Poet Nikki Giovanni Speaks at Black Heritage Celebration Event

The event sponsored by the GW Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority covered a range of topics from slavery to the blackface controversy surrounding the Virginia governor.

Poet Nikki Giovanni
February 11, 2019

By B.L. Wilson

Poet Nikki Giovanni, a Virginia Tech University distinguished professor, ruminated Wednesday evening at the George Washington University in a free form style that covered slavery, the role of black sororities in the women’s rights movement, black music, personal experiences and recent politics.

As a part of GW’s Black Heritage Celebration, the Mu Beta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Incorporated invited the poet-activist-professor to speak about the role of black activism in a talk called “Are you ‘bout it?”

Mu Beta Chapter President Arion Laws, a junior, said members looked at a roster of prominent Delta figures, and Ms. Giovanni “stood out to us as a poet and an activist. We all love her work that we studied at GW and in high school.”

Several generations of members of the sorority dressed in red, the sorority’s color, joined GW students and faculty in filling to capacity the Continental Ballroom in the Marvin Center. The evening was organized by Simone Hunter-Hobson, a consultant to the Writing in the Disciplines program, which cosponsored the event.

Nisani Lopez, a junior, introduced Ms. Giovanni as the author of a self-published book of poetry, Black Feelings, Black Talk, that led to A Dialogue (a conversation with author James Baldwin) and numerous other publications that established her as one of the most well-known poets of the 1960s Black Power and Black Arts Movement. Ms. Lopez noted that Ms. Giovanni also has written reflective work about the Virginia Tech mass shooting.

Ms. Giovanni began by acknowledging the 100th anniversary of the founding of Delta Sigma Theta to whoops from the audience and telling the story of “bogarding” a seat next to Rosa Parks in the Pittsburgh airport with whom she later became a friend.

In an improvisational riff on the power of black women, she talked about the slave trade and black women in the holds of ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, comforting people who shared no common language through low moans that gave rise to spirituals.

“They [the captives] are going to hear that moan, and it is going to embrace them, and they’re going to bring that moan here, where we are going to stand naked,” Ms. Giovanni said. “The first words we are going to hear are sold. Sold!”

Ms. Giovanni explained that the black Greek sorority Delta Sigma Theta was founded after a split from the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at Howard University, after the sorority sought to join a 1913 march for women’s right to vote led by Susan B. Anthony. “You’re not supposed to say this, but she was a racist,” Ms. Giovanni said. The suffragette initially rejected the request from the black sorority but relented as long as the black women walked behind the white demonstrators.

The AKAs refused to walk behind the white women, but 13 of the Howard University women participated in the march anyway.  They decided, according to Ms. Giovanni, that they didn’t “care where we have to march. We need the vote.’ The 13 became Delta Sigma Theta.”

She suggested that young black women draw a lesson from that history.

“Some of you right now, right here say, ‘The white kids don’t like me,’ Nobody gives a damn about you being liked. If you want to be liked join Delta, join a church. You’re not here to be liked… You’re here because some people died to get you here,” she said.

“I just thought I’d mention that,” she said before segueing into a poem dedicated to Delta.

We marched a hundred years ago into a sisterhood…

We came together in love and in patience, already called into assembly by a mother sorority,

We needed to, had to, must break out …

She continued, reciting all the ways Delta Sigma Theta fought for black people.

At one point in the evening, she offered support for Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam after revelations of blackface images on his page in his medical school yearbook. “It was foolish and stupid. But he’s been a good governor,” she said. “He didn’t have any problems until he said I think women ought to own their own bodies.”

To the student who wanted to know how she stayed relevant, Ms. Giovanni said,

“Whatever black women have, we love it and name it because that’s what we do. A lot of people have been abusive of us and not understood us, but we’ve had each other. I don’t mean no disrespect to those of us who are not black but being black is wonderful.”

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