Birth of Jones "Gus" Giovanni, the poet's father, just outside Mobile, Alabama, to Mattie Jones and Thomas Giovanni.
Birth of Yolande Cornelia Watson, Giovanni's mother, in Albany, Georgia.
Yolande Watson marries Jones Giovanni in Knoxville, Tennessee, on July 3.
Gary Ann Giovanni, the poet's sister, is born on September 2.
Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., is born on 7 June in Knoxville General Hospital, Knoxville, Tennessee. In August, the Giovanni family of four moves to Cincinnati, Ohio, home of Jones Giovanni, where both he and Yolande take jobs as house parents at Glenview School, a home for black boys. The children and their mother make frequent visits to their grandparents’ home in Knoxville throughout their childhood. At some point during Giovanni’s first three years, her sister—for reasons no one really understands—begins calling her baby sister “Nikki.”
The family leaves Glenview and moves briefly to Woodlawn, a suburb of Cincinnati. Father teaches at South Woodlawn School and works evenings and weekends at the YMCA. Because Woodlawn has no elementary school for black children, sister Gary lives with father’s half-brother and his wife, Bill and Gladys Atkinson, in Columbus, Ohio, where she attends second grade.
Family moves to a house on Burns Avenue in nearby Wyoming, another suburb of Cincinnati. Giovanni begins kindergarten at Oak Avenue School, where her teacher is Mrs. Elizabeth Hicks; Giovanni's sister Gary enters third grade there.
Giovanni completes the first, second, and third grades at Oak Avenue School, while her sister completes the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. In 1951, her mother accepts a third-grade teaching position at St. Simon School, an all-black Episcopal school in the nearby black suburb of Lincoln Heights.
Gus Giovanni makes a down payment on a home at 1167 Jackson Street in Lincoln Heights and moves his family there. Originally, Giovanni’s parents had hoped to be able to build a home in a new all-black housing development called Hollydale. But after having had their money tied up in this real estate venture for several years, they realize that obtaining a loan to build a home was not going to be possible in the foreseeable future; racist lending practices simply could not be circumvented. With the money he makes from selling his stock in this venture, her father is able to make the down payment on the Jackson Street house. During World War II, Lincoln Heights had originally been known as The Valley Homes, affordable housing for employees of General Electric, but with the economic boom following the war, white residents of Valley Homes began moving to other suburbs. The United States government sold the homes to a corporation of black citizens, and Lincoln Heights was born.
Giovanni enters 4th grade at St. Simon School where her mother teaches 3rd grade. Her sister enrolls in 7th grade at South Woodlawn School, where their father teaches.
Giovanni continues her schooling at St. Simon’s School, where she completes 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. Her seventh grade teacher, Sister Althea Augustine, is an important influence on her and ultimately becomes a lifelong friend. Her sister Gary enters Wyoming High School as one of the three black students who desegregated the previously all-white school. In 1955, when Emmett Till is killed, her teacher makes the comment that “He got what he deserved.” Gary and her friend Beverly Waugh walk out in protest. Eventually, the school makes an official apology. Also during this period, Giovanni’s father quits his teaching job to take a better-paying position as a probation officer in the Hamilton County Juvenile Detention Office. Through his contacts in that position, he is able to help Giovanni’s mother obtain a position with the Hamilton County Welfare Department, which carries better wages than the $100 a month she has been earning as a teacher at St. Simon’s School.
Giovanni enters the 9th grade at Lockland High School, an all-black school. Her sister’s negative experiences in desegregating Wyoming High School make her and her parents uninterested in having her try to attend one of the white high schools. Her sister Gary leaves home to attend Central State University. Meanwhile, the explosive tensions between her parents are difficult for Giovanni to handle. So, in the summer of 1958 she asks her grandmother Watson if she can come to Knoxville for the summer. Once she is there, however, she tells her grandparents her real plan: she wants to stay with them and attend school in Knoxville.
Giovanni enrolls in Austin High School, where her grandfather had taught Latin for many years. Her grandmother, who is involved in numerous charitable and political endeavors, becomes an increasingly important influence on her, teaching her the importance of helping others and of fighting injustice. When a demonstration is planned to protest segregated dining facilities at downtown Rich’s department store, her grandmother Louvenia cheerfully volunteers her granddaughter Nikki. In high school, Giovanni has two influential teachers: her French teacher, Mrs. Emma Stokes, and her English teacher, Miss Alfredda Delaney. They persuade her to apply for early admission to college. Meanwhile, her sister Gary has a son, Christopher, in April of 1959. That summer, Giovanni returns to Cincinnati to take care of Christopher, who is living with her parents.
