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Legendary black poet Nikki Giovanni urges readers: ‘Just vote’

‘If I am even sort of alive, I will vote,’ the Civil Rights Era legend says, ‘and everyone else should, too.’

The American poet, activist and author Nikki Giovanni is pictured speaking at Emory University on February 7, 2008 (Brett Weinstein/Flickr)

Nikki Giovanni is 74 now, a generation removed from the height of her poetic power. But she remains fiery and talented and has a lot on her mind—especially during an election year. Her latest poem is a hymn to the ballot box.

The author of hundreds of poems about love and civil rights, Giovanni wants a new president. But just as important to her, she said, is that the black community exercises its right to vote.

Giovanni spoke Sunday during an event honoring scholar and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois at Clark Atlanta University. And November was on her mind.

“I don’t care who you vote for,” she said. “Just vote, because there’s not a person on that [debate] stage who hasn’t lied or done something. They all did something … against us.”

“We must make sure they can’t silence us,” she said. “We must not go [vote] because we don’t like someone.”

Nikki Giovanni’s 2017 collection of poems, A Good Cry, signaled her contemplative mood late in life (William Morrow/Amazon)
Visitors to the Mississippi Freedom Trail stopped in 2011 at a marker recognizing Fannie Lou Hamer, the late Civil Rights activist who Giovanni credits for firing her up (Visit Mississippi/Flickr)

Giovanni said she dedicates her political voice to Fannie Lou Hamer, who organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964.

Hamer’s group fought against rules that blocked black participation in elections, going to the Democratic National Convention and publicly demanding to be officially recognized as a voting convention delegation.

By then she was recovering from brutal beatings in jail, a vicious penalty for registering to vote. Her lifelong injuries included kidney and leg damage and a blood clot in one eye.

“She knew she could be killed, but they didn’t murder her,” Giovanni said. “But they did pull her off the bus and beat her and beat her beat her. They tried to scare her.

“I made a promise to myself that if I am even sort of alive, I will vote. Fannie Lou Hamer took a hell of a beating so I could vote, and so I will. . . and everyone else should, too.”

Giovanni spoke at a February 23, 2020 event honoring W.E.B. DuBois at Clark Atlanta University (Curtis Bunn/Zenger)

Giovanni’s powerful, self-affirming poems won her a devoted following during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni Jr., she is best-known for her first book, “Feeling Black, Black Talk.” Her poem “Nikki-Rosa” is a famous remembrance of growing up in a loving African American home near Cincinnati.

Giovanni, who calls herself “an old lady,” has won award after award for her unmistakable voice.

Oprah Winfrey named her one of the 25 “living legends.” She has received seven NAACP Image Awards, a Black Enterprise Legacy Award, and a Grammy nomination.

Giovanni said Sunday as she read aloud her latest poem that she might call it “2020” or “Vote”:

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It’s not a hug or a toy at Christmas
It’s not a colored egg at Easter
Or a bunny hopping across the meadow
It’s a vote, saying you are a citizen
Though sometimes it is traveling and sometimes a no.

It can be male or female
It can be right or left
I can disagree
But I am a citizen.

I should be able to vote from prison
I should be able to vote from the battlefield
I should be able to vote when I get my driver’s license
I should be able to vote when I can purchase a gun
When I’m in the hospital
Or the old folks’ home
Or if I need a ride to the polling place.

I am a citizen
I must be able to vote.

Folks were lynched
Folks were shot
Folks’ communities were gerrymandered
Folks who believed in the Constitution were lied to
Burned out, bought and sold because
They agreed that all men and women were created equal.

Folks vote to make us free
It’s not cookies or cake
But it is icing that is so sweet
Good for us, my country ’tis of thee.

Our people were not uneducated, they were un-degreed
When you think about this country, we made it.

A proud graduate of Fisk University
People ask me about Black Lives Matter and I say I love them because I do.