People/Web Search Calendars UVA Maps A-Z Index spacer University of Virginia Home Page
Staff Contacts TV News Home View All Archives Archives by Speaker
Nikki Giovanni
Poet and University Distinguished Professor, Virginia Tech
"Okra Leaves: Looking at the Future Through the Past"
April 14, 2004

You are a privileged group of people.  You are not going to starve to death.  You are not going to be hungry.  You are not going to be running around with no shoes on unless it is your choice.  You are at a premier institution, so your job is not to get a job; your job is to create something different in the world.  You are that point in your life that you have to be thinking not of your future for god's sake, but of the future of the planet, of the future of the universe, of the future of possibilities. 

You are at Thomas Jefferson's, I am a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, and I am not going to blame him for wanting Sally Hemings, she was good looking, why wouldn't he?  He should have married her but there was an anti-miscegenation law; it would not have allowed that.  So he did the next best thing, didn't he?  He bought her.  That is what he did and Virginia should be ashamed of it because he should have married her.  They are going to have children and they are going to be together, so why shouldn't he?  But then again, Virginia is for lovers, but only if they are what? Straight.  White.  Because it is certainly not for lovers if they are gay.  Am I right?

What is the downside of gay marriage?  What am I missing here?  If gay people want to get married, what the hell do we care?  What is the big deal?

They need to get married.  So I said what if they got married?  They will get health care for each other?  Excuse me!  What am I missing here?  Of course they will have health care because they need health care anyway.  People need health care.  People need retirement benefits.  People need basic needs.  So what kind of eighteenth-century crap is it: I just don't like to see gay people together?  Well that is your problem.  That is not the problem of gay people.  Gay people have a right to love each other.

It is time that we moved into the twenty-first century.  We just can't have it.  Those of us who are black-- and I am always amazed at the prejudice against the black community-- have obviously forgotten that the same things were said about us.  I just don't like to see them niggers.  What is wrong with it?  One of our staunch segregationists don't you just love old Strom? one of our staunch segregationists is like, oh my god I am a segregationist by day but I sure am an integrationist by night. What kind of hypocrisy are we doing?  And that has nothing to do with my prior because I had just thought I had mentioned that.  Because we have to do better. 

I am a big, big, big fan of space.  Of all of the things that is going to happen in the twenty-first century, space is it.  We are going to Mars and I am thrilled.  I know everyone is, 'Nikki, how come we are going to Mars?'  Because it is there, that is the first thing.  And Mars can't come here.  If a Martian landed right here, don't you know this nation, this state, this planet would spare no expense to kill it?  That is what they would do.  They would come in here, Let's kill the Martian'.  We are going to Mars because nothing can come here.

Can't you just see life forms just all around us on their cell phones?

Have ya'll been down yet?'

No I am not going.  Are you going?'

No?  All right.

We have to go.  The trip to Mars resides in black Americans because the trip to Mars is nothing more, nothing less than middle passage.   We deal with slavery so wrong.  I am so tired of Americans being embarrassed by slavery because it happened long enough ago you get over it.  It is time that we moved on.  Everybody wants to deal with slavery in respect to the body.  They want to say what the slaves did, the work that the slaves put out.  The slaves worked and I couldn't agree more.  The slaves did an honest days work and I am very much in favor that they should receive, or since they are no longer here, we should receive an honest day's pay for them.  I am a big fan of reparations because everybody else in America has been screwed over, got reparations except blacks and Indians.  I think it is time we moved on that one too.  Someone is going to say, Nikki, what are they going to do with the money?'  None of your business.  This is so basic.

What we forget and we really need to be teaching the children is that the slavers did not go to Africa to get the slaves as in you go to Starbuck's to get coffee.  The slavers went to Africa to get the Africans, to make them slaves.  And it is a big difference.  And these people because they always say, Oh, the Africans didn't know what they were getting into.  They knew these people were unpleasant.  You have people coming in burning your village down, shooting the old people who can't keep up, bayoneting the little babies.  They knew these were not nice people. So they recognized something is not working here.  And yet as we force-march them to the coast.  As we march them down in Glory Island, as we march them underneath in Cape Coast Castle, as we put these people and pack them into holding pins and these cells.  They knew this is not a good idea but they were a free people and we have to recognize that. 