Giovanni goes to Nashville to enroll in Fisk University—her grandfather’s alma mater—as an Early Entrant. Academics present no problem to her, but she is unprepared for the conservatism of this small black college. Almost from the outset she runs into trouble with the Dean of Women, Ann Cheatam, whose ideas about the behavior and attitudes appropriate to a Fisk woman are diametrically opposed to Giovanni’s ideas about the intellectual seriousness and political awareness appropriate to a college student. In November, she goes back to Knoxville to spend Thanksgiving with her grandparents—without obtaining the necessary permission from Dean Cheatam. Just to compound the problem, when she visits Dean Cheatam the Monday after Thanksgiving, she articulates her contempt for the rules Dean Cheatam has in place. Not surprisingly, she is expelled from Fisk on 1 February. She goes back to Cincinnati where she lives with her parents. Her grandmother, far from uttering any reproach, travels to Nashville to meet with Dean Cheatam and later writes a letter protesting her decision.
Giovanni lives with her parents in Cincinnati, and takes care of her nephew, Christopher. She takes a job at Walgreens, but still helps with Christopher’s care. She also takes courses at the University of Cincinnati and does volunteer work with children and parents who are among her mother’s clients. Her parents move into another, better house in Lincoln Heights at 1168 Congress Avenue, just a few short blocks from the house on Jackson. In March 1962, her grandfather, John Brown Watson, dies and she drives her mother and nephew to Knoxville for the funeral.
Giovanni’s grandmother Louvenia is obliged to move from her home at 400 Mulvaney Street, in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is sacrificed to “urban renewal.” Although her new house on Linden Avenue is nice, it lacks the accumulated memories of the home on Mulvaney, which Giovanni has also come to regard as her own home. Giovanni travels to Fisk to explore the possibility of re-enrolling. She discovers that Dean Cheatam is gone and that her replacement, Blanche McConnell Cowan (“Jackie”) is completely different. Dean Cowan purges the file Dean Cheatam collected on Giovanni and encourages her to come back to Fisk, which she does, in the Fall of 1964. With the nurture and support of Dean Cowan, Giovanni does well academically and becomes a leader on campus. She majors in history, but takes writers workshops with writer-in-residence John Oliver Killens. In the spring of 1966, at the First Writers Conference at Fisk, she meets Dudley Randall, who was soon to launch Broadside Press; Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Edits a student literary journal (titled Èlan) and reestablishes the campus chapter of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). Publishes an essay in Negro Digest on gender questions in the Movement.
Moves back to Cincinnati, having completed her undergraduate coursework in December. Rents her own apartment. Receives her B.A. in History, with honors, on 28 January. Grandmother Louvenia Watson dies on 8 March, just two days before she was to have come to Cincinnati for a visit. Giovanni drives her mother, sister, and nephew to Knoxville for the funeral, marking the most significant loss of her life, before or since. She turns to writing as a refuge and produces most of the poems that will comprise her first volume, Black Feeling Black Talk. Edits Conversation, a Cincinnati revolutionary art journal. Attends the Detroit Conference of Unity and Art, where she meets H. Rap Brown (1943- ), now Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, and other movement leaders. Organizes a Black Arts Festival, Cincinnati’s first, for which she adapts and directs Virginia Hamilton’s Zeely for the stage. Moves to Wilmington, Delaware, and, with the help of a Ford Foundation fellowship, enrolls in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work. Works at a People’s Settlement House in Wilmington as a part of her graduate studies.
Giovanni borrows money to publish her first volume of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk. Drops out of University of Pennsylvania but continues working at the Settlement House. Continues writing poems at a prodigious rate. Goes to Atlanta for funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated on 4 April. Receives grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Moves to New York City where she begins almost immediately to attract attention. Enrolls in an M. F. A. program at Columbia University’s School of Fine Arts. At the very end of the year, uses money made from sales of Black Feeling Black Talk and a grant from the Harlem Arts Council to privately publish her second volume of poetry, Black Judgement; Broadside Press offers to distribute it.
