“The glory of God is a man fully alive.” I have always loved this quote and I met its embodiment in the poet Nikki Giovanni.
I had the privilege of seeing Giovanni speak at the REACH Whole School Reform Conference in Atlanta, GA. Giovanni is a poet, activist, and professor at Virginia Tech. I had read Giovanni’s poetry in college. However, for me, reading and writing poetry seemed to die out about 15 years ago. It was a passion that I had forgotten about until I saw Giovanni.
Giovanni started off by saying, “The most important job in the world is a librarian.” She told a story about how she requested certain books from her local librarian that weren’t in their library. The librarian always procured them. Not until later in her life did she realize that during that time of segregation when she was a child, the librarian would have had to go to a white library to procure the books. The courage that must have taken.
Giovanni spoke about all kinds of things– getting lung cancer (“I was a civil rights persona and we civil rights people all smoked”), telling her students on the first day of classes at Virginia Tech that she doesn’t like Trump (“So if you like Trump, you should drop this class because I’m going to criticize Trump”), getting a lump in her breast (“I told my friend, ‘Feel this lump in my titty,’ and she said, ‘I don’t want to feel your titty!'”)
“I know I’m going to hell,” Giovanni said with her face deadpan, to which the audience burst out laughing. “Oh, I’m sure of it, and I’m fine with going to hell. I’ll meet my father there.”
She recited some of her poetry and spoke brilliantly about topics ranging from the civil rights movement to professional athletes.
And yet, it wasn’t even so much what Giovanni said, but her presence itself: grand yet humble. Empathetic yet firm. Completely, unapologetically herself.
Reading her latest book of poetry, which I was lucky enough to get signed, I saw how she writes about the tiniest things to the most profound: the pleasure of making a midnight omelet with salmon caviar. Moving in with her grandparents when her realized she couldn’t take her father beating her mother anymore. She recited her famous poem, on request, “Nikki Rosa.”
In Giovanni’s presence, listening to her, I felt more capable. More creative. For the next few days, poetry formed itself in my head, as it had years ago. She shared her essence: creativity, humor, independence, strength. She shared it in a manner that allowed us, the audience, to take some of it– to be inspired by her greatness so that we could see her own greatness.
I left being clear that my own presence makes a difference– not necessarily what I say or do, but that when I am willing to be fully myself, those around me become more brilliant, more alive. I don’t know if the teachers in my school know this: that the most profound difference they can make is to be truly themselves so that their students can, in turn, be truly themselves and discover their own greatness.
Photo credit: Terri Gray