Writer and civil rights activist Nikki Giovanni spoke to a full house of UMKC students and community members about writing and the realities of race in America at the 7th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote Address, “An Evening of Poetry, Love and Enlightenment.”
The UMKC Division of Diversity and Inclusion hosted the event. Preceding Giovanni’s speech, Chancellor Leo Morton and Vice Chancellor of Diversity Dr. Susan Wilson gave speeches of their own, stressing the goals of the Division of Diversity and Inclusion. In his introduction speech, Morton said the aim of the division is, “really quite simple: to enhance the way we see the world.”
Following the speeches, Giovanni was presented with a gift from the women of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
Giovanni started her speech musing on the benefits of old age.
“First of all, there’s nothing like falling in love at 60,” Giovanni said. “If you’re 60 and not in love, find somebody.”
Giovanni did not spare the audience her raw, biting sense of humor. Even when talking about a series of deaths in her family, including those of her mother and sister, Giovanni still managed to throw in a joke or two.
“If you have family, which most of us are stuck with one way or the other, for god’s sake get an attorney and leave a will,” she said.
According to Giovanni, having one’s affairs in order allows loved ones time to grieve, which is something she values.
“I love crying,” Giovanni said. “It’s good for you, because if you don’t cry, you’re holding things in, and you can’t always hold things in.”
Giovanni then encouraged the audience to see the recent film “Selma,” a biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“You must see ‘Selma,’” Giovanni said. “. . . everyone’s got a reason ‘well, I don’t know if I can handle it.’ Well, handle it damn it! Some people lived that life.”
Giovanni then defended the film’s portrayal of former president Lyndon B. Johnson, which has drawn a great deal of criticism for being too harsh.
“This is the best Lyndon Johnson you’re ever going to see,” she said. “They made a general out of that son of a bitch.”
The topic then turned to Ferguson, which Giovanni said echoed the sentiments of the original Civil Rights Movement.
“Now, I know where I am, so I know that I’m not that far from Ferguson, and whether the people in Ferguson know it or not, they doing what Dr. King suggested they do,” Giovanni said, speaking of King’s resistance to injustice.
“I think we should be incredibly proud of the kids. People are asking, ‘why are they marching?’ It’s not ‘why are they marching,’ it’s ‘why are people shooting at them?’” she said.
Jumping from one political topic to another, Giovanni defended voting rights for convicted felons.
“When somebody says, ‘Nikki, if those people could vote they would make what they’ve done not be a crime.’ That sounds like business, doesn’t it?” she said.
Giovanni also spoke of her friendship with Rosa Parks, recited some of her poetry and encouraged younger generations to go out and fight injustice.
Giovanni is currently a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech University.