Giovanni teaches at Queens College. Has a Sunday afternoon book party (to promote Black Judgement) at the old Birdland jazz club, which attracts hundreds of people and makes the next day’s metro section of The New York Times. Receives increasing attention from the media and begins receiving invitations to read and speak. In April, The New York Times features her in an article entitled “Renaissance in Black Poetry Expresses Anger.” The Amsterdam News names her one of the ten “most admired black women.” Regularly publishes book reviews in Negro Digest. Travels to Cincinnati in August for Labor Day weekend and gives birth to Thomas Watson Giovanni, her only child. Returns to New York and begins teaching at Livingston College of Rutgers University; frequently makes the commute with the struggling writer, Toni Cade Bambara (1939-95).
Giovanni edits and privately publishes Night Comes Softly, one of the earliest anthologies of poetry by black women; it includes poems by new and relatively unknown writers as well as poems by such established poets as Margaret Walker and Mari Evans. Meets Ellis Haizlip (1929-91) and begins making regular appearances on his television program, Soul!, an entertainment/variety/talk show which promoted black art and culture and allowed political expression. (During the history of the show—1967-72—which aired on WNET, many important artists and leaders made appearances, including Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Gladys Knight, Miriam Makeba, and Stevie Wonder. In addition to being a "regular" on the show, Giovanni for several years helped design and produce episodes.) Giovanni publishes Black Feeling Black Talk/Black Judgement as one volume with William Morrow Publisher. Publishes Re: Creation with Broadside Press. Writes and publishes the broadside, “Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis.” Has become a recognized figure on the black literary scene; in the anthology We Speak As Liberators, published in this year, she is referred to as an “established name.”
Giovanni publishes an autobiography, Gemini, and poems for children, Spin A Soft Black Song, illustrated by Charles Bible. Black Feeling Black Talk/Black Judgement comes out in paperback. Records Truth Is On Its Way with the New York Community Choir. Performs with the choir in a concert to introduce the album at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem before a crowd of 1,500. Continues regular appearances on Soul!, including an appearance in January with Lena Horne. The Mugar Memorial Library of Boston University approaches her about housing her papers and she accepts; today the library, now named the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center for its founder, has all of her papers and memorabilia. Travels to Africa. Truth is a phenomenal success, selling more than 100,000 copies in its first six months. Travels to London to tape special segments of Soul! with James Baldwin; these segments air on 15 and 22 December. Falls ill from exhaustion after returning to the United States.
Giovanni publishes My House. Joins National Council of Negro Women. Receives an Honorary Doctorate from Wilberforce University, becoming the youngest person so honored by the nation’s oldest black college. Truth Is On Its Way receives N.A.T.R.A.’s (National Association of Television and Radio Announcers) Award for Best Spoken Word Album. Receives widespread attention from print media, including such publications as Jet, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Ebony. Appears frequently on Soul! and makes a guest appearance on the Tonight show. Plays an active role in a new publication undertaken by her friend, Ida Lewis, Encore, later renamed Encore American & Worldwide News, a black news magazine. Until 1980, Giovanni acts as consultant and contributes a regular column for the magazine and also helps finance it. Puts on a free Father’s Day concert with La Belle at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem. Performs at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center with the New York Community Choir and La Belle. Receives key to Lincoln Heights, Ohio. Reads at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Centennial in Dayton, Ohio, where she and Paula Giddings, then an editor at Howard University Press, conceive the idea of a book composed of a conversation between Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1915-98). Travels to Walker’s home in Jackson, Mississippi, in November to begin the tapings.
Giovanni publishes Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young Readers and A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, an edited transcription of the videotaping she did with Baldwin for two episodes of Soul! Releases the album Like A Ripple On A Pond. The American Library Association names My House one of the best books of 1973. Gemini is nominated for a National Book Award. Meets Margaret Walker in Washington, D.C., to complete the tapings for their book. Throws a 30th birthday party for herself on 21 June at New York’s Philharmonic Hall; the recital an introduction by Reverend Ike and guest appearances by Wilson Pickett and Melba Moore. Is initiated as an honorary member into Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., at its convention in Atlanta in August. Takes her sister, Gary, to Paris to celebrate Gary’s graduation from Xavier University (Cincinnati). Receives Life Membership and Scroll from the National Council of Negro Women. Goes on an African lecture tour sponsored by U.S.I.A.; is able to bring son, Thomas, and his nanny, Deborah Russell, a former student of her at Rutgers. They visit Ghana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria.
Giovanni publishes A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974) and The Women and the Men (1975). Releases the albums The Way I Feel (1975), Legacies (1976), and The Reason I Like Chocolate (1976). Continues to write essays for Encore American & World-Wide News. Lectures extensively at colleges and universities across the country. Travels to Rome for the United Nations’ First World Food Conference (1974).