So as we finally take them out from these dungeons and we put them on rowboats and we start to row them out, they could look back. you see? -- and they could see Africa, they could see the land they lived, they could see something they understood.  I don't know why, I have always been amazed, that people say Africans can't swim?  I mean they never think that Africans jumped overboard and swim.  Of course they can swim; they live next to an ocean.  Some of them were shocked and some of them weren't.  But nonetheless, those who were unable to jump over were taken out to ships and they were going to sail.

As the ship pulls out, they can still look back for a second or third day; they can look back and see the land.  When we get to the fourth and fifth day, they can no longer see the land.  But they can see the heat.  I always remind people if you only have one way to go to Africa, please let it be by water.  If you are coming from say Gibraltar into Africa you will see the heat before you see the land.  It is totally fascinating.  Just totally fascinating. 

As you get over into that eighth to tenth day, what you are doing is looking back but you can't see the land, you can't see the heat, but you can see the clouds.  And clouds over land are different from clouds over water.  So I am saying the Africans still knew where they were.  And we know because the ship's captains kept records.  We know that what the ship's captains considered the most dangerous period was going to be somewhere between that tenth and twelfth day where they could not see the land nor the heat nor the clouds.  And so they knew they had to move quickly because all of sudden they know they will not know where they are.  Some did.  Some didn't.  Some embraced the waters and died.  Some didn't.

But as we move from that period we are now finding ourselves in the middle of middle passage as it were.  They not only cannot look back, they have no idea which way back might be.  And this is where these people, who I think are a fantastic people, these are a brave people, these are a courageous people, and to some degree which you have to love them for, these are people being driven by a curiosity, a I wonder what is next.  We ultimately sing a song that says,' I made my vow to the Lord that I never would turn back.  I will go, I shall go to see what the end may be.  These people made a decision and nobody wants to give them credit for a decision.  They made a decision in the middle of that water to be humane and to be human, to hold on to something because they can, did it ever occur to you how did these people come to the shores sane?  People have had a lot less stress that have been out of their minds.

They came to these shores.  They were then stood on auction blocks, and I always hate slave auctions because they are always in these cute little colonial outfits and the people who are buying them are always standing back, being very gentlemanly.  The reality of a slave auction is you are standing there naked and a bunch of guys are coming and they are putting their hands on you or in you or wherever else they want to while they decide if they are going to buy you.  They then, someone purchases you and then takes a branding iron and they brand you.  They then force-march you to a plantation where you are stuck with a bunch of people you don't know.

I have always been amazed that America, because America is really a trip, how dare they talk about the black family when after all that we made a family.  We found a way to come together.  We made a community.  We found a way to raise a song.  The black people have been a courageous and a wonderful people.  Those people who found a way through all of that trial and tribulation, knowing that the land that they were in fact working was never going to be theirs to share.  It was crop but there was no sharing to it.  Knowing that the children that were bearing were going to be sold out.  How do you continue to go forward and find a way to praise a god and find a way to be glad and find a way to sing a song that says,' I got a crown up in the heavens'?  Ain't that good news?  

These are a great people.  We are going to have to change the way we look at those people if we want to be able to go into space because what ever else they did, they showed us human beings can exist in a space without any possibility of a good thing coming from them and still maintain themselves.  And that is the future of the world.  We will not go forward until we look at the beauty and the wonder of those people.

I wrote a poem called Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We're going to Mars).

We are going to Mars for the same reason Marco Polo rocketed to China,

For the same reason Columbus trimmed his sails on a dream of spices,

For the very same reason Shackleton was enchanted with penguins,

For the reason we fall in love,

It is the only adventure.

We are going to Mars because Perry could not go to the North Pole without Matthew Henson,

Because Chicago could not be a city without a Jean Baptiste du Sable,

Because George Washington Carver and his peanut were the right partners for Booker T.

