern from Giovanni’s partner, Virginia, both professionally and personally. When Giovanni and her son, Thomas, restore their relationship, it allows the elder to get closer to her granddaughter, Kai, and her grasp on motherhood is divine – “I am the rain, she is the blossom.”

Matriarchy is also bittersweet, exemplified in the passing of her 94-year-old aunt, Agnes, which thrusts her into the position of being the oldest woman in her family. Like the bouts with breast cancer and seizures that Giovanni speaks openly about, it is clearly jarring and a reminder of mortality. 

Giovanni’s presence and versatility also command love. For as much as she is defined for her activism, she also gained crossover appeal through writing children’s books in the 1980s and later became a professor at Virginia Tech. Her words and presence are a salve for generations. We are reminded of this phenomenon repeatedly, whether she is recognized as one of the heroes of Harlem at the Apollo Theater, or among Black youth at Afropunk. The commentary across timelines is similar: how Giovanni’s poetry gave them the strength to go on.

In places, Giovanni’s journey feels like my own. When an image of the NASA logo appeared on the screen, it reminded me of my scholarly past at my historically Black university, Florida A&M. I smiled when a FAMU graduate spoke about how the poem “Nikki-Rosa” inspired her. 

Such testimonials are a reminder of the importance of the BAM vanguard. Though she is not named, Giovanni’s compatriot, Sonia Sanchez, appears multiple times in the documentary. Her words first struck me in 2007 on the introduction of a hip-hop record, “Everything Man”:

Listen, listen a man always punctual with his, mouth
Listen to his, revolution of syllables
Scooping lightning from his pores
Keeping time, with his hurricane beat
Asking us to pick ourselves up and become thunder

Sanchez’s powerful prologue inspired me to look into her other works. She was such an influence on me that as a young reporter, I once interrupted a program at another historically Black school – Paine College – to take a selfie with her. When Giovanni spoke about her defection – and later return – to Fisk University in her native Tennessee, the value and sanctity of radical Black spaces was reemphasized.

Speaking of space, with respect to the late Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” Black folks always knew that space wasn’t the final frontier. Nichelle Nichols knew from the original series, as did Levar Burton in “The Next Generation.” So does Giovanni. “The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans,” read the opening words of the doc. Giovanni takes this metaphor to the next level, saying that if humankind wants to take an intergalactic journey, it should lead with Black women, who are familiar with traversing the unknown and thriving against all odds. 

Overall, Giovanni is celestial in this documentary, and we see a poet finally at peace. This serenity is noticeable in her engagement with young people, whether she is blurting out irreverent one-liners in church or sitting with students at Virginia Tech.

“It’s not that we use our talent to tell people what to do. It’s that we use our vulnerability to share the love in our hearts,” she says. “Don’t you think? I really do.”

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Page created on 1/31/2024 12:40:40 PM

Last edited 1/31/2024 12:59:45 PM

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