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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. has the full story:

"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.

Originally posted to on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 09:06 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Prof Giovanni's (8+ / 0-)

    Convocation speech was incredible, awesome, inspiring, especially its themes of "we are strong and survivors; we will not be victims" and "no one (anywhere in the world) deserves a tragedy."

    It was disgraceful that Katie Couric (I saw the speech live on CBS) didn't acknowledge the power of her words, but had to immediately return to the "these poor, poor people; how will they ever cope?" paradigm that the MSM has adopted.  The disconnect was obvious -- but I think I prefer the Giovanni view.

    Thanks for this diary,

  •  As much as I shy away from some of her writing... (5+ / 0-)

    She was a hero at the convocation - you can see it here if you haven't yet.

    "The waging of war, by its nature, is total - but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial." -- Daniel Berrigan

    by Rico on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 09:10:46 PM PDT

    •  I should clarify... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blksista, FemiNazi

      I shy away not because I don't like it - it's because I'm not ready for it.  Her writings, especially about Tupac, make it clear to me how little I understand about life as a Black person in America, and I say that as a person of Mexican decent.

      She goes to the heart of the matter - I think I'll give it another shot with reading her this week.

      "The waging of war, by its nature, is total - but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial." -- Daniel Berrigan

      by Rico on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 09:18:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Why am I wondering (3+ / 0-) the hell this kid was still enrolled?

    How we know Daffy Duck is Republican: "It's mine, understand? Mine, all mine! Get back down there! Down down down! Go go go! Mine mine mine! Mwahahaha!" --BIPM

    by rhetoricus on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 09:11:45 PM PDT

  •  Poetry (0+ / 0-)

    will not help schizophrenics.  Unfortunately, meds and institutions are all we have at this point.

    Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

    by johnny rotten on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 09:13:42 PM PDT

  •  Thanks blksista, learned more from you (5+ / 0-)

    about this bully than all the stories on MSM. Powerful writing from you .... and from Nikki Giovanni.

    by Stumptown Dave on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 09:14:16 PM PDT

  •  I have not been all that impressed (5+ / 0-)

    by the 20-20 hindsight of people analyzing Cho's writings to tell us how dangerous he was, as if it was a clear signal.  

    I can recall one of the first stories I wrote for a creative writing class when I was fourteen or fifteen.  It was an extemporaneous writing project.  The teacher put two paintings up in front of the room and told us to make up a story about the paintings and write it down before the bell rang.  The first painting was of a frightened looking woman holding a child tightly.  The second one was of a  Spanish conquistador carrying a rifle.

    I'll spare you the details.  I'm sure you can imagine what I wrote.

    The teacher wanted to speak to me after class about how horrified he was at the goriness of my story.  At fourteen years old, I took his comments as the highest imaginable praise.  Wow!  Singled out by the teacher for writing such a fantastically disturbing and blood-drenched story, in only forty-five minutes, no less!  I must have strutted out of that office, so proud of myself.  It wouldn't have occurred to me, back then, that the teacher was, perhaps, assessing my sanity.

    I have since then coached creative writing workshops and known quite a few writers who have had similar "assessment" experiences, including a friend of mine who was asked to leave a college writing course because he was "frightening the other students."  He later won an award and scholarship for a story he wrote.  He was a much better writer than I am.

    Looking back at Cho's writings, I am sure they can see signs now that there was something wrong with him.  But predicting forward, from his writings to what happened, that would have been impossible.

  •  Dry cleaning chemicals (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I know that there are tons of children of dry cleaning store workers who turn out fine, but one think that strikes me as I read this is that, really, there has to be some reason other than Satanic possession or reincarnation of evil spirits that Cho was "so mean."

    Even if it turns out that the step-father did molest him, there are many, many people who've been molested who grow up not to be mean. Even plenty of people who do on to become child molesters are healthy enough to pretend to be regular Joes.

    Cho, on the other hand, sounds as if he's someone who had a brain that clearly didn't work the same way other people's brains worked.

    One possibility that comes to mind is that, if Cho's parents worked around dry cleaning chemicals all of the time, maybe he was sensitive to them, and they somehow caused brain damage. Or maybe he even actively sought out and sniffed tetrachloroethylene or some other substance used in dry cleaning.

