The University of Michigan Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs hosted Nikki Giovanni, American poet and English professor at Virginia Tech University, for a poem recitation and moderated discussion Wednesday evening. LSA senior Kayla Tate, SaraEllen Strongman, assistant professor at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and Blaire Tinker, special programs manager at the U-M Office for Health Equity and Inclusion, moderated the event as they discussed race, discrimination and the importance of books.
Charles Davis, assistant professor at the School of Education, opened the event and introduced Giovanni, saying he was extremely excited to introduce Giovanni to the U-M community.
“I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to introduce a giant,” Davis said. “This is one of our most important and loving figures of our lifetime: our beloved sister and elder, Nikki Giovanni.”
Giovanni began the event by speaking about her generation’s progress and achievements, noting the dissipation of legal segregation while acknowledging the harsh realities of racial discrimination that still exist in the world.
“My generation broke down segregation,” Giovanni said. “We broke down the signs that said ‘Black only,’ ‘white only.’ But we didn’t break down racism, and you’re still facing racism.”
Giovanni read a poem to the audience, titled “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).”
Giovanni prefaced her recitation of the poem by describing the relationship between the experiences of African American people in U.S. history and the human’s journey to Mars. She spoke about the history of European merchants abducting people from Africa to be sold as slaves in America, comparing the transportation from known places, like African lands and Earth itself, to unknown places, like the U.S. or space.
“We have people coming from a known (place), which is … West Africa,” Giovanni said. “Coming with people they don’t know, through an ocean that they’ve never seen, to a place that they don’t know, to a people and a situation that they don’t know.”
In her poem, Giovanni reckoned with the harsh realities of the modern world. While she continued her analogy between the transatlantic slave trade and going to Mars, this time she proposed a reality where discrimination does not result from differences.
“Maybe one day the Jewish community will be at rest, the Christian community will be content and the Muslim community will be at peace, and all the rest of us will get great meals at Holy Days and learn new songs and sing in harmony,” Giovanni said. “We’re going to Mars because it gives us a reason to change.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily following the event, Public Health junior Alexandria Smith said she felt Giovanni’s analogy to Mars resonated with her.
“In order for us to go to Mars, we need to fix our own problems and how we interact with other humans,” Smith said.
After Giovanni’s recitation, Tinker spoke about the psychological resilience African Americans must have, both in the past and present. Giovanni addressed the current generation by offering them love and pride.
“We want you to know that we love you, and we want you to know that we’re proud of you,” Giovanni said. “That’s all we can do is offer to love you like that. You’re going to find your own way.”
Giovanni also talked about the importance of libraries. She discussed how libraries have recently been targeted, with many books in danger of being banned. Though she acknowledged the hard work librarians do while fighting for books, Giovanni recognized some parents may have preferences for what their children read in school.
In an interview with The Daily after the event, Public Health junior Rachel Hall said she agreed with Giovanni’s attitude regarding books. She noted that she disagreed with banning books.
“I don’t think we should be banning books,” Hall said. “I feel like that removes a student’s chance to learn and (think critically).”
Giovanni ended the discussion by emphasizing her desire for the empowerment of people. She said she wanted people to take action in society, which she defined as going to the polls to vote.
“I want us to decide what we want, and I want us to know the stories, and I want us to live our lives,” Giovanni said. “I think that that’s best, I think that’s what’s important … You have to vote. Everyone in here who’s 18, I hope you’re registered to vote.”
Daily Staff Reporter Luke Jacobson can be reached at email@example.com.