Giovanni publishes Cotton Candy On A Rainy Day and releases album with same title (1978). Publishes Vacation Time in 1979. In 1978, father has stroke and is subsequently diagnosed with cancer. Giovanni moves with her son back to Cincinnati, to her parents’ home in Lincoln Heights. With primary responsibility for her parents and her son, including steep medical bills, she increases her speaking schedule and has less time to devote to writing. Father dies on 8 June 1982, one day after her thirty-ninth birthday.
Giovanni publishes Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983) and a revised edition of Spin A Soft Black Song (1985), illustrated by George Martins. Continues a heavy schedule of speaking engagements. Teaches as a Visiting Professor at Ohio State University (1984-85) and as Professor of Creative Writing at Mount Saint Joseph’s College (1985-87). Makes a European lecture tour for U.S.I.A., visiting France, Germany, Poland, and Italy (1985). Is subject of a PBS documentary, Spirit to Spirit (1987). Son Thomas graduates from high school and enlists in the Army. Accepts position as Commonwealth Visiting Professor of English at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. Mother moves to California to live with older daughter, Gary. Serves on the Ohio Humanities Council. Judges the Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards.
Giovanni publishes Sacred Cows . . . And Other Edibles. McDonald’s institutes the Nikki Giovanni Poetry Award. U.S.I.A. selects Spin A Soft Black Song for inclusion in its Exhibition to the Soviet Union. National Festival of Black Storytelling initiates the Nikki Giovanni Award for Young African American Storytellers. Begins a writing group at Warm Hearth Village, a retirement home.
Giovanni accepts permanent position as tenured Full Professor of English at Virginia Tech. Relocates to Blacksburg, Virginia. Edits an anthology by her Warm Hearth writers group, Appalachian Elders: A Warm Hearth Sampler (1991). Receives Honorary Doctorate from Indiana University. Attends Utrecht International Poetry Festival as the featured poet. “Two Friends” is incorporated as a permanent tile wall exhibit by the Oxnard Public Library in California. Son Thomas enrolls in Morehouse College. Continues to lecture on campuses across the country during the spring. Serves on the Advisory Board of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy (1990-96),
Giovanni publishes twentieth-anniversary edition of Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young Readers (1993), which includes new poems. Publishes Racism 101 (1994) and Knoxville, Tennessee (1994), illustrated by Larry Johnson. Edits and publishes Grand Mothers: A Multicultural Anthology of Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories About the Keepers of Our Traditions (1994). Featured Poet at Portland (Oregon) Art Beat Festival. Receives Community Volunteer of the Year Award from Warm Hearth Village. Writes and presents poem commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Mount Vernon Slave Memorial (“But Since You Finally Asked”). Conducts interview with astronaut Mae Jemison for Essence magazine. Is Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon (1992). Is the Hill Visiting Professor at the University of Minnesota (1993). Continues to receive keys to the major cities in America; to this date, these include Dallas, Miami, New York, New Orleans, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Mobile, and a dozen or so more. Son Thomas graduates magna cum laude from Morehouse College (1994). Mother and sister relocate to Virginia (1994).
In mid-January, Giovanni is diagnosed with lung cancer. Travels to Cincinnati, Ohio, for second opinion and has surgery at Jewish Hospital. Is a week-long writer-in-residence for the National Book Foundation’s Family Literacy Program at the Family Academy in Harlem. In summer is Visiting Professor at Indiana University/Kokomo.
Giovanni publishes Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (1996), The Genie in the Jar, illustrated by Chris Raschka, The Sun Is So Quiet, illustrated by Ashley Bryan, Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking at the Harlem Renaissance Through Poems (all 1996), and Love Poems (1997). Releases Nikki in Philadelphia (1997). Reads for “A Celebration of Lorraine Hansberry,” a benefit sponsored by The Schomburg Library. Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni nominated for NAACP Image Award. Reads for Literacy Partners Benefit Reading at Lincoln Center. Travels on book tour. Continues to do a spring lecture tour. Named Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech (1997-99). Serves on National Advisory Board of The National Underground Museum and Freedom Center.
Giovanni publishes Blues: For All the Changes (1999) and edits and publishes Grand Fathers: Reminiscences, Poems, Recipes, and Photos of the Keepers of Our Tradition (1999. Named University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, the highest honor the University confers (1999). Attends Millennium Evening at the White House.
