Giovanni is an essayist, too

Monday Book Review

April 04, 1994|By Karin D. Berry

RACISM 101. By Nikki Giovanni. William Morrow. 201 pages. $20.

YOU MAY remember Nikki Giovanni as a poet from the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Who could forget her proud poem, "Ego Tripping" -- "i mean . . . i can fly like a bird in the sky"?) But when you read "Racism 101," you may come away thinking that Ms. Giovanni is a fine essayist as well.

In this collection of 28 pieces written over five years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ms. Giovanni's writing is refreshingly clear and engaging,

with light poetic touches throughout.

"Racism 101" at first seems a harsh title, considering that Ms. Giovanni's compositions read more like long, comfortable, one-on-one conversations about herself, her life and the state of black America today.

If you have not read her work in a while, these essays catch you up on Ms. Giovanni's life. Her son Thomas, whom she raised as a single parent, is now an adult. She teaches English at Virginia Tech, a predominantly white university in Blacksburg, Va. She smokes too much, and eats way too much fatty food, she acknowledges, but she enjoys it, thank you very much. And she muses about growing old.

Ms. Giovanni's fire and independence, her affirmation of being black, are still there. In "His Name Is Malcolm," she critiques film director Spike Lee's movie "X," calling its first hour insulting to the black community, and gives us her vision of a film biography of the assassinated leader.

And in "Black Is the Noun," she says she is an "American black." That's all. Further, she passes judgment on such conservatives as economist Thomas Sowell, San Jose State professor Shelby Steele, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan: They "have no character" and are in "opportunistic service."

On the lighter side, Ms. Giovanni writes of her times as a child in Knoxville, Tenn., of nights when she and her sister eavesdropped as her grandparents talked on the front porch. In "I Plant Geraniums," she tells us what writing means to her. "Shooting for the Moon" is an account of her interview with astronaut Mae Jemison. "Glasses: For Toni Morrison" is a gentle tribute to the writer. "Pioneers: A Guide" and "Campus Racism" provide advice to black college students.

For Nikki Giovanni, "writing is both a public and a private treasure." In "Racism 101," she makes reading her work a joy.

Karin D. Berry is a layout editor for The Sun and The Evening Sun.

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