by Stephanie Davis and Joyska Nunez-Medina
“… a place where no matter what, I belong. And Knoxville belongs to me. I was born there in Old Knoxville General and I am buried there with Louvenia.” – Nikki Giovanni, from “400 Mulvaney Street”
Poet and writer Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni Jr. was born on June 7, 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although her younger years were spent in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, she returned to Knoxville frequently to visit her grandparents, and in 1958, moved in with them and attended Austin High School (now Austin East Magnet School). Her formative time in Knoxville is reflected in her work, such as in her essay “400 Mulvaney Street” and her poem “Knoxville, Tennessee.”
Photo of Nikki Giovanni courtesy of Poets.org
At the soul of Giovanni’s work are her connections. Her grandmother, Louvenia; the kids down the road; the woman selling hot fish in the park; all these people left a mark on her and came to life again in her writing. Through her eyes we see Black Knoxville in the 1950s, an era in the South most often associated with segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. Although Giovanni is heavily influenced by this movement, she often writes of the everyday mundane and peaceful moments of life.
... I mostly remember Mrs. Flora Ford’s white cake with white icing and Miss Delaney’s blue furs and Armetine Picket’s being the sharpest woman in town—she attended our church—and Miss Brooks wearing tight sweaters and Carter-Roberts Drug Store sending out Modern Jazz Quartet sounds of “Fontessa” and my introduction to Nina Simone by David Cherry, dropping a nickel in the jukebox and “Porgy” coming out. I mostly remember Vine Street, which I was not allowed to walk to get to school, though Grandmother didn’t want me to take Paine Street either because Jay Manning lived on it and he was home from the army and very beautiful with his Black face and two dimples. -- "400 Mulvaney Street" in Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet
Here we can see the reverence Giovanni has for the memories of her youth. We meet her elders and visit significant places. From her writing we learn about the places she remembers, some that no longer exist in the city.
I always like summer
you can eat fresh corn
from daddy's garden
and lots of
and homemade ice-cream
at the church picnic
and listen to
at the church
and go to the mountains with
and go barefooted
and be warm
all the time
not only when you go to bed
"Knoxville, Tennessee" from Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgment by Nikki Giovanni. Copyright © 1968, 1970 by Nikki Giovanni. Courtesy of Poets.org. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
The Urban Renewal projects of the 1960s and 1970s destroyed the landscape of Black Knoxville. “400 Mulvaney Street” focuses on this change. The title is the address of her grandparents’ house across from Cal Johnson Park. The park is one of the few remnants of the thriving Black community. In the essay, the reader gets a tour of the neighborhood through Giovanni’s memory of it.
1939 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. 400 Mulvaney St. is visible on the corner of Mulvaney and Condon, across from Cal Johnson Park. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Photograph of the Gem Theatre. (Courtesy of Knoxville History Project)
Giovanni wrote of the Gem Theatre, the main movie house open to Black patrons. While it is gone now, she remembers it fondly in “400 Mulvaney Street.” “For 10 cents you could sit all day and see a double feature, five cartoons and two serials plus previews for the next two weeks.” She also wrote of the Smoky Mountains, just a stone’s throw away from Knoxville. “The Smokies are so called because the clouds hang low. We used to camp in them. And the bears would come into camp but if you didn’t feed them, they would go away. It’s still a fact.” It is where she took her grandmother on trips after her grandfather died, just like when her grandparents brought her to the mountains when she was younger.
Photograph of the Smoky Mountains by Ansel Adams in 1948. Print can be seen in the "Art After 1900" exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 1999.131.1)
Giovanni had a strong attachment to her grandparents. Emma Louvenia and John Brown Watson were prominent members of the community. Her grandfather taught Latin at Austin High and her grandmother was involved in many charitable and civil rights organizations. Once, Grandma Louvenia attended a meeting to organize a protest to desegregate the lunch counters at Rich’s Department Store in downtown Knoxville. In Grand Mothers: Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories about the Keepers of Our Traditions, Giovanni wrote that during the meeting her grandmother stood up and said, “John Brown and I are too old to march, but our granddaughter Nikki is here, and she will march for us.” A situation that she was displeased about but according to Giovanni, “It wasn’t often that we [the grandchildren] said no to her.”
Giovanni’s connection to her grandparents, particularly her grandmother, fueled her participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Participating in Louvenia’s social and political activities helped Giovanni develop a strong sense of responsibility and commitment to community. In her book, Nikki Giovanni: A Literary Biography, Virginia C. Fowler writes, “Louvenia instilled in her a belief in the importance of individual action, of the moral imperative to “stand up and be counted” whether your side wins or not.” Perhaps this is what young Giovanni intended when she attended Fisk University for the first time.