    This article seems to suggest that prenatal exposure to inhalation of tetrachloroethylene can cause neurological and behavioral problems. It would be interesting to do an autopsy on Cho and see if his brain shows any signs of solvent-related damage.

  •  I'm embarassed that I'd never heard of her until (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blksista, rcald


    Giovanni's speech introduced her to the millions like me who don't follow poetry and aren't old enough to know of her accomplishments in the African-American pride movement of the 60's and 70's (I don't know how that could be a more awkward definition of her work). And more importantly, I think it helped the healing process for the tens of thousands of Hokies and their family members who are hurting.

    Thanks for the enlightening diary about Nikki Giovanni and about who was involved in this tragedy.

  •  Writing disturbing stories (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    yoduuuh do or do not

     Means little in itself.  However, in combination with other evidence, it can be used to flesh out a persona.
     From his video clips, I gather that Cho had a strongly histrionic persona, but also a psychological block against doing or saying things that would draw attention to himself.  He could posture before a video camera, but would not communicate in a classroom. Why that would be I'm not sure, but obviously he had built up -- perhaps to some degree intentionally -- an immense amount of bitterness, and only allowed himself a single means of expressing it: the most destructive of all possible means.

  •  I don't know about Tupac, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and I didn't much like the poem you cite, but I LOVE Nikki's words at the funeral. And I commend her for her courage and her wisdom in trying to get the authorities to get that lunatic some help before he did some serious damage.

    Tragic, beautiful words.

    Many thanks, blksista.


  •  Lost soul rips bandaid off a deeper tragedy (3+ / 0-)

    I am in awe of Nikki Giovanni more and more.

    She had a direct personal connection with this tragedy, she reached to help her students, but Cho was beyond her help and the university's help.

    I marvel that she knew he was dangerous and unpredictable and refused to be cowered or deflected from her mission or indulge him any more.

    She saw him thru his antics and bluster as a "child",
    someone fixated at a very early mental age despite his  23 calendar years.

     The unspoken and unaddressed national tragedy is the complete indifference to mental illness as a "real" disease orone worthy of being properly treated.

     Hell,we don't have a single payer or adequate treatment for many millions of people. Some have no insurance, some have "junk"insurance that is totally inadequate for any serious problem. And mentalillness treatments orinsurance for care is woefully underfunded and inadequate across the board, across the country.

      Cho's parents, as immigrants probably had two  complementary problems. Finding or accessing proper care for their son,and the shame and fear (of (deportation for having a sick child or "burden"on society) that many newcomers have in trying to fit in. They all needed help, and it appears none got it.

     Terrible as the things he did and the tirades were,
    it was not a unique act of rage and terror..
     The history of  this sort of mass murder (just one of  about a dozen in the last 3 years)  being a final way out for a number of people including white middle class suburban boys and white self centered adults is really troubling.

     Where is the determination for a solution,and not another "study" or law passed as a sop going to come from?

    "Someone has to be the first drop of rain" Taslima Nasrin

    by Pete Rock on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 09:58:29 PM PDT

  •  Nikki Giovanni was a hero of mine in the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blksista, serrano

    early '70's, when I was in high school.  She was cooler than cool.  Still is.

    Lookin' for a leader

    by extradish on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 10:38:31 PM PDT

  •  giovanni's comment about evil = not helpful (0+ / 0-)

    giovanni's comment about evil, suggesting that cho was evil is absolutely +unhelpful+ and even damaging.

    the core issue is mental illness, not manichean assessments of someone's soul (or lack thereof).

    cheers --

    •  Cho was in the throes of evil... (0+ / 0-)

      Some observers have said that at times he seemed two crying out for help, the other defensive, incoherent, angry, venal.

      That part of him won out.  The evil part.  He refused to take his meds to keep him halfway together.

      He thought he was okay, and certainly, that his institutionalization was uncalled for.  He was a walking time-bomb.

      An untypical Negro...since 1954.

      by blksista on Thu Apr 19, 2007 at 03:32:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  When Transgressive Writers (0+ / 0-)

    ....who teach creative writing encounter students who peg their own risk-meters into the red so thoroughly that it overrides the transgressive writer's innate aversion to dropping a dime, something very unusual is happening, and it's time to listen.

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