crossposted from Booman Tribune
I had to write about this.
When I first read these words by this woman nearly forty years ago, they blew me away. I was about fifteen.
Of course, they were meant to blow the reader away...figuratively.
The poet was referring to Vietnam as well as the white policing of the streets of black America in the Sixties, equating the senselessness of war with the senselessness of police brutality.
But to some others, they were thought to be an explosive invitation to murder whites because the words were so incendiary.
They still are. Remember?
Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you
Do you know how to draw blood
Can you poison
Can you stab-a-Jew
Can you kill huh? nigger
Can you kill
Can you run a protestant down with your
'68 El Dorado
(that's all they're good for anyway)
Can you kill
Can you piss on a blond head
Can you cut it off
Can you kill
A nigger can die
We ain't got to prove we can die
We got to prove we can kill
The poet is Nikki Giovanni.
And she isn't crazy.
Giovanni is also forty years older. Now a professor in Virginia Tech's English department, she was at the convocation, cheering the grieving students, faculty, and families on.
She is a mother, perhaps even a grandmother by now. Her hair is completely white.
She has lost a lung to cancer.
She is known more for love poems and for tattooing 'thug love' on her body in memory of Tupac Shakur.
She teaches poetry at Virginia Tech.
She also taught, or rather tried to teach, Cho Seung-Hui, at Virginia Tech University. From Wiki:
She has been teaching writing and literature at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) since 1987, and is a Distinguished Professor. On April 17, 2007, at the Virginia Tech Convocation commemorating the April 16 Virginia Tech massacre, Giovanni closed the ceremony with a chant poem, intoning, "We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on. We are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech... We do not understand this tragedy... No one deserves a tragedy." Giovanni taught the Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui in a poetry class. She described him as downright "mean" and, when she approached the department chair to have Cho taken out of her class, said she was willing to resign rather than continue teaching him.
"We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid," the 63-year-old poet with the close-cropped, platinum hair told the grieving crowd. "We are better than we think, not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness."
In September 2005, Cho was enrolled in Giovanni's introduction to creative writing class. From the beginning, he began building a wall between himself and the rest of the class.
He wore sunglasses to class and pulled his maroon knit cap down low over his forehead. When she tried to get him to participate in class discussion, his answer was silence.
"Sometimes, students try to intimidate you," Giovanni told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday. "And I just assumed that he was trying to assert himself."
As a creative writing teacher, I've met a few quirky, damaged students myself (I name no names or locations or how many.) Because frankly, to be creative also means that there may be something slightly off already about you. I mean, check out the histories of some recent writers and poets, and you'll get what I mean. Drunks, addicts, manic-depressives, abusers, suicides, womanizers/serial adulterers, angry shooters. A-holes. Burroughs and Mailer shot at their wives and Burroughs succeeded in (accidentally, it's said) offing his. Hemingway had shock treatments that didn't take. Roth had a breakdown. Plath and Sexton finally offed themselves after several attempts. The poet Frank Stanford shot himself after his complex relationships (a serial wife and several girlfriends, one of whom was a young Lucinda Williams) fell apart one day.
On the black (and woman) side, there is Gayl Jones, the author of Eva's Man and Corregidora. Jones was discovered by Toni Morrison during her stint at Random House. I was in grad school when her particular Calvary came to its conclusion. All I could think of was, "There, but for the grace of the goddess go I." And to pray for her. She is still writing, producing The Healing and Mosquito, and she is finally free from the schizoid husband who tried to silence her career--and her. But Jones had to spend a little time in an institution.
Many writers try to cultivate spiritual or emotional anchors, whether it is Buddhism or strong helpmeets or their own artistry-cum-professionalism. However, it usually takes one to know one, and to ascertain how far another's boat is really off their moorings doesn't take long. I figured out, just as Giovanni did, that some individuals are just not teachable. As long as they are not disrupting the class, they're there for the ride.
Nikki Giovanni (and later Lucinda Roy) couldn't help Cho Seung-Hui channel his sickness into clarity. If Giovanni was considered racially apocalyptic and militantly mad for the poems of her youth, as direct and as violent as some of them were, this episode definitely shows the difference between art and madness. Cho's last missive seems so incoherent and profane, there was hardly anything he could leave for even psychologists and profilers that had real meaning. I've had to warn some of my students that writing has to be accessible, not just a backslapping message to oneself. Ismail Ax?
About five weeks into the semester, students told Giovanni that Cho was taking photographs of their legs and knees under the desks with his cell phone. She told him that was inappropriate and to stop, but the damage was already done.
Female students refused to come to class, submitting their work by computer instead. As for Cho, he was not adding anything to the classroom atmosphere, only detracting.
Police asked Giovanni not to disclose the exact content or nature of Cho's poetry. But she said it was not violent like other writings that have been circulating.
It was more invasive.
"Violent is like, `I'm going to do this,"' said Giovanni, a three-time NAACP Image Award winner who is sometimes called "the princess of black poetry." This was more like a personal violation, as if Cho were objectifying his subjects, "doing thing to your body parts."
"It's not like, `I'll rip your heart out,"' she recalled. "It's that, `Your bra is torn,and I'm looking at your flesh."'
His work had no meter or structure or rhyme scheme. To Giovanni, it was simply "a tirade."
So Giovanni petitioned English chair Lucinda Roy for Cho to leave her class.
[...]Giovanni sees no reason for people who had interactions with Cho to beat themselves up.
"I know that there's a tendency to think that everybody can get counseling or can have a bowl of tomato soup and everything is going to be all right," she said. "But I think that evil exists, and I think that he was a mean person."
Giovanni encountered Cho only once after she had him removed from her class. She was walking down a path on the main campus and noticed him coming toward her. They maintained eye contact until passing each other.
Giovanni, who had survived lung cancer, was determined she would not blink first.
"I was not going to look away as if I were afraid," she said. "To me he was a bully, and I had no fear of this child."
As a creative individual, one has to be aware of the devil within, and not give in or bow down to him/her. Like Christ in the wilderness, one has to be aware that instability--that inclination for edginess--could literally push her/him off that precipice.
Everyday, one must possess the courage to spit at the demon dead in his/her eye in the mirror, and to keep writing on.