Word Cloud: EMPATHY (Black History Month Redux)


I’ve read a lot of statements by writers about writing, and they are all true, but many of them are only true for that one writer and their particular ‘process.’

I like this comment by Nikki Giovanni (1943 – ), because I think it’s about the writers you keep coming back to, the ones who can still give you something at 50 that you never saw when you first read them at 18:

“I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” 

It’s rare to find a young writer who writes from empathy. Most people, including writers, start out pretty self-obsessed, and English teachers have been reinforcing that for decades by telling their students to “write what you know.” It’s as good place as any to start, but most of us don’t know all that much in our teens and twenties, so many promising writers quickly run out of material, and go dry.

Nikki Giovanni was a kid in the 1950s, and “came of age” in the 1960s, which shifted from the uptight clothing and button-down minds of the 1950s to the idealism worn like a mantle by the Kennedys’ Best and Brightest, to voter registration and civil rights, the anti-war protests and the women’s movement. Ideas and emotions exploded.


In this poem, she looks back at the happy little girl she was, exploring the worlds in the books she eagerly checks out from the library:

My First Memory (of Librarians)

This is my first memory:
A big room with heavy wooden tables that sat on a creaky
wood floor
A line of green shades—bankers’ lights—down the center
Heavy oak chairs that were too low or maybe I was simply
too short
For me to sit in and read
So my first book was always big

In the foyer up four steps a semi-circle desk presided
To the left side the card catalogue
On the right newspapers draped over what looked like
a quilt rackmontana-public-library-childrens-section
Magazines face out from the wall

The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books—another world—just waiting
At my fingertips.



And here I see the shiny-new teen, trying on somebody else’s cool to cover hurt and anger:


in my younger years
before i learned
black people aren’t
suppose to dream
i wanted to be
a raelet
and say “dr o wn d in my youn tears”
or “tal kin bout tal kin bout”
or marjorie hendricks and grind
all up against the micthe-shirelles-early
and scream
“baaaaaby nightandday
baaaaaby nightandday”
then as i grew and matured
i became more sensible
and decided i would
settle down
and just become
a sweet inspiration


Sometimes she rants instead, connecting what she’s read to what she’s living through:

The Great Pax Whitie

In the beginning was the word
And the word was
And the word was nigger
And the word was death to all niggers
And the word was death to all life
And the word was death to all
peace be still

The genesis was life
The genesis was death
In the genesis of death
Was the genesis of war
be still peace be still

In the name of peace
They waged the wars
ain’t they got no shame

In the name of peace
Lot’s wife is now a product of the Morton company
nah, they ain’t got no shame

Noah packing his wife and kiddies up for a holiday
row row row your boat
But why’d you leave the unicorns, noah
Huh? why’d you leave them
While our Black Madonna stood there
Eighteen feet high holding Him in her arms
Listening to the rumblings of peace
be still be still

He wanted to know
And peter only asked who is that dude?
Who is that Black dude?
Looks like a troublemaker to me
And the foundations of the mighty mighty
Ro Man Cat holic church were laid

hallelujah Jesus
nah, they ain’t got no shame

Cause they killed the Carthaginians
in the great appian way
And they killed the Moors
“to civilize a nation”
And they just killed the earth
And blew out the sun
In the name of a god
Whose genesis was white
And war wooed god
And america was born
Where war became peace
And genocide patriotism
And honor is a happy slave
cause all god’s chillun need rhythm
And glory hallelujah why can’t peace
be still

The great emancipator was a bigot
ain’t they got no shame
And making the world safe for democracy
Were twenty millon slaves
nah, they ain’t got no shame

And they barbecued six million
To raise the price of beef
And crossed the 38th parallel
To control the price of rice
ain’t we never gonna see the light

And champagne was shipped out of the East
While kosher pork was introduced
To Africa
Only the torch can show the way

In the beginning was the deed
And the deed was death

And the honkies are getting confused
peace be still

So the great white prince
Was shot like a nigger in texas
And our Black shining prince was murdered
like that thug in his cathedral
While our nigger in memphis
was shot like their prince in dallas
And my lord
ain’t we never gonna see the light
The rumblings of this peace must be stilled
be stilled be still

ahh Black people
ain’t we got no pride?


