Nikki Giovanni, writer of prose and poetry, activist and distinguished professor is also a college football fan and was a friend of Muhammed Ali.
Giovanni, profoundly partisan, said she bet a friend $50 that LSU would beat Clemson for the national title last month.
They did, but Giovanni said the winnings would be only turned over when Donald Trump is out as president.
Giovanni has been published countless times with collections of poetry and recorded some of them. She spoke at Bucknell University during the week, part of a series of talks about black radical thought.
To me, her name was familiar, having done an R & B radio show in college. A Nikki Giovanni spoken word cut could be mixed between tunes by Isaac Hayes or Lou Rawls. It sounds weird in the telling, but it somehow worked.
Giovanni was amused that so much time has passed between then and now. I had to apologize, I didn’t recall the name of the album I once played, nor the titles of her recorded work.
Giovanni was not amused by the 45th president of the United States. Of the topics we covered, Trump and people who wear red ties drew intense ire.
“Like the whole world, I am disappointed with the Republican party and the way they are treating Trump,” she said. “It’s like the people who stood by Hitler, and you can quote me on this.”
Giovanni returned to the Trump topic several times, summed up with the following.
“I think that Donald Trump has brought out the very worse in this nation,” Giovanni said. “I don’t know if he blows something the air and some of the white people get sick or if he pees in the water and they drink it and it makes them crazy.”
Giovanni has also served as an interviewer rather than as interviewee.
She appeared on a television show called “Soul!” in 1970 and interviewed guests ranging from playwright James Baldwin to Jesse Jackson to Muhammed Ali.
I had to ask about Ali.
“I knew Ali,” Giovanni said. “And we all do, so appreciate it when he said, ‘I’m not going. I’m not doing the Vietnam War.’”
Turns out Giovanni coached Ali, the poet, on tour. It started with a call from his publicist.
“They were going to strip Ali of his belt,” Giovanni recalled. “She said, ‘We were wondering if you would travel with him because he likes to do poetry and he needs to learn how to be on stage.’ I said I can’t think of anybody I’d rather.”
Giovanni joked that there appearances were one of the few times when “The Greatest” opened for someone else.
“He needed to learn how to just be relaxed,” she added. “It was so funny. Ali was just such a good man and we all got along.”
Ali, Giovanni concluded, was one of the people who did what he had to do. Whether it was something in the public realm or his high blood pressure, he did what he had to do.
Giovanni has done what she has needed to do when it comes to her health. She has survived lung cancer and breast cancer and recently twisted her leg hurrying in an airport.
“Nobody is going to live forever. So the question is how do you want to enjoy the life you are living?” Giovanni asked. “They took my left lung out. I had breast cancer and they took my right breast out.”
She said to her doctor that he keeps cutting there won’t be much more than a big toe remaining.
Giovanni sipped on a cup of Starbucks coffee as we spoke at Lewisburg’s Copper Beech B and B.
She was happy when she learned that Starbucks and the City of Philadelphia had settled with two African-American men who were arrested and taken away in 2018. The men had asked to use the Starbucks restroom without buying anything while waiting for another man.
The firing of the store manager meant Giovanni would not have to be part of a boycott. She told as much to a Starbucks representative at a charity event in Seattle.
“I was so glad that you fired that (woman),” she recalled telling the rep. “I would have had to join the boycott. and nothing makes my day worse than not having my Starbucks in the morning.”
The men agreed to not file suit in exchange for $1 apiece and an agreement that the city fund a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs.
“That is Trump,” Giovanni concluded. “That (Starbucks manager) never would have done that. That’s Trump.”
Giovanni, born in Knoxville, Tenn. and now living in the Blacksburg, Va. considered herself Appalachian. She described it as a place where people greet each other in Kroger’s grocery store.
“It’s important to be civil,” she concluded. “I think the Appalachian community knows that. It’s the people coming in to the Appalachian community that are causing some problems because they are bringing their hatred and fears with them.”