How I Met Nikki Giovanni

Me with my new afro, summer 1967
Portrait of Nikki Giovanni by w:Elsa Dorfman circa 1980?

The first time I ever heard of Nikki Giovanni, I was on a chartered bus headed down to Cincinnati to fellowship with another church. Nikki was going to read her poems for us and I wondered who this Italian poet was? It was May 20, 1967. I was 20 years old, a junior at Wayne State University. Nikki was 23. My sister Pearl was 18, a freshman at Howard University. She was not there because she was in DC.

I remember that the program took place in the church basement and that they fed us. I remember the feeling of camaraderie between the churches. Nikki read her poems and I was relieved to find out she was not an Italian guy. I don’t remember meeting her personally or talking with her one on one.

Excerpt from sermon given on Sunday, May 21, 1967. The day after the trip.

“I’m just looking around to see how many of you went to Cincinnati that didn’t get here this morning. Some of you didn’t quite make it. Most of you are here. We had a good time yesterday. We went to Cincinnati. We had two buses, about 70 people. We ate all the way there and all the way back. And it was a little different than our trip to Kalamazoo because when we got there we found brothers and sisters. We were in agreement. We had a good time. They were nice to be with, and we were all trying to do the same thing, and it was nice to know that the Nation is not just limited to the four walls here: that there are people out there that want to be a part of what we’re doing, so we took them into the Nation. I want you all to know. The Nation is growing every time we take a trip. We are going to take another one pretty soon, so you all can be getting your bus fare together and putting it aside.

It was a good trip. We were very happy that we were able to take some of our young people from the student organization. We just took them. We had a few extra seats there. We are going to let you help pay for those extra seats a little later on, but it was a good trip, and we think that these trips are very important. We had a message in Cincinnati and we think we made friends.

Central United Church of Christ Detroit

Most of them are coming back to the Black Arts Conference that’s going to be held here, sponsored by Forum, 66, here at the church, of course, people are coming from all over the United States to the Black Arts Conference. I hope when your friends from out of town call you up or write and ask you about it, you will know what they’re talking about. Black Arts Conference is going to be sponsored by Forum ’66, held here at the church, the last two days of June and the first two days of July. Young people are coming from almost all of the colleges and universities around the country. People who are beginning to understand what the Nation is are coming from everywhere, so when your friends ask you about it, and they are going to be asking you because a lot of them are coming, looking for some place to stay when they get here.

So help Forum ’66 and help us because this a real contribution. It helps to establish Detroit as a place where whatever is going on as far as black people might be concerned, is taking place. We are at the center. The Black Arts Conference is one symbol of that fact and so for that reason, if for no other, it’s important. See what they’re thinking and let them know what we’re thinking and for that reason it’s also important.”

From a sermon delivered May 21, 1967, by Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr. Later Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman.

-2 –

Our house 5397 Oregon

The 2nd Black Arts Conference took place from Thursday, June 29 to Sunday July 2 , at our church. Nikki Giovanni spent one night at our house during the Conference. At the end of the first day, someone, (my father?), suggested she stay with me at my mother’s house. I remember it was dark out and asking Jim to gave us a ride home. I rode in the front, Nikki rode in the back. Later, Nikki asked if Jim was my boyfriend. I said he had been but he was with someone else now. She said there still seemed to be something between us. There was and we got back together, but that’s the only conversation I remember us having. The rest of the time she stayed somewhere else. Once again, Pearl was elsewhere. I am sure of that because Nikki slept in her empty room.

– 3 –

The last time I saw Nikki was during the 1990s. I lived in Idlewild, Michigan with my husband Jim and six children. One evening Mable Williams, wife of Robert Williams (advocate for self defense), and I went to hear Nikki read her poetry at Ferris State University, half an hour away. After the reading Mable asked if I wanted to stay and say hello to Nikki. I looked at all the students milling around trying to get a word with her and said no. So we just left.

6 thoughts on “How I Met Nikki Giovanni

  1. What a great contact, and being part of “Detroit as a place where whatever is going on as far as black people might be concerned, is taking place. We are at the center.” I want to learn more about the Black Arts Conference. Were you involved in it too?

  2. Hey Kristin. I always admire how clear and thoughtful your are in writing your blogs. This one takes me back to my teen years and the warm memories of awakening into the Black Arts Movement.

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