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An open letter to Ms. Nikki Giovanni

Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems
By Nikki Giovanni
William Morrow & Co., 128 pp., $16.95

Ms. Nikki,
I am sitting in a coffee shop on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, North Carolina. I am on my way to the Employment Security Commission Office. I call it The Unemployment Office. Some folks call the unemployment office the employment office. I do not call the unemployment office the employment office because I have been going there once every six weeks to report my "work search" progress and I still do not have a job. If I had a job, why would I (or the number of jobless Wake County citizens like me) just stop by every six weeks to visit and wait and watch a muted CNN and wait some more? This will not be a social call and it is not a sunny day. We are unemployed. It is the Unemployment Office.

The Unemployment Office is off Sonnybrook Road, which is off New Bern Avenue. After making a right on Sonnybrook, I will make a left on Carl Sandburg Court. Carl Sandburg and you have (or had) the same job. You're both poets. I know Carl Sandburg is a poet because he wrote a poem called "Iron." In it, he said, "the shovel is brother to the gun." He was speaking of war.

On March 7, President George held a National Press Conference. It began at 8 p.m. and aired on all the major networks. Since I do not have a night job (or a day job for that matter), I sat and listened. He spoke rather smoothly of "liberating Iraq," and other very generalized what-nots. I flipped through the echo of channels considering the many wars that America has instituted with the purpose of "liberating" folks: the war on poverty which was suppose to liberate poor folks, the war on drugs to liberate drug addicts, the war on AIDS ... . What happened to those wars? It seems our enemy in those battles has posed as clear and present a threat as Saddam. Anyways, I watched him constrict his eyes and dance evasively around like any good politician does. He squinted hard and said something about knowing our targets, but poverty, drugs and AIDS were well-defined "targets," which convinces me the case for "disarmament of Saddam" in this "war on terror" is an imperialist complex of ifs, buts, and contradictions. President George said "allowing a dangerous dictator to defy the world and harbor weapons of mass murder and terror is no peace at all." Ms. Nikki, I remember you saying in a poem once, "In the name of peace they waged the wars/ain't they got no shame?" Maybe you, the artist, is the best form of checks and balances we got. A black woman journalist asked President George, "should we pray?" I wondered if she really didn't know the answer. I know the answer because I am a working class poet seeking employment and, since that press conference, America has engaged another enemy whose defeat is a loose promise in another "war for peace" with no viable end. "Nah, they ain't got no shame."

Ms. Nikki, the real reason I'm writing is to tell you I was up half the night wondering how all these other "liberation" wars got swept under the rug, so I did not read from your book of poetry, Quilting The Black-Eyed Pea. This was the first night in weeks I did not open the book and find a story or recipe handed down from Aunt Daughter to encourage sweet aromas in my dreams. You call this collection one of "poems and not quite poems," which is a prescription only a true poet can assign. It's humbling to think that you--Nikki Giovanni, the loose-tongued panther poet who entered Fisk University at 16-years-old and graduated at 24--freely admits to writing "not quite poems." I have been rummaging through your collection in search of the not-quites. I guess "9:11:01 He Blew It" may qualify. It is the conversation every human has had with her or himself since that day awaiting admission to the next history text. You say, "the president is only a white boy," which is not quite poetry. It reduces the American power paradigm to a shrug of a sentence that must learn to seek accord with the larger composition of humanity. On the other hand, your recount of "Aunt Daughter and That Glorious Song," is nothing but poetry. It sings, it chuckles, recounts, remembers. And like one of the menfolk sitting on Joe Clark's front porch in Zora's beloved Eatonville, you add the necessary disclaimer, "This is the way I heard the story."

In "Symphony of the Spinx," you admit that you could possibly forget about Africa if it were not for your Mother's moan. Our mothers juggle the responsibilities of a battalion of men in just two hands. Yes ma'am, another ageless battle wages on. In such a forgetful world, I could almost not remember too.

Well, I guess I should tarry on. My coffee is officially cold. I'd like to suggest, Ms. Nikki, try some sugar in your black-eyed peas. Although I'm sure you already know, it makes for some serious sopping. The ingredients of Quilting The Black-Eyed Pea are served with grace from your ladle which has fed us for over three decades. Yes, Ms. Nikki, the years have brought you to a steady simmer. I hope you partake of something sweet in these potentially bitter times.

Pressing on,

hattie adell

  • An open letter to Ms. Nikki Giovanni

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