Giovanni receives NAACP Image Award for Blues: For All the Changes (2000). Named to The Gihon Foundation’s 2000 Council of Ideas. Serves as poetry judge for the National Book Awards (2000). Receives Certificate of Commendation from the United States Senate (2000). Serves on the Board of Trustees of Cabrini College (2001-03). Serves on the Board of Directors of Mill Mountain Theater of Roanoke, Virginia.
Giovanni publishes Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems (2002). Caedmon releases The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection (2002), on which Giovanni reads and talks about a large selection of her poems. The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni (2003) brings together Giovanni's volumes of prose. The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998 is published. Featured in Foundations of Courage . . . A Cry to Freedom! featured on BET. Appears in A&E television’s Witness: James Baldwin. Judge for The Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards (2002). Serves on Multimedia Advisory Panel for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (2002- ). Receives the first Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award (2002). Inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, Delta of Tennessee Chapter, Fisk University (2003). Performs a tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks with Elizabeth Alexander, Ruby Dee, and Yusef Komunyakaa (2003). Contributes to a Smithsonian special exhibition, In the Spirit of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Adelante! Bo Giovanni publishes The Girls in the Circle (2004). Quilting is the American Association of University Women's Book Club selection and it receives the Atlanta Choice Award from Atlanta Daily World. Giovanni receives Alumnae Membership in Fisk University's Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Robert Baker, a scientist and a fan, names a new species of bat he discovered for Giovanni: The Micronycteris giovanniae. The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection is a finalist for a Grammy in the category of Best Spoken Word at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards.
Giovanni publishes Rosa, illustrated by Ashley Bryan. Oprah Winfrey names Giovanni one of 25 "Living Legends." Giovanni's mother, Yolande Cornelia Watson Giovanni, dies after a brief illness on 24 June. Sister Gary Ann Giovanni dies on August 10. Giovanni also grieves the loss of Rosa Parks on 24 October.
A year of grieving for Giovanni, who is further stricken by the deaths of Edna Lewis, the great country chef and a personal friend, in February, and of her Aunt Anna Ford, in November.
Giovanni publishes Acolytes and On My Journey Now. from the National Alumni Council of the United Negro College Fund. Giovanni is one of 50 "Great African-American Women" honored upon the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Althea Gibson at the opening of the United States Open. Giovanni delivers a stirring poem at the conclusion of Virginia Tech's convocation following the April 16 campus massacre. "We Are Virginia Tech" provides the language the university community uses in the weeks and months following the massacre of 32 students and faculty.
Giovanni publishes Lincoln & Douglass: An American Friendship, illustrated by Bryan Collier, and The Grasshopper's Song, illustrated by Chris Raschka. She edits Hip Hop Speaks to Children. CBS's The Early Show names Giovanni's Lincoln & Douglass the Best New Children's Book. Hip Hop Speaks to Children receives the National Parenting Publications Gold Award. Giovanni is commissioned to write a poem—“It’s Not a Just Situation: Though We Just Can’t Keep Crying About It (For the Hip Hop Nation That Brings Us Such Exciting Art)”—by The Smithsonian Institute for the installation “Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture.” An exhibit of Giovanni's papers is presented at the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
Giovanni publishes Bicycles: Love Poems. Hip Hop Speaks to Children receives an NAACP Image Award and reaches #15 on The New York Times bestseller list. Bicycles reaches #32 on that list, and is #1 in poetry at Amazon.com, #14 in all fiction sold at Amazon.com, and #80 in all books sold on Amazon.com in the month of February. The American Literacy Corporation establishes a literary award in her name.
Giovanni publishes The 100 Best African-American Poems and is the guest editor for Best African-American Fiction 2010. She receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from Art Sanctuary (Philadelphia) and a Presidential Medal of Honor from Dillard University. Bicycles is featured as Loudon County Public Library's One City, One Book event.
Giovanni publishes These Women, photography by John McCormick. The Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall at the University of Michigan is named for Giovanni. Hip Hop Speaks to Children is selected as the Book of the Month by Read On Wisconsin!
Giovanni teaches in Virginia Tech's Global Scholars Program for two weeks in Switzerland.
Giovanni continues to work with Virginia Tech’s Global Scholars Program. An historic marker in her honor is placed near the St. Simon of Cyrene Episcopal School by the Ohio House of Representatives. Poem and photographs featured in permanent exhibit of the National Civil Rights Museum in Nashville. Travels to Ghana. Publishes Chasing Utopia.
Death of Giovanni’s oldest friend, Sister Althea Augustine. Teaches in Switzerland. Travels to Ghana.
© 2014 Virginia C. Fowler. Used by permission of author.