Photograph of Fisk University’s famous Jubilee Hall. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2010.281.22)
Throughout Giovanni’s upbringing, she learned from and was supported by the women in her life, another such influence being Miss Alfredda Delaney, her English teacher at Austin High. Delaney introduced her to African American writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks and encouraged Giovanni to consider becoming a writer herself. Recognizing her talent, both Miss Delaney and her French teacher, Miss Emma Stokes, helped her apply for early entrance to Fisk. Giovanni left Austin High at the end of her Junior year to attend Fisk University. She was seventeen.
While Giovanni fit in intellectually at the University, she was not yet willing to comply with the rules required of a Fisk student. She was strong-willed and independent, like her grandmother. She also valued time with her grandparents more than she was interested in becoming the perfect Fisk woman. So when Thanksgiving arrived, Giovanni returned to Knoxville without the permission of the then Dean of Women, Ann Cheatam. Angered by this disregard for the rules, Dean Cheatam expelled her from the university at the end of her first semester. Giovanni did not intend to be dismissed from her grandfather’s alma mater, but it was a small price to pay for more time with him. She was expelled in February and Grandfather Watson died in April of that same year. Her time at Fisk was then short-lived, but the university eventually became an integral part in Giovanni's personal and political development.
The following years (1961-1964) were a time of rumination and reflection. Giovanni was back in Ohio living with her parents, working, and taking care of her nephew. But she was also witnessing some of the activities of the Civil Rights Movement. In the summer of 61’, the Freedom Riders were riding through the South and major demonstrations were happening all over. Giovanni’s growing sense of self and purpose coincided with the development of the Movement. She periodically enrolled in classes at the University of Cincinnati, but her heart compelled her to return to the school that her beloved grandfather attended: Fisk.
Renewed and with the guidance of the new dean, Blanche McConnell Cowan, Giovanni reentered Fisk in the Fall of 1964. She wasted no time getting involved in the student activities that called to her. A history major, Giovanni also edited the student literature/politics journal. She also succeeded in reestablishing the campus chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). After a heated debate, she persuaded the school’s administration that the formerly banned SNCC deserved to be there. Dr. Lucius Outlaw Jr., the student government president at the time, recalled to the Tennessee State Museum an interaction with Giovanni as “one of the most powerful and endearing lessons” for him. After an intense meeting with Giovanni and other SNCC hopefuls, where Outlaw was berated for not doing enough to help the cause, Giovanni and Outlaw saw each other in the hallway. Nikki then walked down the hall, kissed him on the cheek and said, “We love you, Lu.” Outlaw was confused at the time, but years later when he spoke to Giovanni, she explained that there were no hard feelings towards him. It was nothing personal, he was just on the wrong side politically. The kiss ended up being a very meaningful gesture for Outlaw. They remain friends today, remembering their time at the university.
Fisk is also where Giovanni developed her writer’s voice. She worked with John O. Killens, who was a prominent figure in the Black Arts Movement and the writer-in-residence at Fisk. During his writer’s workshop, she was able to meet other people involved in the movement, such as LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), an important figure to come out of the “New Black Poets” movement. Although not widely documented, Giovanni’s time at Fisk was integral to her development as a writer and activist. Grandma Louvenia was able to see her granddaughter graduate, one of her wishes before she passed.
Nikki Giovanni at the unveiling of the historical marker dedicated to her and her family on May 23, 2019. (Courtesy of the City of Knoxville Facebook)
Nikki Giovanni reads her poem "Knoxville, Tennessee" at the unveiling of a historic marker at 400 Mulvaney Street in Knoxville on May 23, 2019. (City of Knox Youtube Channel)
From her cherished days in Knoxville with her grandparents to her formative days on Fisk’s campus, Giovanni held these memories in her heart and soul, transforming them into books of poetry. Giovanni has published over two dozen books of poetry, including children’s books. She also became a leading poet in the Black Arts Movement. She wrote essays and published recordings of her work. Giovanni’s work has earned her numerous accolades including the Tennessee Governor's Awards in Arts and Humanities, seven NAACP Image awards, and over twenty Honorary Doctorates. She was recently honored by the City of Knoxville with a historical marker on 400 Mulvaney Street (now Hall of Fame Drive), where her grandparents' house used to be. According to the City of Knoxville, the “historic marker honors the location of Giovanni’s grandparents’ home and recognizes the devastating loss to her family and to many other African-American families.” Giovanni is currently a Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, where she continues to share her love for literature and poems with aspiring students.
Far Right: Nikki Giovanni's 1976 Folkways album, The Reason I Like Chocolate, in which she reads poems for children, displayed together with Gil Scott-Heron's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Sonia Sanchez's I've Been a Woman, at the new National Museum of African American Music in downtown Nashville.
Museum program asssistant Stephanie Davis reads Nikki Giovanni's children's book, Knoxville, Tennessee, as part of the Museum's virtual Storytime program.
Stephanie Davis is a Tennessee State Museum Program Assistant. Joyska Nunez-Medina is a Tennessee State Museum Community Engagement Educator.
Many of Nikki Giovanni's works are available on the Internet Archive at Archive.org.