Angelou and Giovanni celebrate the Black experience in verse form

By James Pascoe

Previously published in 1973, former staff writer James Pascoe writes about when poets and civil rights activists Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni spoke in Youngstown, when Black History Month was only celebrated as a week.

Giovanni continues to publish books, with her most recent having come out in 2022, titled “A Library.” Angelou has since passed away in 2014. 

This article first appeared in the Feb. 16, 1973 edition of The Jambar. 

Black poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, in observance of National Black History Week, spoke of the importance of survival and its poetic celebration in relation to the Black experience. 

Poets Angelou and Giovanni were the introductory speakers for YSU’s observance of Black History Week, which also included speakers, movies and workshops. The theme of this year’s activities is the strong courageous Black woman and her contributions to the total Black experience. 

Miss Angelou, renowned for her contributions as a poet, novelist, and playwright, spoke to a crowd of about 250 Monday evening at St. John’s Episcopal Church. 

Tracing Black poetry through its last 200 years in America as a testimonial to Black survival, Miss Angelou then proved herself to be a rightful heir to that tradition with such poems as “Hopscotch” and “Times Square Shoeshine Boy.”

“People live in direct relationships to their heroes,” said Miss Angelou, “and for Black Americans that hero is their poetry.”

In this way, Miss Angelou recognizes no separation between the Black experience and its poetry. In other words, she views the Black experience as poetry itself. 

“Staying Black is beautiful,” said Miss Angelou, “is surviving with style, flair, compassion and overwhelming humanity.”

 Miss Angelou designated one type of poetic survival as “signifyin.” This is an art form, as explained by Miss Angelou, which is generally unknown to the White populace. It developed as a way to say no and speak one’s mind by a people who were not allowed to do either. 

Nikki Giovanni spoke Tuesday afternoon, also at St. John’s Episcopal Church, but to an overflowing crowd. 

A poet since childhood, Miss Giovanni has received numerous grants and awards and has published several volumes of poetry. 

Miss Giovanni also stressed the importance of survival in the Black experience. The time has come however, she said, “for the Black man to gain a foothold in the Establishment.” Survival is no longer sufficient she said “There’s nothing wrong with being Black and rich too.”

Miss Giovanni’s poetry was less concerned with social protest as it was with simply relating to the earthy side of Black experience. Poems like “My House” and lines like “… brown butterflies fluttering across my brown body …” showed her interest in the sensual side of the human experience. 

Though Miss Giovanni’s poetry lacked some of the invective so evident in Miss Angelou’s, her prose was filled with biting criticism. Besides taking punches at the Establishment in general she leveled particular criticisms against the women’s liberation movement, which she feels absurd for two reasons. 

First, her earthy sensualism denies the belief that men and women are exactly the same. “It is the differences,” she said, “that make love poetic.”

Second, she cited that Black Women have always been independent and liberated and are the “standard for all women.”

Black History Week continues today with further workshops and a dance tonight. The observance will be concluded tomorrow night at Stambaugh Auditorium with a concert by jazz artist Les McCann. 

If the pace and the level of awareness set by these two Black women are carried over to the rest of the week, Black History Week at YSU will be a highly-successful venture.