Not many sixty-five-year-old women have tattoos that read “Thug Life,” but Nikki Giovanni is an exception. The radical ’60s poet-turned-children’s author, who stopped at the University of Chicago’s International House during her book tour on October 18th, inked herself some years ago in a tribute to famed rapper Tupac Shakur. This was just one of many colorful topics that Giovanni chose to share with her audience, who, by the end of Giovanni’s talk, weren’t sure if they had come to hear a lecture promoting children’s books, a mangled retelling of American history, or a stump speech for Barack Obama.
Giovanni opened her lecture, which had a total attendance of not more than forty people, by asking a woman in the front row where she had purchased her Obama T-shirt. That, in essence, set the mood for the rest of the morning. From there, she moved on to her opinions that there have only been four First Ladies during the course of American history who were not bigots (Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Kennedy), that John Brown is an American hero who would be on our currency today if he had wanted to repress slaves instead of free them, and that, in reference to Sarah Palin, “the Vice President of the United States should not say ‘you betcha.’ Not allowed.” Along with these assertions, Giovanni voiced support for what she heard was a recent move in the Catholic Church to canonize Martin Luther King, Jr. Nobody in the audience was quite sure where she heard that or why she believed it, but her aimless ranting was in such full force that it would have been a shame to interrupt it.
Wait, so how did Tupac come up out of all that? As it turns out, Giovanni eventually got around to mentioning the two children’s books her tour is supposed to be promoting, “Lincoln and Douglass” and “Hip Hop Speaks to Children,” the latter of which Mr. Shakur is a posthumous contributor to. “Lincoln and Douglass” explores, through story and picture, the friendship between the two great American men, while “Hip Hop Speaks to Children” is a collection of poetry by a wide range of artists (Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mos Def, Gwendolyn Brooks, A Tribe Called Quest) accompanied by a CD recording. If Giovanni had spent more time talking about her new work and less proselytizing, there might be more to say here about her unexpected turn from women’s lib and black power poetry to picture books. However, that was not the case.
Oh well. The tattoo part was pretty interesting.