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Nikki Giovanni indicts higher education, provides a survival guide for black students on predominantly white campuses and excoriates Spike Lee while offering her own ideas for a film about Malcolm X. And that's just for starters. Racism 101 will delight fans, provoke her critics--and add an important chapter to the debate on American national values.
I must have heard my first stories in my mother's womb.
Mother loved a good story and my father told goodjokes, but it was her father, Grandpapa, who told the heroic tales of long ago. Grandpapa was a Fisk Universitygraduate ( 1905 ) who had majored in Latin. As he sometimes told the story, he had intended to be a diplomatuntil he met Grandmother, but that is probably anotherstory altogether, he being Black and all in 1905 or thereabouts.
Grandpapa loved the stars. He knew the constellations and the gods who formed them, for whom they were named.
Grandpapa was twenty years the senior of Grandmother, so he was an old man when we were born. Grandmother's passion was flowers; his, constellations. One needn't have a great imagination to envision this court ship: the one with her feet firmly planted on earth, the other with his heart in the sky. It is only natural that Iwould love history and the gossip of which it is composed.
Fiction cannot take the place of stories. Aha, youcaught me! Fiction is stories, you say. But no. Stories, attheir best, pass along a history. It may be that there was noUlysses with a faithful Penelope knitting and unraveling,but something representative of the people is conveyed.Something about courage, fortitude, loss, and recovery.
I, like most young ladies of color, used to get my hair done every Saturday. The beauty parlor is a marvelous thing. Every Saturday you got the saga of who was sleeping with whose husband; who was pregnant; who was abused by whose boyfriend or husband. Sometimes they would remember the children were there, but mostly the desire of the women to talk without the presence of the men overcame their desire to shieldus from the real world.
My mother's family is from Albany, Georgia, but Grandmother and Grandpapa had moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. We four grandchildren spent our summers with Grandmother.
At night, when we were put to bed, my sister Gary and I would talk and sing and sometimes read under the covers using our Lone Ranger flashlight rings. Of course, we were caught. Grandmother would threaten us and take our rings. We would sneak out of our room, wiggling on our stomachs, to reach the window under which we sat and listened to Grandpapa and Grandmother talk.
Sitting under that window I learned that Eisenhower was not a good president; I learned that poll taxes are unfair. I heard Grandmother berate Grandpapa for voting Republican when "Lincoln didn't do all that much for colored people." I heard assessments of Black and white people of Knoxville and the world. No one is enhanced by this. I'm not trying to pretend they were; there were no stories of "the African" in my family, although I am glad there were in Alex Haley's.
We were just ordinary people trying to make sense of our lives, and for that I thank my grandparents. I'm lucky that I had the sense to listen and the heart to care; I'm glad they talked into the night, sitting in the glider on the front porch, Grandmother munching on fried fish and Grandpapa eating something sweet. I'm glad I understand that while language is a gift, listening is a responsibility. There must always be griots . . . else how will we know who we are?
Copyright ) 1994 by Nikki Giovanni