Poet, author and activist Nikki Giovanni will return to Bowie State University on Friday for a public talk about her latest book, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid.”
Published in 2013, the book is a mix of poetry and essays that draws in part on memories of her parents in Cincinnati and grandparents in Knoxville when she was growing up in the 1950s.
Utopia is a type of beer brewed by the Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams), and Giovanni said she picked it for the title because her mother, who died in 2005, enjoyed drinking a beer every day.
“I miss my mother, and I wanted to do something,” she said.
“It’s about things you remember, and a lot of it is about food,” she said about the book, with its mentions of family relationships along with biscuits, beans and artichoke soup.
A daughter of educators, Giovanni, 70, has been teaching English and literature at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., since 1987.
She is recognized as much for her civil rights work as for her poetry, which is marked by a mix of the personal and political.
Giovanni has received seven NAACP Image Awards for her poetry, and she is the first recipient of The Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award.
“They used to say, ‘Put the concentration camps up or take the segregation signs down,’” she said about the beginning of her civil rights work the 1960s.
“You didn’t know what to do, but you knew you had to do something,” she said. “When we looked at America, it frightened us — ‘This is it? This is our life? We can’t buy a car or go to the movie theater.’”
“It’s so basic — it has to stop,” she said.
Giovanni was 12 years old when teenager Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after flirting with a white girl.
“He hadn’t done anything,” she said.
Giovanni’s older sister helped desegregate a school in Cincinnati, and Giovanni later helped revive a chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
She graduated with honors from Fisk in 1967 with a degree in history. One of the things she said she appreciated about history was its trove of stories.
“I like storytelling,” she said. “I’m Tennessee born, I’m an Appalachian. Dolly Parton, she does it with song, I do it with [writing].”
After Fisk, Giovanni studied social work at the University of Pennsylvania and then went to Columbia University.
“If you wanted to be a writer, you went to New York,” she said.
Becoming a writer is not easy, she said.
“It’s a profession of sacrifice — when you start, there’s no way to make money,” Giovanni said.
“You have to go to graduate school or do internships,” she said. “It’s a way to get your message out and improve your craft. ... It takes time.”
Earlier on Friday, Giovanni will work with about 40 sixth-graders from the Robert Goddard Montessori
School in Seabrook.
Under the direction of teacher Connie Jones, the class is studying Giovanni’s poetry and learning to write their own.
“Sometimes students see [writing] as more of a chore and not a release,” said Jennifer West, associate professor in BSU’s Department of Counseling, who is coordinating the event.
A school counselor, West said Jones has gone to the next level — engaging students by not just teaching them the mechanics of good writing, but also helping them tap the feelings that can inspire it.
Jones asked the students to make a “heart map” about what matters to them. One student, for example, wrote about how she values her autistic brother, another about her love of dancing.
“They need an outlet that’s healthy,” West said. “They can use writing to get out deep feelings.”
Giovanni serves as a role model for the students, because she “writes from the heart and expresses it in a way that makes changes in the world,” West said.
“We thought it would be fabulous if they could meet their mentor,” said West about inviting Giovanni to review some of their work.
“We want to find a way to highlight the importance of how to use writing for personal change, advocacy and social justice,” said West. “We want to help the children find their voices.”