It is a life-seeking thing.

We are going to Mars because whatever is wrong with us will not get right with us so we journey forward, carrying the same baggage

But every now and then leaving one little bitty thing behind: maybe drop torturing Hunchbacks here, maybe drop lynching Billy Budd there, maybe not whipping Uncle Tom to death, maybe resisting global war.

One day looking for prejudice to slip,

One day looking for hatred to tumble down the waste side,

One day maybe the whole community will no longer be vested in who sleeps with whom.

Maybe one day the Jewish community will be at rest, the Christian community will be content, 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.

We are going to Mars because it gives us a reason to change. 

If Mars came here it would be ugly.

Nations would ban together to hunt down and kill Martians

And then the stupid, undeserving life forms that we are, we would also hunt down and kill what would be termed Martian sympathizers,

As if the fugitive slave law was not bad enough then, as if the so-called war on terrorism is not pitiful now.

When do we learn and what does it take to teach us?

Things cannot be what we want, when we want, as we want

Other people have ideas and inputs and why won't they leave rat brown alone?

The future is ours to take.

We are going to Mars because we have the hardware to do it:

We have the rockets, and the fuel, and the money, and the stuff

And the only reason NASA is holding back is they don't know if what they send out will be what they get back.

So let me slow this thing down.

Mars is one year of travel to get there, plus one year of living on Mars, plus one year to return to Earth

Equals three years of earthlings being in a tight space, going to an unknown place, with an unsure welcome awaiting them.

Tired muscles, unknown and unusual foods, harsh conditions and no known landmarks to keep them human only a hope and a prayer that they will be shadowed beneath the benign hand and there is no historical precedent for that except this:

The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans, I say,

The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans.

The people who were captured and enslaved immediately recognized the men who chained and whipped them and herded them into ships so tightly packed there was no room to turn, no privacy to respect, no tears to fall without landing on another.

We're not kind and gentle and concerned for the state of their souls, no!

The men with whips and chains were understood to be killers, feared to be cannibals, known to be sexual predators

The captured knew they were in trouble in an unknown place without communicable abilities, with a violent and capricious species

But they could look out and still see signs of home

They could still smell the sweetness in the air, they could see the clouds floating above the land the loved, but they reached a point where the captured could not only not look back, they had no idea which way back might be.

There was nothing in the middle of the deep blue water to indicate which way home might be

And it was that moment when that decision had to be made: do they continue forward with the resolve to see this thing through or do they embrace the waters and find another world?

In the belly of the ship a moan was heard and someone picked up that moan and a song was raised

And that song would offer comfort and hope and tell the story.

When we go to Mars it is the same thing, it is middle passage

When the rocket red glares, the astronauts will be able to see themselves pull away from Earth

As the ship goes deeper they will see a sparkle of blue.

And then one day, not only will they not see Earth they won't know which way to look

And that is why NASA needs to call black America

They need to ask us,

How did you calm your fears?'

How were you able to decide you were human even when everything said you were not?'

How did you find the comfort in the face of the improbable to make the world you came to your world?'

How was your soul able to look back and wonder?'

And we will tell them what to do to successfully go to Mars and back.

You will need a song.

Take some Billy Holliday for the sad days and some Charlie Parker for the happy ones,

but always keep at least one good spiritual for comfort.

You will need a slice or two of meat loaf and if you can manage it, some fried chicken in a shoebox with nice moist lemon cake,

A bottle of beer because no one should go that far without a beer

and maybe a six pack so that if there is life on Mars you can share,

popcorn for the celebration when you land, while you wait on your land legs to kick in.

And as you climb down the ladder from your spaceship to the Martian surface, look to your left and there you will see a smiling community quilting a black-eyed pee, watching you descend.

