MACOMB – Western Illinois University presented a keynote address by African-American poet Nikki Giovanni on Thursday in the Union Heritage Room.
The theme of the evening’s address was “Women Undefined.”
Introductions were made by Women’s Center director Stephanie Hovsepian and Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center (GBCC) director Michael Williams. They said Giovanni is a person who bridges the intersectionality of gender and race, and is the first African-American Pulitzer Prize winner, awarded status of poet laureate of Illinois and the first black woman appointed to consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.
“Being at Western Illinois is actually sacred ground to me,” said Giovanni as she took the stage to rounds of applause from faculty, students and community members who gathered to hear the prominent speaker. She said that Western is one of the original Gwendolyn Brooks “black houses”.
Giovanni explained that teaching at Virginia Tech was her first real job where she now runs a poetry contest called the Steger Poetry Prize after retired Virginia Tech President Charles Steger. She said she would like the Steger Poetry Prize organization  to place a bench in a certain sacred space at the GBCC. The bench, she said, might be a symbolic resting place “at the side of the road” borrowed from the literary imagery of author Toni Morrison’s allegory, “Beloved.”
Assured that fans of Toni Morrison would share in her desire to recognize the contributions made by black people, Giovanni said, “When I go home that’s what we’re going to do so that when you see that space now or as soon as we can get the bench there, because Gwendolyn started all of the poetry, so it will be that space from the Steger Poetry Prize.”
The Tennessee native observed she, Gwendolyn Brooks and the artist known as Prince were born on June 7. “June 7 is a good time if you are not doing anything to be born – and that is something else to remember: June 7 is an important part of that space.”
“I am so proud of Western that you have continued to take those next steps, and I know that it’s not easy and that it’s not going to continue to be easy, but you’ve got sacred space.”
The poet said this year is different because she went to a lot of places that she normally doesn’t go, such as Greensboro where she happened to meet the governor who “would probably do anything in his life to never have to run into me again.”
She asked him why his license plate doesn’t say Greensboro Four because the most important thing that happened in North Carolina was the Greensboro Four. Later she was in Arkansas, and of course “I think that should say Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine.”
“Black people get tired of not being recognized, and it’s time that we recognized the importance of what we have contributed to this nation,” Giovanni said. “That doesn’t cost anything to put it on a damn license plate.” Her juxtaposition of significant history being etched onto prosaic, stamped sheet metal drew laughter and applause from the audience.
Thinking about how we might become more inclusive, Giovanni said black people are probably “the greatest people in earth because we’re low maintenance. All we’re looking for is every now and then, not even every day I am talking about, just every now and then is a smile. Just every now and then. When you steal from us, just admit that you stole from us.”
Although the history of the United States is an immigrant’s history, the poet laureate lamented black people are the only people in America who didn’t come. “You all came and got us. We want to have a nation, and they looked around and said ‘What do you need?’ Well, we got Europeans, we got this, and we got that. And somebody looked around and said, We don’t have any black folks.’”
You can’t have a nation without black folks, said Giovanni. “So, they went and bought us.” She continued that people can also talk about the history of black people being sold into slavery, and while that is part of the ugliness, that is still part of history.
Giovanni recounted the tenth day of an ocean transit when black people who were transported as slaves to America realized they could rebel against the people who controlled the ship used to transport them from African to America. But some of the people who rebelled were crushed, and subsequently stowed back below deck.
“Because I believe in black women, I happen to think that it had to be a black woman because it’s women who recognize some of these things, and it’s going to be the women recognizing, ‘My people need comfort.’”
Giovanni continued, “They recognize that. We’re here, we’ve been defeated, wherever we’re going, it’s going to be really different. We need comfort.”
At age 74, Giovanni recognized that at this point in her life what she cares most about is “what does not exist.” She urged people to come to terms with the world they live in, and that in spite of the work against segregation; it will always exist to some extent. “If people don’t like you, you don’t have any reason to like them and I sometimes hear people say “the white folks don’t like me.’ Well, you don’t like them either if you think about it. You don’t want to be bothered, so there is no reason that your energy is being spent on people who don’t like you.”
But at Western Illinois University, Giovanni said, “I’ll bet there is one person who does like you. So, your job is to find the white person who does, and when you find her or him, let them like you and stand up for you. You have the right to have a white friend, and we who are white ought to know we have a right to have a black friend. And we can’t let the people who are afraid of color do something different.”
Gwendolyn Brooks Community Center Director Michael Williams recognized the following sponsors of the Nikki Giovanni keynote address: the Black Student Association, Equal Opportunity and Access (EOA), the Black Student Summit, the English Department, the Centennial Honors College and the Liberal Arts and Sciences of African American Studies.
For information about the Western Illinois Women’s Center, visit
http://www.wiu.edu/student_services/womens_center/
For information about the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center (GBCC) at Western Illinois, visit http://www.wiu.edu/student_services/gwendolyn_brooks_cultural_center/

Reach Christopher Ginn by email at cginn@mcdonoughvoice.com.