Then she goes to wider themes, connecting her experiences to what’s happening to others:

BLK History Month

If Black History Month is not
viable then wind does not
carry the seeds and drop them
on fertile ground
rain does notethiopean-children-with-tree-seedlings
dampen the land
and encourage the seeds
to root
sun does not
warm the earth
and kiss the seedlings
and tell them plain:
You’re As Good As Anybody Else
You’ve Got A Place Here, Too


Giovanni has great expectations for herself and the people around her:

“There is always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, naked people to clothe, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don’t expect you to save the world I do think it’s not asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, engage those among you who are visionary and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair and disrespect.” 


And pokes some fun at herself:


(There may be a reason why)

I was born in the Congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
drinking nectar with Allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to Europe
to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is Nefertiti
the tears from my birth pains
created the Nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
out the sahara desert
with a packet of goat’s meat
and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
so swift you can’t catch me

For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son Hannibal an elephant
He gave me Rome for Mother’s Day
My strength flows ever on

My son Noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
as we sailed on a soft summer day

I turned myself into myself and was
men intone my loving name

All praises All Praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filing from my fingernails are
semi-precious jewels
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the Arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach the east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was
laid across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended
except by my permission

I mean…I…can fly
like a bird in the sky…


This soft and quiet poem reminds me that Giovanni is a cancer survivor, even though it is not in the words.


(for Sally Sellers)

Like a fading piece of cloth
I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter
My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able
To hold the hot and cold


I wish for those first days
When just woven I could keep water
From seeping through
Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave
Dazzled the sunlight with my

I grow old though pleased with my memories
The tasks I can no longer complete
Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past

I offer no apology only
this plea:

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers

And cuddle


And here, one of the  loveliest expressions I know of finding love unexpectedly later in one’s life.


I love you

            because the Earth turns round the sun
because the North wind blows north
because the Pope is Catholic
and most Rabbis Jewish
because the winters flow into springs
and the air clears after a storm
because only my love for you
despite the charms of gravity
keeps me from falling off this Earth
into another dimension
I love you
because it is the natural order of things

I love you
like the habit I picked up in college
of sleeping through lectures
or saying I’m sorry
when I get stopped for speeding
because I drink a glass of water
in the morning
and chain-smoke cigarettes
all through the day
because I take my coffee Black
and my milk with chocolate
because you keep my feet warm
though my life a mess
I love you
because I don’t want it
any other way

I am helpless
in my love for you
It makes me so happy
to hear you call my name
I am amazed you can resist
locking me in an echo chamber
where your voice reverberates
through the four walls
sending me into spasmatic ecstasy
I love you
because it’s been so good
for so long
that if I didn’t love you
I’d have to be born again
and that is not a theological statement
I am pitiful in my love for you

The Dells tell me Love
is so simple
the thought though of you
sends indescribably delicious multitudinous
thrills throughout and through-in my body
I love you
because no two snowflakes are alike
and it is possibleunmade-bed
if you stand tippy-toe
to walk between the raindrops
I love you
because I am afraid of the dark
and can’t sleep in the light
because I rub my eyes
when I wake up in the morning
and find you there
because you with all your magic powers were
determined that
I should love you
because there was nothing for you but that
I would love you

I love you
because you made me
want to love you
more than I love my privacy
my freedom          my commitments
and responsibilities
I love you ’cause I changed my life
to love you
because you saw me one Friday
afternoon and decided that I would
love you
I love you I love you I love you


Nikki Giovanni said in an interview, “I come from a long line of storytellers.” One of them was her outspoken grandmother, who instilled in her an intense connection to her African-American heritage.

Her first published poetry collections, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967) and Black Judgement (1968), were deeply influenced by the assassinations of  Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Robert Kennedy, and a crying need to speak out about the struggles of black people. These early books, followed by Re: Creation (1970), quickly established Giovanni as a bold new African-American voice.

Black Feeling, Black Talk sold over ten thousand copies in its first year alone. Her first public reading packed the house at Birdland, the famous New York City jazz club.


I’m closing with one of her best-known poems, one that some reviewers would have used at the beginning, in the hope that Giovanni’s view of white writers has mellowed a little. Because I learned from my grandfather, and the long line of storytellers behind him, that it is possible to catch a glimpse through someone else’s eyes of a completely different life, with a little imagination and and a goodly amount of empathy.


childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you’re Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
your mother
all to yourself and
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those
big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in
and somehow when you talk about home
it never gets across how much you
understood their feelings
as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale
and even though you remember
your biographers never understand
your father’s pain as he sells his stock
and another dream goes
And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that
concerns you
and though they fought a lot
it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference
but only that everybody is together and you
and your sister have happy birthdays and very goodbirthday-cake-3
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy



Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/nikki-giovanni

Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/nikki-giovanni

Writer’s Reel: https://penusa.org/blogs/mark-program/writers%E2%80%99-reel-nikki-giovanni-healing-through-poetry

Scholastic: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/nikki-giovanni-interview-transcript/



  • Black Feeling, Black Talk,Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1968, 3rd edition, 1970.
  • Black Judgement,Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1968.
  • Black Feeling, Black Talk/ Black Judgement(contains Black Feeling, Black Talk, and Black Judgement), Morrow (New York, NY), 1970.
  • Re: Creation,Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1970.
  • My House,foreword by Ida Lewis, Morrow (New York, NY), 1972.
  • The Women and the Men,Morrow (New York, NY), 1975.
  • Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day,introduction by Paula Giddings, Morrow (New York, NY), 1978.
  • Those Who Ride the Night Winds,Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
  • The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1995,Morrow (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Love Poems,Morrow (New York, NY), 1997.
  • Blues: For All the Changes: New Poems,Morrow (New York, NY), 1999.
  • Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems,Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.
  • The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni,HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
  • The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998,Morrow (New York, NY), 2003.
  • Acolytes, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2007.
  • Bicycles: Love Poems, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2009.


  • Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis,Afro Arts (New York, NY), 1970.
  • Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children,illustrated by Charles Bible, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1971, illustrated by George Martins, Lawrence Hill (Westport, CT), 1985, revised edition, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1987.
  • Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People,illustrated by George Ford, Lawrence Hill (Chicago, IL), 1973.
  • Vacation Time: Poems for Children,illustrated by Marisabina Russo, Morrow (New York, NY), 1980.
  • Knoxville, Tennessee,illustrated by Larry Johnson, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1994.
  • The Sun Is So Quiet,illustrated by Ashley Bryant, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
  • The Genie in the Jar,illustrated by Chris Raschka, Holt, 1996.
  • Girls in the Circle,illustrated by Cathy Ann Johnson, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2004
  • Rosa(children’s book), illustrated by Bryan Collier, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2005.
  • Poetry Speak to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat(guest contributor), Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2005.
  • Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship, illustrated by Bryan Collier, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2008.
  • Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat(audio CD), Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2008.


  • (Editor)Night Comes Softly: An Anthology of Black Female Voices, Medic Press (Newark, NJ), 1970.
  • Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet,Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1971.
  • Truth Is on Its Way(album), Atlantis, 1971.
  • (With James Baldwin)A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1973.
  • Like a Ripple on a Pond(album), Collectibles, 1973.
  • (With Margaret Walker)A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, Howard University Press (Washington, DC), 1974.
  • The Way I Feel(album), Atlantic, 1975.
  • Legacies—The Poetry Of Nikki Giovanni—Read By Nikki Giovanni(album), Folkways, 1976.
  • The Reason I Like Chocolate (And Other Children’s Poems)(album), Folkways, 1976.
  • Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day(album), Folkways, 1978.
  • (Author of introduction)Adele Sebastian: Intro to Fine (poems), Woman in the Moon, 1985.
  • Sacred Cows … and Other Edibles(essays), Morrow (New York, NY), 1988.
  • (Editor, with C. Dennison)Appalachian Elders: A Warm Hearth Sampler, Pocahontas Press (Blacksburg, VA), 1991.
  • (Author of foreword)The Abandoned Baobob: The Autobiography of a Woman, Chicago Review Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.
  • Nikki Giovanni and the New York Community Choir(album), Collectibles, 1993.
  • Racism 101(essays), Morrow (New York, NY), 1994.
  • (Editor)Grand Mothers: Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories about the Keepers of Our Traditions, Holt (New York, NY), 1994.
  • (Editor)Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking at the Harlem Renaissance through Poems, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
  • In Philadelphia(album), Collectibles, 1997.
  • Stealing Home: For Jack Robinson(album), Sony, 1997.
  • (Editor)Grand Fathers: Reminiscences, Poems, Recipes, and Photos of the Keepers of Our Traditions, Holt (New York, NY), 1999.
  • Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers(compilation), Rhino, 2000.
  • (Author of foreword) Margaret Ann Reid,Black Protest Poetry: Polemics from the Harlem Renaissance and the Sixties, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 2001.
  • The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection(CD), HarperAudio, 2002.
  • (Contributor)Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors, Hilton Publishing (Munster, Indiana), 2005.


  • Montana library children’s section
  • 1950s girl group
  • NY Times headline MLK killed
  • Kids with tree seedlings
  • Marsh harrier in flight
  • Old quilt
  • Unmade bed
  • Birthday cake

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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