You know if Martin Luther King had not been assassinated he would only be 76 years old and the Smithsonian is having a retrospective, which is now part of the permanent retrospective- it is kind of in the spirit of Martin.  Just as a matter of housekeeping, everybody involved in that gave it because it was a labor of love and no one would accept any compensation for it because we felt, all of us that Martin had given his full measure and we should at least give what we have.  The guy who curated it is called Gary Caseman, and Gary called me because I have written a lot about Martin and he wanted to reprint a poem.  But I did know the Smithsonian started a long way away and I am saying this for the writers in the room, you are always revisiting the subject.  It is not like I write a poem about Martin; you continue to do it because what you think when you are 26 years old and what you think when you are 40 is really different from what you think when you are 60.  So I said, how long before you actually need it for the book?' and he said it would be about a year so I decided, of course, to write another one.

What I wanted to do with this particular poem was one, put him in his time because it so easy to forget what a pissy little period the 50s were.  But I am sure if Martin were with us today, he would have braids and I am totally convinced of that.  First of all, he was cute.  I don't know if we could get him to go blonde but definitely braids, don't you think?  I know what you are thinking, why wouldn't he have dreads?'  Because he was anal retentive and dreads go where they want to go.  And so he is going to have braids because he can at least control that.  I am sure that Martin would have a tattoo because everybody has a tattoo.  I have a tattoo.   And I am sure that Martin's tattoo would be something like vote' or freedom now' because he was responsible.  My tattoo says thug life' in mourning for Tupac.

I know that to be aware that the first person to be arrested for civil disobedience is a man named Henry David Thoreau and Thoreau had a friend named Ralph Emerson and I do think it is fair to say that Emerson was a bit of tight ass.  You never heard anyone say oh if I could have a drink with anybody it would be with Ralph Emerson.  No one wants to hear that.  You would have a drink with Thoreau.  Emerson, I guess doing his Christian duty, went to see about him  and called Thoreau, David, and went to see him in jail.  And he said to him, David, what are you doing in jail?'  And Thoreau looked at him and said, Ralph what are you doing out?' He was absolutely right because for those of us following the track of the Civil Rights movement you know that as we moved out, of course, Montgomery you are going to ultimately move a bunch into Washington and into Birmingham.  And when Martin and the SCLC moved into Birmingham, the founding fathers of Birmingham- the religious father- they took a big ad out and they said,' what are you doing in our city, troubling these waters?'  And of course Martin responded in one of the great documents of American history, Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, why aren't you here with us? Where is your Christian witness?'  And Martin was right to lay it back on them.

I wrote a poem for Martin Luther King, Jr. because Martin Luther King was a great man and I think it is good that America honors him and honors his birthday and it is good that we can honor several more great men.  I wrote a poem in the spirit of Martin.

This is a sacred poem.

Blood has been shed to consecrate it.

Wash your hands, remove your shoes, bow your head

I, I, I have a dream.

That was a magical time.

High ho silver away

Oh Cisco, Oh Poncho

Here I come to save the day.

I want the world to see what they did to my son

No, no, no I am not going to move.

If we are wrong then the Constitution of the United States is wrong

Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma

4 little girls:

Constant threats, constant harassment, constant fear

SCLC, Ralph and Martin

Father knows best

Leave it to Beaver, Ed Sullivan.

How long? Not long

But what Mr. Thoreau said to Mr. Emerson

"What are you doing out?"

This is a Letter from Birmingham City Jail, this is a eulogy for Albany, this is a water hose for Anniston, this is a thank you to Diane Nash, this is a flag for James Farmer, this is a how can I make it without you to Ella Baker, this is for the red clay of Georgia that yielded black men of courage, black men of vision, black men of hopes bent over cotton or sweet potatoes or pool halls and baseball diamonds, playing for a chance to live free and breathe easy and have enough money to take care of the folk they love.  This is why we can't wait.

That swirling Mississippi wind, the Alabama pine, that Tennessee dust defiling the clothes the women washed, those hot winds the lemonade could not cool that let the women know that we too must overcome.

This is for Fannie Lou Hammer, Jo Ann Robinson, Septima Clark, Daisy Bates: all the women who said, Baby, baby, baby, I know you didn't mean to lose your job.  I know you didn't mean to gamble the rent money. I know you didn't mean to hit me.  I know the Lord is going to make a way.  I know I am leaning on the everlasting arms.

