A couple weeks ago, I was bored on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I checked my Twitter feed and saw that Nikki Giovanni was performing at the DuSable Museum. The performance had just started so I grabbed my purse and raced out the door. I adore Nikki Giovanni. I think I discovered her in high school. I definitely remember researching her work when I was deciding whether or not to capitalize the B in Black when referring to race and identity. (Ms. Giovanni capitalized Black people.) When I got to college, I double majored at Northwestern University in Radio/Television/Film and African-American studies. That was a wonderful time in my life where I read everything and created beautiful and inspiring work. It was also a challenging time of being away from home, navigating life at a predominately white establishment, and coming into my own as a woman.
I’m the second generation in my family to attend college. My mother attended UIC so she commuted to school. She could help me navigate some of the growing pains of higher education, but couldn't fully relate to the hardships of being away from home. Couple that with the racial tension of being an African-American woman at an elite university that often ignored the needs of its small minority population. Somewhere along the way, I discovered Nikki Giovanni…her voice, works, and perspectives were my light in a dark tunnel.
My senior year at Northwestern, I directed an event called The Ritual. It’s an annual variety show presented at the end of new student week by the university’s African American Theatre Ensemble of which I was president. You have six days to write, cast, produce and stage a full theater production. It’s quite a feat. It’s a welcome to the freshman and returning students. In vignettes, student showcase their talents and give sage advice on how to prosper at Northwestern. My version of The Ritual was themed “Appreciation.” I think I included three or four Nikki Giovanni pieces. My favorite was a reading of “Campus Racism 101” from her book Racism 101. In that essay, Ms. Giovanni gives advice to minority students attending predominantly white colleges and even has a Q & A section of stupid questions you might be asked and some great comebacks. Here’s a couple of her examples:
Q: What’s it like to grow up in a ghetto?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Why do all the Black people sit together in the dining hall?
A: Why do all the white students sit together?
Q: Why should there be an African-American studies course?
A: Because white Americans have not adequately studied the contributions of Africans and African-Americans. Both Black and white students need to know our total common history.
Q: Should whites take African-American studies courses?
A: Of course. We take white-studies courses, though the universities don’t call them that.
Q: When I see groups of Black people on campus, it’s really intimidating.
A: I understand what you mean. I’m frightened when I see white students congregating.
The Campus Racism skit was a huge hit. In fact, everyone said my staging of The Ritual was the best they’d ever seen and I know that my incorporation of Ms. Giovanni's works attributed to my success. To this day, I recommend that book at all students. I write all this to say that I have loved Nikki Giovanni and respected her work for so long. She has played in integral part in my development as a student, woman, author, and creative spirit.
At her event at DuSable Museum, I noted that Nikki Giovanni is regal in her simplicity. She wore a light-color, button down shirt, wide-legged jeans, and red shoes. Of course, her hair was cut close and curly. Her skin glowed. She spoke softly and smiled genuinely. I would describe her clothes as plain and neat, until you got to those red shoes. I love red shoes. I have five pairs. I love color and splashes and pops of vibrancy in my wardrobe so I was mesmerized by her red shoes. Like the rest of her ensemble, the shoes were cute and comfortable. I think they were suede loafers. But they were fire-engine RED. The color red is hot, vivid, urgent. Red shoes shout “STOP! And notice me NOW!” Red shoes mean business. Remember Dorothy and her ruby slippers. She was a plain Jane until she got those shoes. With red shoes she had all the boys tripping over her and a wonderful adventure unfolding before her. Red shoes are the truth and so is Nikki Giovanni...Red Shoes and all!
Deanna Burrell is the author of the explosive novel, Single Girl Summer.Described as “If Waiting to Exhale and Sex and the City procreated, the bouncing baby would read like Single Girl Summer,” the novel tells the story of three women navigating the ups and downs of life during one special summer in Chicago. Find out more at www.SingleGirlSummer.com.