How much pressure does the Earth exert on carbon to make a diamond?  How long does the soil push against the flesh molding, molding, molding the moan that becomes a cry that bursts forth crystalline, unbreakable, priceless, and comparable? 

Martin, I made my vow to the Lord that I would never turn back. 

How much pressure do the sins of the world press against the heart of a man who becomes the voice of his people?  He should have had a tattoo, you know, freedom now' or something like that; should have braided his hair; carried his pool cue in a mahogany case; wafted that wonderful laugh over a plate of skillet-fried chicken, dropped biscuits, dandelion greens on the side.

This is a sacred poem.  Open your arms, turn your palms up, feel the spirit of greatness, and be redeemed.

I have got to tell you something.  Not major but nonetheless, Oprah does not like me.  It is mutual.  You know how she is always doing these shows with like best friends and her best friend is always Gail and have you noticed that, but is always the same one and after all these years of doing best friends, she has never had another best friend.  I am not friendly and I can produce three different people.  That is the truth.  I get this call-my mother likes to sneaks and watch the show- I get this call from Gail King one day and she says, We are doing the body and we would like you to write something for us.   So I went-- my mother lives down the street from me and I went down to mommy's and I said, Oh, I got a call from Gail King, Oprah's friend.  And she says, Yes, Oprah's best friend' because she watches her show.  I think she is sneaking and watching the show.  I said, You know, Oprah does not like me.  And she says, Oh baby, that is not true.  They like you.  But they don't and it is mutual. 

But, I said, Mom, I know what is going to happen. I am going to work on this poem and I am going to send it in and I am going to get it back and ‘reject' is going to be stamped all over and little note, ‘rejected… Oprah'.  My mother is a believer.  She says, Oh no baby, they are going to publish your poem.  I said, They are not. She says, They are. Well as it turned out, they did and so my sister went out and got her the Oprah magazine.  She said, See, they published your poem.  It told you they like you.  But they don't and it is mutual.  You have to know who doesn't like you no matter what your mother says. I just thought a piece of good advice. 

I wrote a poem.  It is called 'The Song of the Feet', which actually did get published. 

It is appropriate that I sing

The song of the feet

The weight of the body

And what the body chooses to bear

Fall on me

I trampled the American wilderness

Forged frontier trails

Outran the mob in Tulsa

Got caught in Philadelphia

And am still unreparated

I soldiered on in Korea

Jungled through Vietnam

Sweated out Desert Storm

Caved my way through Afghanistan

Tunneled the World Trade Center

And on the worst day of my life

Walked behind JFK

Shouldered MLK

Stood embracing Sister Betty

I wriggle my toes

In the sands of time

Trusting the touch that controls my motion

Basking in the warmth of the embrace

Day's end offers with warm salty water.

It is appropriate I sing

The praise of the feet

I am a Black woman.


I was born in the Congo

I walked to the Fertile Crescent and built the Sphinx

I designed a pyramid so tough that a star that only glows every one hundred years falls into the center giving divine, perfect light.

I am bad

I settle on the throne drinking nectar with Allah

I got hot and sent an ice age to Europe to cool my thirst

My oldest daughter is Nefertiti

The tears from my birth pains created the Nile

I am a beautiful woman.

I gazed on the forest and burned out the Sahara desert with a packet of goat's meat and a change of clothes

I crossed it in two hours

I am a gazelle so swift, so swift you can't catch me

For a birthday present when he was three

I gave my son, Hannibal, an elephant

He gave me Rome for mother's day

My strength flows ever on

My son Noah built new ark and

I stood proudly at the helm as we sailed on a soft summer day

I turned myself into myself and was Jesus

Men intone my loving name

All praises All praises

I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard

My bowels deliver uranium

The filings from my fingernails are semi-precious jewels

On a trip north

I caught a cold and blew my nose, giving oil to the Arab world

I am so hip even my errors are correct

I sailed west to reach east and had to round off the earth as I went

The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal

I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean...I...can fly like a bird in the sky.

Maintained by Anna Van Clief
Last Modified:
Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia